Organic Farming

Keeping the Soil in Organic

What comes to mind when you think of organically-grown produce? Does it conjure a pastoral scene with fields of fertile soil dotted with lush, healthy plants? What about hydroponic ‘vegetable factories’ and ‘vertical farms’ where production is hermetically sealed in huge warehouses filled with LED lights, plastic tubing, and nutrient pumps? Should industrial-scale hydroponic operations like these qualify for organic certification, or should fertile soil remain the non-negotiable foundation of organic farming?

The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has been granted the authority to make this decision, and in a series of narrow votes at a meeting in November 2017, they chose to allow the majority of these operators to remain a part of the organic program. This decision dealt a disappointing blow to many long-time organic farmers and organic farming advocates who had been working tirelessly to protect the integrity of the organic label. On one side of the argument is a multimillion-dollar hydroponic industry with powerful lobbyists. The global hydroponic market is projected to hit $490 million by 2023. In the United States, approximately 100 hydroponic operations are already certified organic including berry giant, Driscoll’s. On the other side of the debate are organic farming pioneers who are now mourning what they see as the devaluation of the organic brand they fought for decades to establish.

Dave Chapman, a longtime Vermont-based organic tomato farmer, along with a small army of other organic farmers and organic farming advocates, packed the room at the November 2017 NOSB meeting in a last-ditch effort to protect the integrity of the organic label. They organized dozens of rallies across the country leading up to the Jacksonville meeting and inspired a small army of organic advocates to champion the cause.


A Rally in the Valley

One such rally took place right here in Vermont in October of 2016 and was dubbed the Rally in the Valley. The rally drew over 250 people who shared the belief that all good farming begins with the soil, including over 100 organic farmers from Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania. Congressman Peter Welch,  Senator Patrick Leahy, and legendary organic farming expert Eliot Coleman were part of the lineup of elected officials and organic farming leaders who addressed the crowd that day, urging those in attendance to keep the pressure on the Department of Agriculture.


The US government is alone among developed countries in granting the much-desired “organic” label to hydroponic growers.  Hydroponic production is a soil-less process that has long been the norm in industrial-scale conventional greenhouse production. Now it is fast becoming the norm in organic certification for several major crops, such as tomatoes and berries. As Chapman points out, by changing the fertilizer brew in their mixing tanks to “natural” (but highly processed) soluble fertilizers, and then switching to “approved” pesticides, the industrial-scale hydroponic producers can miraculously become “organic” overnight.

Experts say the explosive growth in hydroponic imports may force some organic farmers out of business in as little as five years. Farmers in Vermont are already feeling the impact of the influx of “fauxganic” produce and are seeing their wholesale orders reduced in favor of the cheaper hydroponically-grown produce. Local organic tomato farmers Mia & Freeman Allen of Mountainyard Farm in Ripton, VT were among those in attendance at the Rally in the Valley and are feeling the effects of this change. According to Mia, ” How confusing to learn that the “USDA Certified Organic” label no longer applies to only soil-grown produce.  We believe that the fundamental principle of organic agriculture is a healthy soil teeming with mycorrhizal life.”


Why Should Consumers Care?

First and foremost, this issue matters because we care deeply about our local organic farmers. They are an integral part of the fabric of this community and our rural economy is dependent upon their success. This decision is a direct threat to their livelihood. Another reason to care stems from the fact that the traditional organic system of agriculture not only reduces the use of certain fertilizers and pesticides but also contributes to the health of the soil and the rest of the environment, thanks, in part, to its ability to sequester carbon from atmospheric CO2. Organic philosophy is rooted in building soil fertility. When the USDA first established organic standards, they specified the tenets of organic farming to be as follows: “Soil is the source of life. Soil quality and balance are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Healthy plants, animals and humans result from balanced, biologically-active soil.” It’s clear:  all of the benefits organic farming offers to health and climate begin with fertile soil.

According to Chapman, “Organic farming is based on enhancing and cultivating the wonderful balance of the biological systems in the soil. It isn’t just about replacing chemical fertilizers with “natural” fertilizers. What I care about is learning to work with these infinitely complex biological systems. I think there is such a beauty and grace to organic farming. After 35 years as an organic farmer, I still know very little. I have been to many organic farms, and to many hydroponic farms. I greatly prefer the organic farms. That is what I want to support. This is where I want to work. This is who I want to live next to. This is who I want to buy food from.”

What Can Consumers Do?

  • Vote with your food dollars by purchasing organic tomatoes and berries from local farmers. Although USDA’s National Organic Program has allowed hydroponic operations to be certified organic, Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) does not certify hydroponically grown produce.
  • Shop seasonally. When we buy fruits and vegetables in their appropriate seasons, we can buy them from local farmers and be certain about their growing practices.
  • Establish a demand for soil-grown organic produce.When buying organic produce that isn’t local, contact the growers and ask about their growing methods.
  • Join the Real Organic Project


A New Organic Label?

This winter, a growing group of farmers and eaters came together to form the Real Organic Project. The Real Organic Project will work to support real organic farming through a number of efforts, starting with the creation of a new “Add-On” label to represent real organic farming. It will use USDA certification as a base, but it will have a small number of critical additional requirements. These will differentiate it from the CAFOs, HYDROs, and import cheaters that are currently USDA certified.

This group grew out of several meetings of Vermont farmers who believed that the USDA label was no longer something that could represent them. That small group of Vermonters has grown quickly into a national group. This amazing group of organic advocates has gathered to build something new.

Standards Board – The Real Organic Project has a 15-member Standards Board (listed below), based on the model of the NOSB, but with much greater representation from the organic community. The 15 volunteers have a wealth of experience in both farming and regulation. There are 9 farmer members, as well as representatives from NGOs, stores, consumers, scientists, and certifiers.

The group includes 5 former NOSB members, as well as leading farmers and advocates from across the country. They will meet in March to set the first standards. They will continue to meet once a year after that to review and update. This first year there will be a pilot project with a small number of farms to test the certifying process and work out the details.

Advisory Board – There is also a distinguished Advisory Board that currently has 18 members, including 4 former NOSB members and 3 current NOSB members. It also includes many well known organic pioneers such as Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann.

Executive Board – And finally, there is an Executive Board of 5 people that includes one current NOSB member.

These boards will work together to reconnect and unite our community. Their intent is transformational. They will create a label that we can trust again.

We can only succeed with your support. Go to to become a member. Make a donation to help make this new label into a reality. We can reclaim the meaning of the organic label together!

NOFA-VT Winter Conference Announces Exciting Lineup!

Going Beyond Borders for our Winter Conference

By Helen Whybrow, Roving Farm & Food Reporter

Our brave little state has been through a lot: a 2016 winter of no snow, followed by this summer’s drought, an election season full of strife, and now with a new President, worlds of uncertainty about what’s to come. It can be easy, in the dark days of winter, to wonder about the larger purpose of one’s efforts on the farm or in the world.

Thankfully, NOFA-VT has attracted two international giants in the food and farming world to speak at the 35th annual winter conference on February 18-20 at University of Vermont. Dr. Fernando Funes Monzote, of Cuba, and Dr. Vandana Shiva, of India, will both bring a message of resilience, hope, and the power of people to make slow—but radical—change.

NOFA-VT has not typically looked so far beyond its borders for a relevant message. The winter conferences of years past have focused on themes such as local food and soil. But Executive Director Enid Wonnacott and board member Mimi Arnstein—who leads farmer-to-farmer exchanges in Cuba and elsewhere —felt the time was ripe to break open the boundaries of how we think about the impact of our local food movement in Vermont.

For Wonnacott, inspiration came at the Terra Madre International Slow Food Conference in Turin, Italy, where the slogan was “They are Giants, But We are Millions.” The faces of the “Millions” of small-scale farmers from around the globe were represented by some 7,000 delegates at Terra Madre as they came together to raise a collective voice against the corporate “Giants” – for food sovereignty, the survival of family farms, and resistance to GMOs.

I asked Wonnacott how she saw Vermont agriculture fitting into such a global people’s food movement. “NOFA-VT has always had a social change agenda, and at Terra Madre, I really saw the power of this idea that all small-scale farmers around the world are in this together,” she said. She noted that there are big similarities between how we farm and market food here in Vermont with indigenous and local food systems all over the world. Not only that, but the same challenges to seed sovereignty, land protection, and market control are remarkably similar.

NOFA-VT was instrumental in Vermont’s own fight to pass a GMO labeling bill—the first in the country. Although the bill was ultimately gutted at the federal level, a lot of good came out of it, with several major food brands agreeing to label their products. “The GMO labeling law is a great example of how Vermont is an innovator,” Wonnacott said. “It’s a small place full of people who care can start big change.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva is perhaps best known for her tireless crusade on behalf of seed sovereignty and against GMOs, a message she has delivered for over three decades. Bill Moyers called her “the rock star in the worldwide battle against genetically modified seeds.” She started her center for seed sovereignty Navdanya (“nine seeds” in Hindi) to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, especially native seed, and to promote organic farming and fair trade.”

Personally, hearing Dr. Shiva will be a highlight of my year. It’s hard to think of anyone who has more presence, conviction, and boldness when it comes to speaking out for what she believes in.

Dr. Shiva came to Vermont two years ago and gave a talk, co-sponsored by NOFA-VT, at City Hall in Burlington and at The Vermont Law School. She gave a bow to Vermont’s efforts to resist GMOs: “By demanding a right to know, you are demanding a right to live,” she said. Such a bold, clear statement is typical of Dr. Shiva; she is capable of throwing a net over freedom, democracy, civil rights, food, soil and the future of the planet in one sentence, showing me how they are all connected, and convincing me that it’s possible to fight for them all at once.

Equally inspirational as a speaker and global in his thinking is Dr. Fernando Funes Monzote, an agronomist, and farmer from Cuba where he is building a food revolution from his bio-intensive 20-acre model farm, Finca Marta. Now, when Cuba is undergoing such change and trade channels have opened up with the U.S, it will be prescient to have Funes give us his perspective.

Margarita Fernandez, who runs the Vermont Carribean Institute in Burlington, takes groups of people to Cuba several times a year. Whenever possible, she includes a visit to Finca Marta, “a huge highlight.” She describes Funes as “an incredible storyteller, whose whole life has a great arc to it.” Funes often tells the story about his journey back to the land in Cuba after getting a doctorate in agroecology in Europe, and how he was determined that his next life project was to earn a PhD as a farmer, to put into practice what he had learned in theory.

That practice began by digging a well—by hand. Now, with its acres of terraced beds, beehives, living fences, solar irrigation systems, a methane biodigester, and organic practices, Finca Marta is a model of how small farms can use natural resources and innovative production methods to be profitable, pay living wages, keep families and neighbors on the land, and also improve fertility and biodiversity of natural habitats.

“If we don’t want foreign companies to come in and dominate Cuban agriculture all over again, that means we need to give Cuban families a way to stay on their farms,” said Funes, as quoted in a profile by Nick Miroff of the Washington Post. The article points out that Cuba has to import 60 to 80 percent of its food. “Funes’ vision of Cuban agriculture is radical because it’s a throwback. He advocates smart, resource-efficient, artisanal farming as an alternative to both capitalist agribusiness and the disastrous state-run agricultural model…,” wrote Miroff. Sounds like Vermont, and in fact, there are lots of similarities between the way Funes farms and the way many of us farm here.

“Fernando is a super motivational speaker,” says Fernandez. “I’m really interested to watch how the farming movement in Cuba is going to respond to and resist current forces. As they enter the global food movement, how do they maintain sovereignty?” This is a theme that Vermont farmers also care about. “He will be able to talk about the context of what we are facing now as farmers,” she said, pointing out that with the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump we are all working in a new and unknown political landscape.

The winter conference this year is embracing a huge global theme of change and resistance at a time when populist movements and corporate power are both surging. We need more than ever to come together, be in relationship, and find our common strength as a community. “People need something positive to believe in. They feel like the world is out of control and they need something to rally around,” said Wonnacott. At the NOFA-VT winter conference this year, we should get an incredible taste of what that something is.

Conference Details

The NOFA-VT Winter Conference offers more than 100 workshops for farmers, gardeners, and local food enthusiasts. Some of the most anticipated workshops include: “Herbal Digestive Bitters” taught by Guido Masé of Urban Moonshine, “New Developments in Study and Implementation of Northeastern Indigenous Agriculture” presented by Frederick Wiseman of The Seeds of Renewal Project, “Plants to Attract Pollinators and Create Biodiversity” presented by Lizabeth Moniz, and “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Fruit Trees” taught by Nicko Rubin.

There are also 5 day-long intensive workshops, diving deeply into the topics of winter farming and season extension, biological orcharding, healthy permaculture, organic medicinal herb production, and the art and science of grazing. The intensives are open to anyone interested in garnering in-depth information about specific subjects.

In addition to the speeches and workshops, attendees at the conference can enjoy a delicious lunch featuring local and organic ingredients, a lively Exhibitors’ Fair, a seed swap with High Mowing organic seeds, and helping to create a community art project with artist Bonnie Acker.  For the next generation of farmers, gardeners, and foodies there is a Children’s Conference, which features hands-on workshops, art projects, yoga, outdoor play and much more.

Early registration for the conference is offered at a discounted rate until February 13th, with additional discounts for NOFA Vermont members and volunteers. More information and online registration is at