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Just Ask

As the USDA organic seal becomes ever murkier in its meaning, what choices are left to us?

We want real organic food. We want vegetables and berries grown in the soil. We want cows and chickens raised on pasture. It sounds so simple And it is what the law guarantees us. And it is what most organic farmers in the U.S. provide.

And yet . . . if we look closer, that’s often not what we’re being offered as organic in the grocery stores. If we pull on the thread, the cloth starts to unravel. We see soil farmers and pasture farmers going out of business for lack of demand, even while we’re desperate to buy the food they grow.

This is a genuinely broken system in which people are often seen as profit centers instead of respected customers. At the same time that certified organic is offered in almost every supermarket, real organic might be slowly and quietly disappearing from the shelves.

The Real Organic Project is organizing to reverse that trend. We’re convinced that millions of people want real organic food, and we’re convinced that thousands of farmers want to grow that food. The tricky part is finding each other.

We need a dating service or a yenta to bring us together. 

Of course, that was the purpose of the National Organic Program, and it did its job pretty well for many years. But as organic succeeded in the marketplace, we attracted some unsavory company. Suddenly the old neighborhood was being redeveloped. Like an old city locale that has become trendy, where the real estate is turned to banks and high-end donut shops, while the homes and shops are lost.

Vermont Lieutenant Governor (and organic farmer) David Zuckerman famously said at a rally, “Organic without soil is like democracy without people.”

As the law defining organic is ignored and pushed aside, we might be in danger of losing both.

So what can you do? What can a single citizen do to change the world, to protect the farming they want to see flourish, to change the climate through greening the earth? 

You can Just Ask.

We literally have the power to transform the food system in America in a single year, in a single day. If 50 people went into every store in America tomorrow and just asked if the tomatoes and greens and berries are grown in the soil, the world changes. If those same 50 people asked the dairy department if the eggs came from chickens who walked in the sun and grass every day, the world changes. If those same people asked if the milk came from cows who went out on green pastures every day, the world changes.

Truly, that would be a revolution. Simple and bloodless. Because the stores wouldn’t know what you were talking about.

They wouldn’t know the word CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, which is a fancy way of saying “factory farm).”

And they wouldn’t know what hydroponic means. What are all these questions about pasture?! Who cares if the food is grown in soil?!

Apparently, our customers care. Stores will calmly ignore one or two unhappy customers. That’s just the cost of doing business. But 50 customers? And what happens when the corporate buyers find out that these questions are becoming widespread?

There will be a scramble to find eggs coming from hens who walk the earth. Those eggs will cost more, but they will be worth more. Industrial food is cheaper for a reason. Its low cost is built on the backs of the animals and workers who are treated like slaves.

When Mexican field workers went on strike against Driscoll’s, to demand a better wage, they got one—$12 a day! That’s one reason Driscoll’s “organic” berries are so cheap. What’s the other reason? Driscoll’s berries are raised “efficiently,” which means they’re grown hydroponically, without the benefit of a complex microbial community in a fertile soil.

I started to “just ask” a few years ago. I have gotten many answers. Sometimes I’m assured that of course all organic food is grown in the soil. It is not.

Sometimes I’m told by store personnel that they have no idea. My favorite story was the time that I asked a very conscientious team member at a Whole Foods in California if the tomatoes I was looking at were hydroponic. He said he didn’t know. We talked a little about other stuff, and as I was leaving, he wondered if he could ask me a question. I said sure. 

He said, “What was that you asked me before?”

I said, “you mean about being hydroponic?”

“Yes, what does that mean?”

So I told him it meant they were grown in coconut husks and all the fertility was supplied as a liquid feed through a tube.

He said, “That’s not right! They can call that organic?”

I said yeah, they are calling it organic.

“That’s not right! I never saw a label on the box!”

“No, they don’t have to label it.”

“That’s not right!!!”

I was loving this guy. He cared so much about the food he sold. The store was in Los Angeles, and most of the produce came from within a 60-mile distance. But not the tomatoes. That night I saw a large-scale hydroponic grower I was meeting with, and I asked him if those were his tomatoes. Yes they were. And were they hydroponic? Yes, they were.

So imagine if 50 people had asked that produce worker, and 50 more in the next store in the chain, and on and on. We would change this national disgrace in a week. In the EU, they’ve already prohibited hydroponic as organic. Only in America.

So pass on the word. Yes, follow us at Yes, sign our petition.

Yes, support your organic farmers. 

And Just Ask.

Dave Chapman is executive director of the Real Organic Project. He runs Long Wind Farm in Thetford, Vermont.