More than two years ago, Elgin chicken farmer Cameron Molberg asked if Green Gate Farms would be interested in joining the Real Organic Project — a new but growing organic integrity movement created, in the words of its founder Dave Chapman, “by a scrappy bunch of farmers.” Being scrappy and organic ourselves, we were intrigued but simply too overcommitted back then trying to save one of our farms while ramping up the other. This week, we got off the fence and joined this exciting farmer-led movement.
In three short years ROP has built a grassroots organization into a powerful voice for small farmers who are ready to draw a bright green line across this country’s muddied and eroded organic landscape. Its remarkable debut this month is owed to passionate farmers and food activists who are riding a wave of systems reform brought on by climate change, the social injustice movement, and, more recently, a global pandemic. In times of gut-wrenching economic crisis and political turmoil, the voices of small farmers have often sounded the alarm and blazed new paths toward reform.
“After losing so many battles with the NOP over the years, many of the pioneering organic farmers in the country have come together and formed the Real Organic Project,” Cameron wrote me back in 2018 when he was starting — appropriately enough — Greener Pastures Poultry near Elgin. “Some big name farms are part of the pilot project including several current and former NOSB members.”
When members of the NOS (the National Organic Standards Board) are speaking out over the decisions it makes, you take notice and ask why. The recent ruling that led to that line in the soil was, ironically enough, the board’s decision to certify soil-less hydroponic farming operations.
“The lobbying efforts of Big Ag ultimately won, allowing the input-dependent confined animal operations and hydroponic industries to bend the rules for their own benefit, the ROP states. “Family farmers meeting the letter and spirit of organic law are suffering while consumers are once again in need of transparency in the market place.”
Until this conference, which included interviews with Al Gore, Paul Hawken, Alice Waters, Dan Barber, and Vandana Shiva, I’ve been reluctant to add more food labels for our customers to digest. Whole Foods has its own set of labels to set it apart from its competitors. The Rodale Institute also has counteracted the watering down of the USDA’s organic standards by offering a similar label that goes even farther, with farm worker protections as well. Our commitment to sustainable farming at Green Gate has been to remain certified at a time when so many other established farmers have dropped the label and new farmers haven’t bothered to pick it up.
A prerequisite for ROP certification is USDA organic certification. One cannot grow without the other and in Texas the number of certified organic farms has remained woefully low— at just 178. California, for comparison, has 2,632. The numbers for vegetable farms are even more dismal. Barely over 1,000 acres in Texas grow certified organic vegetables. Green Gate, the first to be certified organic in Bastrop County eight years ago, belongs to a pitifully exclusive club of just 34 organic vegetable farms in a state that has nearly 250,000 farms — more than twice any other state.
Why Texas has been such a laggard at a time when organic farming has steadily grown in more progressive states is a question no one seems eager to explore. Clearly, however, the political inputs from industrial agriculture hold sway over agriculture policies in the state. Meanwhile, Big Ag and Big Food continue to gobble up organic farms and food businesses to greenwash their increasingly tarnished image.
As one speaker put it, “if you can’t beat them, you eat them.”
What you, our discerning and supportive customers, eat is going to taste and look the same with or without the ROP label. What will be different is that you can be confident that the organic standards-that farmers fought so hard for will remain grounded in soil and grass.
Here are four steps Chapman offered when he closed out the conference on Sunday.
1. Adopt a store — pressure them to buy more local organic products.
2. Adopt a farmer — visit a farm and see what it takes for farmers to grow good food.
3. Adopt a legislator — put pressure on Texas legislatures to make more progress in transition conventional farms to organic.
4. Adopt a Co-op — Austin doesn’t have many but they need more support than ever.
To that list, we add a fifth: Support the Real Organic Project and sign up to watch some of the sessions of its remarkable conference. Learn how and why the best and brightest in small organic farming are putting stewardship back into their own hands, to assure that the soil — and, ultimately, you —-are best protected.