Soil and water

Treat dirt like gold | Hometown focus

Do you look for the “organic” label when buying food? I often do this when buying food whose grower or producer I don’t know. If I know the farmer, I usually know how they grow their plants or animals, so the label isn’t that important to me. But over the past few years of writing this column, I’ve come across many farmers who use organic methods but don’t want to go through the certification process. I’ve also met quite a few farmers who think the USDA organic certification process isn’t strict enough. Some of these farmers are pursuing “Real Organic Project” certification.

The use of organic standards in the United States began in the early 1970s with local or state organic associations certifying their farms, first in Maine, then in California and Oregon. The farmers behind this movement wanted to distinguish their products from the products of the industrial food system. They believed that healthy soils were essential to healthy plants and animals and practiced crop rotation, cover crops, biological pest control, and used natural fertilizers. Their cattle grazed on open air pastures and were not routinely treated with antibiotics.

To understand where they came from, it is helpful to compare them to the modern day farm, using widely available and inexpensive synthetic fertilizers, using monoculture systems, vast fields of corn and soybeans, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) relying on commercially produced grain-based feeds. These are the kind of farms I knew growing up in the

60s. The bigger the better. The machines got bigger and better and more high-tech too. My family was

John Deere people.

I remember my uncles listening daily to commodity prices on the radio – corn, soybeans, cattle, pork. Their fortunes rose or fell with these clues. Organic farmers were taking a different route: breaking away from this model.

Farmers who used organic methods had their farms certified by their local or regional organizations and then marketed their produce or meat as organic. The organic market was growing by leaps and bounds. Then in 2000, the system changed. The United States Department of Agriculture assumed responsibility for organic certification and the label became “USDA Organic”. The 1,200 agriculture and food industry lobbyists began pushing for hydroponically grown produce and the meat, milk and eggs produced by CAFO to be considered organic. Soon, the original organic farmers were competing with products they didn’t consider organic at all.

Eliot Coleman and these farmers launched a “Keep the Soil in Organic” campaign specifically targeting hydroponic certification. This turned into protests against the organic certification of massive poultry farms with 200,000 laying hens housed in large buildings. And dairy farms where thousands of cows rarely saw graze. And pigs in concrete buildings all their lives. The original organic movement’s emphasis on healthy soils and grazing animals was being eroded. And they found themselves competing with USDA Organic products that required none of the effort they put in. They have lost the battle to the most powerful and wealthy interests, as often happens.

In 2018, they birthed the “Real Organic Project,” an effort to distinguish farms that prioritized soil health and water conservation and wildlife habitat and that grazed their animals and actually offered a “free range” for their chickens. These farmers let their pigs wallow in the mud and root in the dirt and play outside. They managed pests with natural predators and strategic intercropping. It’s only been three full years since its inception, but the Real Organic Project is doing well. According to their website, it is a farmer-led movement “created to distinguish produce grown in soil and pasture” within the USDA Organic label. They believe that consumers who want organic should be able to choose the type of organic they want to buy.

My experience writing about farmers who lean towards Real Organic is that they are very focused on the soil as a living entity, teeming with microbial activity including bacteria, fungi, mycorrhizae and microscopic “insects”. interact to support growth. Many don’t plow because it destroys the mycorrhizae. Most use extensive cover crops to nourish the soil and prevent erosion. Those who keep animals set aside large areas for the animals to graze and roam. Many choose non-GMO foods and/or raise grass-fed livestock. They are experimenting with grazing systems and composting methods. I don’t know of any who have already obtained the official Real Organic Project certification, but The Boréal

Farm and Food Farm in Duluth and Northern Harvest Farm, Stone’s Throw Farm and Uff-Da Organics in Wrenshall have achieved ROP certification.

One of the valuable things about buying food locally, especially directly from the farmer, is that you can ask questions about these things. The farmers I spoke to welcomed me to their farms and answered my questions. I also hear a lot of conversations like this at farmers markets – people visiting to learn about how food is grown. The kind of practices you are looking for in producing the food you want to eat may be used right here on the line, although the official USDA or Real Organic Project label may not be present.

If you want to learn more about the ROP, the 2022 symposium will be held virtually on January 30 and February 6, from 3 to 5 p.m. Registration is $65 at

Marlise Riffel lives in Virginia, but grew up in Illinois with farming parents. She is a board member of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability.