In the Spring of 1969, I worked as an apprentice at Hill & Dale Farm on Putney Mountain, near Brattleboro. It was the beginning of the “Back to the Land Movement” and "hippie” influx. At Hill and Dale, we raised apples, vegetables and animals in a pasture-based system. It was one of first organic farms in Vermont.
But long before the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farms in the Green Mountains had routinely followed organic practices. We were just picking up where the old-timers had left off. And in the years that followed, organic farming made a strong recovery.
But recently, national rules surrounding organic farming have taken a turn not to the liking of the sustainability-focused small-scale farmers who pushed the movement into being with the 1990 Farm Bill.
The USDA has embraced hydroponics and dropped proposed rules on animal welfare. A tiny minority of factory farms is now being certified as organic – and they’re producing a larger and growing proportion of the food that ends up with the organic label.
Many farmers in Vermont and throughout the nation feel these actions are at odds with the original intent of organic farming practices. They say the USDA organic label no longer adequately reflects how they farm, and this has resulted in a loss of identity within the organic brand.
Dave Chapman, a longtime organic farmer who runs Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, says he got involved when he started seeing a lot of hydroponic tomatoes certified as organic showing up in the market.
He was among a number of organic farmers who worked hard to reform the organic program, but he says they realized the certification of hydroponics was not the only failure – and that the National Organic Program was also very weak on animal welfare.
What came out of these efforts was the creation of The Real Organic Project - a family farmer-driven initiative that embraces centuries-old organic farming practices along with new scientific knowledge of ecological farming.
According to Chapman, the first goal is to create an add-on label to USDA certified organic to provide more transparency on organic farming practices.
Because as Chapman says: healthy soil equals healthy crops and livestock, which equals healthy people and a healthy climate.