It is that wonderful time of the year when the great white north of Michigan is finally green! I now live in Oceana County. It is a huge farming community and it is known as the “Asparagus Capital of the World”. We have the annual Asparagus Festival and each year a new Asparagus Queen is crowned.
The asparagus season is short, only 6-7 weeks, and usually starts in late April/early May, but this year's cold weather pushed it back to start in May. At Stone Coop, we grew a purple variety of asparagus and it was always a joy to find the first shoots emerging.
Spring is also the time I visit Washington DC to talk to folks on Capitol Hill about issues facing organic farmers. I am a member of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) and I am on the Governing Council. OFA is a national, grassroots, membership organization. We seek input from our farmers on issues that they want us to address with Congress and the USDA. About 30 members of OFA were in DC for this year’s trip.
Before I tell you about our issues, I want to share the simplified version of how the National Organic Program (NOP) was started. The organic movement and push for clean healthy food started in the 1970’s. Organic farmers wanted some type of standardization across the country to help consumers understand how organic animals were raised and how their crops were grown. Primary concerns were that all animals were raised in their natural environments and treated humanely; cows got to eat grass in a pasture, chickens got to be outside to scratch the soil and to eat bugs, worms and plants. Crops would be grown in healthy soil without chemicals. Organic Farmers are excellent stewards of the land and animals and those basic principals were crucial to developing a national organic program. Because of a push by organic farmers, organic producers and consumers, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990. OFPA mandated that the USDA write regulations for certified organic operations based on the recommendations of an advisory board, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB is made up of 15 dedicated public volunteers from across the organic community and includes organic farmers, consumers, environmentalists, scientists and others who understand what is needed for an operation to be managed with organic systems. It took years of work for the NOP to be developed and it was finally approved and implemented in 2002.
During my first trip to DC in 2018, I got to know several of the other members of OFA. During our conversations, I realized I was working with the pioneers of the organic movement. They were the people who wrote and championed the NOP, the ones who worked for over 20 years to get the NOP through Congress. They own the farms that were the first “certified organic” farms in the country. They created the first NOSB and many continue to serve on that board. They work with organizations all over the world to ensure consistent global organic standards. They are passionate about organic methods and have given years of their lives to ensuring organic methods are consistently practiced. They are also the folks who are the most heartbroken about the lack of enforcement by the USDA and the infection of politics and big agribusiness into the organic market.
So when we went to Capitol Hill, I knew we had the global organic experts on our team. This was a nonpartisan group, focused on organic farming and helping organic farmers. Two of our top priorities for our Congressional visits were:
Certified Organic Dairies are in Crisis! Organic farmers want the USDA and NOP to increase the inspections of high-risk dairies that are not complying with the 120 Day Pasture Rule. These huge high-risk dairies are flooding the dairy market with “organic milk” but are not actually providing enough pasture for their cows to graze. Thus their cost to care for their cows is much less expensive then the certified organic dairies that are complying with the 120 Day Pasture Rule. This cheating of the requirements allows these huge dairies to produce their milk at much lower costs, thus dropping the price that organic dairies can get for their milk. These unfair lower prices are often well below the cost to raise and care for organic dairy cows and many organic dairies have been forced to close their farms.
No Soil, Not Certified Organic. One of the crucial components of the NOP requirements is that there is healthy soil. In 2010 the NOSB, by a 14 to 1 vote, recommended that hydroponic production not be allowed because it eliminates soil from the system. Yet, the USDA and NOP have allowed some hydroponic operations to be certified as organic.
The Washington Post’s Article on Bogus ‘Organic’ Food from Sept 17, 2017 helped bring awareness to Congress and to the public. This import fraud has caused a drop in crop prices, sometimes requiring farmers to sell their crops below their production costs. On the NOP’s homepage they clearly state “We are responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agricultural products. These standards assure consumers that products with the USDA organic seal meet consistent, uniform standards.” In order to eliminate import fraud, several organizations, including OFA, successfully lobbied Congress to include Import Monitoring Systems in the 2018 Farm Bill. More inspections are needed at our ports. We now need the Farm Bill to be implemented in 2019 and the USDA and NOP to do their job.
The demand for more organic food is fantastic. People should eat healthy, chemical free food. That demand has created more imported food from overseas and it has enticed the huge food companies to get into the market. The results are our family farms are in crisis. Big agribusinesses are finding loop holes in laws and still being allowed to label their milk, meat, and eggs as organic. Imported grains and other crops are not being inspected by the USDA at our ports and are being allowed into our food system as “organic”. We need to fight for the farmers who raise their animals humanely and grow their crops chemical free. These organic farmers ARE complying with the NOP to make sure they provide incredibly healthy food for us. They need our help to get the USDA to enforce the NOP requirements consistently across the U.S.
What can you do?
Educate Yourself on Our Food System
Here are some great reads:
Eat Local, Eat Seasonal
Be an Activist or Support Someone Who Is
Cultivate and Grow Your Own Food
Learn to share this planet and be part of the solution. Consider The Great Law of the Iroquois when making a decision: “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” Let’s all be better stewards of this planet and all the things that inhabit it.