Churchtown Dairy in Columbia Co., NY, hosted an all-day Real Organic Project (ROP) Conference on Oct. 14. Approximately 250 people attended. The booklet passed out to conference attendees explained a little about each speaker, as well as ROP’s mission.
The mission statement says, “The Real Organic Project was created in 2018 to protect organic. For many of us, the organic label was our life’s work, but it had grown so quickly, and much was being lost. As organic succeeded, the same big players in chemical ag became the big players in the organic ‘industry.’ And with this big tent, we suddenly found the tent collapsing.
“Soon we could barely recognize much of what was being sold under our (existing USDA) label. And it was affecting the viability of our farms. Attempts at reform of the USDA failed, and so the very founders of the organic movement in America finally said ‘Enough.’ We created an independent add-on certification to the USDA program to designate that there are still many real organic farms in America. A label that can be trusted for integrity and transparency is needed. It is our mission to supply that label, that voice, that important story, to the eaters.”
That booklet further explained that when small and mid-scale farmers flourish, so do the communities around them. When real organic farms flourish, we all flourish.
In Denmark, all organic certification is paid for by the government, which also offers considerable support in training, research and market development. The booklet’s writers close with “For now, we are unable to accomplish that with the USDA, so we are reaching out to find generous supporters, so we can do it in America too.”
Those writers gave examples where USDA overseers fail to “keep the faith.” For instance, USDA allows the certification of 100% hydroponic as organic. USDA allows the organic certification of disposable plastic farms, as well as multi-storied Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) chicken houses. USDA allows organic certification of confinement housing with thousands of cows; such cattle CAFO operators joke about ways they end-run the USDA organic grazing requirement, which mandates 120 days of 30% mouth-harvested forage dry matter intake. Opposite that last item, only the ROP label ensures pastured livestock. Check out realorganicproject.org.
Off-the-farm deep pocket interests are torpedoing the effectiveness of organic enforcement. Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who spoke Oct. 14, explained that problem: “In case you don’t know, there are 12,000 lobbyists on the Hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. And they spend about $350 million a year on ‘forming opinions’ in Washington, and that’s more than the defense industry [lobbyists spend]. So don’t underestimate their power.”
One person who can vouch for the effectiveness and potency of the Washington lobbyist machine is Francis Thicke, the morning keynote speaker at the ROP Conference. Thicke grew up on a dairy farm in southeastern Minnesota and holds an M.S. in soil science and a Ph.D. in agronomy from a Midwestern university. He worked in Washington, D.C. for a dozen years at the USDA Extension Service as the National Program Leader for Soil Science. Discouraged by the “Beltway mindset,” he and his wife Susan moved to Iowa to start Radiance Dairy in 1996.
I had met Thicke at a sustainable farming conference in Syracuse just before COVID-19 set in. I’ll hit some of the high spots of his story presented at the much more recent seminar.
Thicke explained that their farm is an organic dairy, mostly grass-based, where they milk about 90 cows, with another 70 head of dry cows and young stock. They process their milk on the farm. Quoting him: “We make bottled milk and yogurt and cheese and market almost all of it locally. We started out here with 176 acres and put it all into pasture. We have about 60 paddocks, so the cows get fresh grass twice a day after each milking. Then as time went on, some land surrounding us became available, and incrementally, we bought more land, and now we have 730 acres. We try to manage pastures so that as the cattle rotate around the paddocks, it regrows and it’s fresh and ready.”
Thicke stressed that as the conditions become hotter and drier through summer, they slowed down the rotation, so the grass was longer and had more time to regrow and a longer rest period. He said that if you give pasture a longer rest, it can regrow and help build the soil as well.
Quoting him further: “A taller pasture is deeper rooted, and so it helps build the soil. If you graze your pasture down very short, their roots will be very shallow, and so you’re not going to really be building your soil.”
His pasture management practices attempt to emulate the grazing modes practiced by bison prior to Europeans arriving. Over the many previous centuries, the prairie buffaloes’ grazing habits are believed to have created what many think are the best soils in the world, not just in Iowa.
According to Thicke, “The way we try to mimic that process here on our farm is we give the cows just as much grass as they can eat in half a day. Then we take them off that pasture… just like the bison leaving, and then it can regrow more, and develop more roots, and so we’re building the soil back up.”
The lectures were presented in a 10-year-old round barn, 80 feet in diameter, featuring 10 36-foot-tall yellow pine columns and capped with a dome of star-shaped skylights. During the off-pasture season, a removable wooden floor is taken up, allowing cattle to be bedded with low quality hay all winter. Come spring, the bedding back is broadcast on meadows as a soil amendment.
Visit churchtowndairy.org to learn more.