what does organic mean? with linley dixon of the real organic project Leave a comment

WHEN YOU SHOP for food—whether produce or meat or eggs—and see a label that says “organic,” what do you think that means? At its most fundamental level, I guess I always thought it meant vegetables grown on the fields of an organic farm—like, in the soil, or animals raised in its pastures.

But increasingly, as hydroponics have become more widespread, soil isn’t always part of the organic food-raising equation.

Today’s guest is Linley Dixon, a Colorado-based organic farmer who is also co-director of the Real Organic Project, an advocacy organization of farmers who grow in the soil and together seek to protect the integrity of the organic label’s meaning on food. Real Organic Project is holding a daylong conference Oct.14 in Hudson, N.Y., with a great lineup of presenters from the organic community, and we’ll hear about that, too. 

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 2, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

the real organic project, with linley dixon



Margaret Roach: Hi, Linley, thanks for coming in from the greenhouses and the fields to help and talk to me about this. Thank you.

Linley Dixon: Hi, Margaret. I’ve been a long time fan of the podcast and your writings.

Margaret: Yeah. So again, you’d think I would know these things. Having been a vegetarian most of my life and having been a consumer of organic products forever and ever and so forth, you’d think I would certainly be alerted. But until talking to you over recent years, I really didn’t understand the distinctions. And this is something that’s not just for vegetables and herbs and so forth, but for pasture-raised animals, for even blueberries—blueberries can be done without soil. And so tell us a little about what Real Organic Project is, and what the foundation of it is, and how it got started. What was the impetus?

Linley: Sure. Proud to do it. At its heart, it’s a farmer-led movement. So I’m the co-director with Vermont tomato farmer that you may know of because he’s closer to you, Dave Chapman. He’s probably one of the best organic tomato farmers in the country. And he grows tomatoes under about 2-1/2 acres of these Dutch-style glass greenhouses in the soil, which you have to differentiate now. You didn’t have to under the Organic Standard. But in recent years—and he was the one that started to notice this because he really does sell a lot of wholesale—he was competing with tomatoes that sort of tasteless and mealy and found out that they were hydroponic.

And he thought, “Well, that’s a mistake.” And I actually met him when he had raised the issue with a bunch of other farmers, mostly in New England, but it was spreading across the country that hydroponics was being allowed. And when you’re an organic farmer, you’re pretty much all consumed with the health of your soil. And so this really struck a chord with a lot of farmers across the country. So I met him at these meetings where we were trying to reform the organic program and make sure that organic stayed focused on soil health.

Margaret: Right. Because as an organic gardener for decades, and in my writing and in my thinking, I think of that what you just said. I think of “feed the soil, not the plant,” that I’m building soil health, and that’s the foundation from whom all blessings flow. You know what I mean? That’s the basis of the whole food chain, the whole life chain, so to speak. So it surprises me that growing hydroponically would be organic. So the organic standard was what from the mid-’90s or something, the national standards-

Linley: They wrote the law, the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, but it took 10 years to actually create standards based on that law, and it was a very democratic, farmer-led process. And so there were a lot of skeptical farmers at the beginning, because the USDA hasn’t always loved or supported organic, and they were nervous to hand it over to them. But because the process included this idea of a National Organic Standards Board and there was going to be a lot of stakeholder feedback in the process, the farmers got on board. And it was in 2000 that they started implementing to kind of the national standard. Of course, there were always these, and I’m sure in your area it’s the NOFAs and the MOFGAs, but there’s out west the CCOF; they all had their own standards. And the idea was to have kind of a standard across the nation that was the same.

To make a long story short, I think all the farmers came together around the hydroponic issue. But there were problems from the very beginning, where the USDA didn’t really enforce the standards, even though the law is a really good standard, the enforcement was lacking from the very beginning, mostly around getting animals out on pasture. I mean, they were certifying these big chicken barns. And it’s to the point where when you allow a lower standard, it really drives out the higher standard, just because under the same label, it’s a cheaper method of production.

Margaret: Right. Of course. Of course. And so what you just hinted at is that this isn’t just hydroponic versus in the soil for plants, it’s also animals raised in barns, in buildings, essentially, enclosed, that are not pasture-raised. And so for those of us who love going to the local providers where we live and seeing it says that—I mean, the words used to be things like “free-range” or whatever, but it’ll say “pasture-fed” or whatever it says that makes you always think, “Oh, that’s better.” You are willing to pay the premium price because you can visualize that. And this, even though some of these animals, and the eggs from chickens, and some of the meats and so forth can be labeled organic, the animals were not living in that imagined idyllic for condition at all [laughter]. And yet they’re organic.

Linley: And many people are surprised that we became an add-on standard. It’s like if it’s gone so wrong, why would we require organic certification first? But what we see with these other terms, like you mentioned, things like pasture or animal welfare, it’s like if you don’t have a standard—it’s happening to “regenerative” right now—then it just gets so easily co-opted. So there actually is a really good law in place. And so the idea of creating a standard would be the hope is to actually apply pressure for reform so that we can save all this work that really farmers have worked on over the course of their lifetime.

Margaret: So you’re a farmer, you’ve been an organic farmer, you’re in Colorado, you raise vegetables. How big is your farm and how long have you been doing it? Any specialties? Is there anything that you’re just a super-expert in [laughter]?

Linley: Well, Dave and I hit it off because we’re both tomato farmers at our core. I mean, he started with oxen and every vegetable you can imagine, and really specialized in tomatoes. But we still have many different crops on our farm. But Dave actually mentored me in the last five years for how to grow tomatoes better in a greenhouse. And it really changed the economics of our farm. And it’s something that I think anybody can do actually if they learn a few little techniques, even as a home gardener, things like grafting or even just trellising so that you’re harvesting at eye level, that transforms really the ease of how to produce tomatoes, and then also just whether or not they rot on the ground or on the plants. If they split, you really can get double the yield pretty easily with some basic techniques.

Margaret: So you said greenhouse and before when you were talking about Dave Chapman’s operation, you said greenhouse or you said… Actually you didn’t call it greenhouses, you call-

Linley: Glass greenhouses.

Margaret: Glass greenhouses, right. And so just again, so people visualize, we’re talking about on top of soil, so it’s to control other factors. And tomatoes in particular I think have a lot of issues—as we all know, who grow them [laughter]—with fungal diseases and soil splash and spores moving up the ladder of the leaves from the bottom to the top, and all kinds of things. And I’m totally oversimplifying, but in the more controlled environment that you’re describing, and it could even be a high tunnel, I suppose, a simple, not-greenhouse-but-greenhouse, we can control a little more of that. And more and more farmers have gone to that, and even some of my garden friends have gone to that at least trying to minimize some of the havoc. The havoc.

Linley: Even something as simple as grafting will double your yields, and that you can actually do. I do it with a little Johnny’s stand where there’s a tent that goes over the seedling stand. And so some of these techniques are actually pretty easy to adapt on your own gardens.

Margaret: So you’re grafting the tomato, the variety of tomato, you wish to eat, to harvest, onto a rootstock that is sturdier and more resistant to problems. Is that what you’re doing?

Linley: Resistant to problems, but also just meant to grow really big and strong.

Margaret: O.K. So both.

Linley: So the roots just get a much bigger area in the soil.

Margaret: Right. So as a longtime organic farmer—and we both agreed that “feed the soil, not the plant” is the foundation of organic agriculture, whether in a garden setting or a farm setting. But are there other things that you would say to this audience listening who are home gardeners principally, that are the foundational principles that you follow that work for you? Whether the littler hints, like the specific one you just spoke about, say grafting, or that you’re growing in a greenhouse, but other things that you think are really foundational to success in organic growing?

Linley: Yeah. Dave always told me it’s not any one tip, but it’s the culmination of all of my knowledge that makes this all work. But one that really stuck with me is he taught me to actually use my compost applications by applying them every two to three weeks from a bucket [above]. Just sprinkle the compost right on top of the drip lines (that’s how we irrigate our tomatoes, because of all that soil splash). Do that instead of adding all the compost at the beginning of the season, which might create an anaerobic environment depending on how hot your compost is, but really just sprinkle it on top of the drip lines. Every couple of weeks creates an even release from the compost of nutrients. I remember Eliot Coleman, who’s an advisor to our project, and I got to meet him. He gave me the very best definition of organic farming that I’ve ever heard, and it was so simple, so it just really stuck.

He said that “organic farming is as simple as adding organic matter to the soil.” And I mean, that’s just says it all. because if that’s happening, you’re mitigating the need for any of these outside fertilizers and even pest control, because if you’re paying attention to the soil organic matter really locks up and slow-releases nutrients. So that way, I am sure you’ve noticed, Margaret, if you apply too much nitrogen, the aphids come, the insects come. So that attention to how much, how slowly those nutrients are released, that is the prevention that organic farmers…

And there’s some insurance in that organic matter that it’ll be released over time. So you have a lot more flexibility. You can get things wrong in the organic matter, kind of changes it for you so it ends up working out correctly. I think that definition, if you can keep that in mind, I mean it’s organic farming, the farming of carbon. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon. So thinking about all of that organic matter, that’s what organic farming is.

Margaret: So Eliot Coleman, you said, and he’s an advisor to Real Organic Project, and a lot of us gardeners know him from his really important books, one of the early voices for organic, not just farming-

Linley: For gardening.

Margaret: Yes, exactly. And to tell us about his tactics. And so he wrote really, really important works and has been an inspiration to many over the years. So no surprise that he’s on board with this.

So you said you just used the phrase “paying attention,” and not in the same way I’m going to ask you about it. But I also think that’s one of the things is that—and I use the expression “you can’t set it and forget it”—when you are the steward of living things, you can’t just stick them in the ground or sow the seed and then walk away and go back at harvest time [laughter]. I think vigilance is another really important skill and tactic of an organic grower, especially who’s not going to be able to rush in with some “remedy,” some chemical remedy, if things start to go off. But watching I think is really important. And I assume that you have a vigilance practice-

Linley: You do-

Margaret: … at the farm.

Linley: … or you get in trouble, right?

Margaret: Yes. So to me, that’s another one of the things.

Linley: I think scale is an interesting issue in organic. They’ve never really limited scale, but I think inherently it is scale-limiting because we talk of as farmers, the eyes-to-acres ratio. You can’t let the acreage get so big that if you’re a conventional farm and you miss a pest outbreak in the corner of a field 100 miles away or 100 acres away, you’re all right, you can just go get a spray for that pest. But as an organic farmer, you don’t have that as kind of an easy fix, so you do, you have to check.

We actually had a whitefly outbreak this year and we’ve never had that. And you’ve got to catch it early and they can take out an entire crop. And so we’ve got bio-control that is part of that process. You put little sticky tape over the areas or right in the regions where you see the outbreak, and you have to get on it early. Because we actually have different greenhouses, and some of them are hoop houses and in our hoop house we missed it, and it took the crop out. And in our greenhouse, we were able to catch it and use this bio-control process.

So yeah, just keeping on top of it, we don’t have that easy fix, so we lose our crop if we miss it. And that’s part of why biodiversity is so key, because if we do lose something because a particularly bad year for a pest, then really, our business doesn’t depend on needing a spray. We can just let that crop go, and it’s a good year for something else.

Margaret: Right. Yeah. So, I mean, tomatoes, it sounds like you’ve upped the game and you’ve figured out ways to get around some of the primary issues with those, I feel like… Are there other crops that are important ones in your offerings or is that the primary driver of the business?

Linley: That’s the one that certainly makes it all work, financially. But I am experimenting because in the greenhouses you can’t grow your own fertility, we really depend on compost for our fertility. But out in the fields, I’ve been experimenting lately with how to have our aisles so that they’re creating the fertility for the rows fcompostAnd that’s been really fun to watch, because what’s happened is the aisles have expanded a little bit more, and our whole cropping technique has changed. And what we do is we mow the aisles into the rows and then we’ll incorporate that “green manure” is what farmers call it, that kind of cover crop.

We incorporate that into the rows, but you don’t want to mow them all at once because you want some of them to flower. And the bio-control that comes in on the flowering weeds from the aisles is pretty awesome to watch.

So as long as you can keep that biology cycling, that’s something that’s new on our farm that I’ve been sort of obsessed with. Because if you can grow your own fertility on the farm, then you don’t have to worry about any… You bring stuff in off the farm and it might have herbicide carryover, or there are environmental issues with where it was harvested or mined. So it’s kind of the highest level of environmental stewardship is if you can figure out how to grow your own fertility on the farm. And I haven’t perfected it. I don’t know if I ever will, but it’s been fun to try.

Margaret: That’s interesting. So you’re in a sense growing some of your cover crops, as you say, in the aisles in between the rows where you or machines-

Linley: Walk.

Margaret: … would walk or drive. Interesting.

Linley: It’s beautiful because then the tractor wheels are always going over pasture on bare dirt, so there’s resiliency there. But you also don’t lose any space really to grow that fertility because it’s actually where you’re walking anyway, and you don’t have to weed it too. That’s a beautiful thing.

Margaret: Interesting. So in doing the Real Organic Project, do you find that when you have events—like you’re having one actually not far from me in Columbia County New York in mid-October, which has a great lineup of speakers and so forth. But do you find that when you go out and you present and talk to people about Real Organic Project, are there some astonished? Is it the same couple of questions every time, or the same aghast looks [laughter] about the same aspect of it?

Because for me, one of the things was, and I mentioned it at the very beginning quickly, the fact that blueberries were being grown hydroponically—I mean, even woody plants, do you know what I mean? Even shrubs. Because to me, speaking of beneficial insects and having an environment, a biodiverse environment, I mean, blueberries, wow. Those are some of my helper plants here in the garden. They attract pollinators and they just do all kinds of good things besides making blueberries [laughter].


Linley: Yeah. They live probably 40, 50 years. But we have an amazing podcast. And so everybody is in a different level of understanding of these issues. And so I would recommend listening to that podcast if you’re confused by this and want to understand it better. And Hugh Kent, who’s a blueberry farmer, he has a couple of them. His most recent was a talk at Eco Farm, and actually if you can watch that one, because you can see his slides, it’s pretty shocking the environmental impact of these hydroponic farms. And they’re really plastic, on plastic, on plastic, these big sandwiches, and all the fertility is coming in.

And then the plants are done in four to five years, the entire plastic farm gets thrown out, and then they start it over again. So the environmental impact is pretty severe, and it’ll help you understand the way an organic farmer thinks. We interview a lot of farmers, but there’s chefs and authors on there, too. It just helps you think more holistically how organic farmers are thinking about their farm. And it might help you understand why things like grazing and soil health are so important to us.

Margaret: Yeah. So you have, what, maybe 1,200 farms who are members of the Real Organic Project at this point all in different areas of the country, is that right?

Linley: Yeah. And these are farmers that are agreeing to another inspection on top of the USDA inspection that’s part of this program. So that’s pretty astonishing to see how quickly it’s grown in such a short time. Farmers get this, they understand the need for this. [Below, the USDA organic label, and the Real Organic Project one each require a separate inspection.]

Margaret: I wanted to ask you more about that. So I think at the conference in October, you are going to do one of the presentations, and I think you’re going to talk about kind of what sets these member farmers apart and how can consumers support them, and support the work of this organization. So tell us a little bit about the highlight reel of that part of the conference.

Linley: Yeah. I think most people would just want to hear what we’re ensuring if you look for this sticker. And so we did talk about the soil health and pasturing, but we also ensure that the whole farm is meeting those organic, those higher organic practices, because there is a lot of fraud that happens when you have a split operation, when you have some conventional production and some organic. And one of the biggest ones, there was just a few acres of organic production that had an organic seal, and then a lot of conventional stuff went through that organic certificate. So the whole farm needs to be organic.

There are worker welfare protections. So this is really just kind of pushing the bar forward. Really when the farmers stopped being involved and just handed it over to the USDA, that whole concept of continuous improvement under the seal that we really had with our regional chapters went away. So we’re just trying to bring that back, and continue to improve over time.

Margaret: And non-farmers—how do consumers engage with Real Organic Project? I mean, I assume it’s a nonprofit, so you probably have donors, and do people just attend your events and support these farmers and-

Linley: We’ve got this great website, so visit the website. You can see the conference that’s at Churchtown Dairy on October 14th, first thing. And then we’re actually releasing a new website in about a month, but you can go now. There’s a ton of videos, podcasts, the letters. We have something called Real Friends where it’s a book club, but part of this group is to ask eaters to help the farmers along. And that might mean just telling your friends about your favorite podcast episodes, or going to your co-op and saying, “Do you have any Real Organic products?” So that hopefully your farmers locally can get a little bit of an edge because they’re really having trouble getting markets and the price point is so low, so you can help them out by requesting real organic products in your stores too.

Margaret: You’re in Colorado, and what zone are you technically, where you farm?

Linley: Oh gosh, there are so many microclimates. So I would say we’re a 6-something, but it depends on the year, and climate changes creating all kinds of changes.

Margaret: It is. It is.

Linley: So I don’t even know anymore.

Margaret: Yeah. So you talked about tomatoes. So are you winding down your season or do you do off season crops as well? Do you have-

Linley: So the funny thing here is actually it doesn’t get really in the single digits as far as cold, but our season’s really short, because we’re high elevation. So we got our first frost probably this weekend. It’s always around the third week of September. And our last frost is, oh gosh, in the middle of June sometimes. So we have about a 90-day window, which is wow.

Margaret: Wow!

Linley: And we get these kind of passing hailstorms too because that’s what happens in the mountains. So that’s why I have all of these different levels of tunnels. And even out in the field, we have a lot of Reemay and ways to protect the crops on the field.

Margaret: Interesting. Well, Linley Dixon, co-director of the Real Organic Project, thank you for giving us a 101 on this subject. Very, very counterintuitive to think that organic doesn’t mean grown in the soil, but thanks for alerting us to that. And I hope I’ll talk to you again soon.

Linley: Thank you so much, Margaret,

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 2, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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