I’m going to be honest here, before I really started looking into organic certification fairly recently, I had not heard of the Real Organic Project.

I came across the organization when I was looking at different types of organic certification for vegetable farmers.

At first, I didn’t think too much about them. I just thought they were a regional certification that did not really apply to me.

Then the Real Organic Project hosted a very informational and relevant symposium.

You could purchase tickets, or do as I did and get the video format of the symposium for free if you are a farmer or student. I counted myself as a farmer since we are starting a market garden this year and are already taking steps toward this goal.

The first video available to watch of the symposium was all about the Real Organic Project and why they came to be in the first place.

I thought the information was amazing and wanted to share with you the importance of the Real Organic Project and how it is not a regional certification as I initially thought, but a movement with the goal of protecting the ‘organic’ name and what it stands for.

Why Does Real Organic Project Exist?

The Real Organic Project is a farmer-led movement created to distinguish soil-grown and pasture-raised products under USDA organic.

Organic farmers rallied together to fight and protect the integrity of the organic label when it was clear that there was a lack of enforcement of some vital USDA Organic standards.

“Feed the soil, not the plant.”

Real organic farming relies on the microbial activity of the soil to slowly release nutrients to the plant.

In recent years, many organic farmers have grown distraught over USDA decisions that have gone against this fundamental truth, even though growing in soil is original to the USDA Organic standards.

As well, rules have been overlooked regarding the proper care of grazing animals resulting in cruel and unhealthy circumstances for the animals.

The Real Organic Project was started by farmers to protect the meaning of organic.

We grow food in the soil, not hydroponically. We raise livestock on pasture, not in confinement.

In this time of concern about the erosion of integrity in the USDA, Real Organic remains exactly what organic was always intended to be.

What Is Happening Today?

The lobbying efforts of Big Agriculture won, allowing the input-dependent confined animal operations and hydroponic industries to bend the rules for their own benefit.

Family farmers meeting the letter and spirit of organic law are suffering while consumers have no idea what’s happening behind the scenes (I know I didn’t) and are once again in need of transparency.

What Are Today’s USDA Standards?

First, let’s look at the original foundation of organic farming. Fertile soil has always been the foundation of organic farming.

In 1995, organic was defined by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which is the USDA’s expert advisory panel as:

“An ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

However, in recent years the USDA has changed their definition by allowing large-scale certification of veggies and berries grown hydroponically without any soil at all.

They have also allowed industrial confinement operations that provide animal zero access to soil, to become certified organic.

Welcome, Real Organic Project

Organic farmers wanted to protect the movement that they helped build in the first place.

So what did they do?

Organic farmers rallied across the country to protest USDA’s failure to enforce organic laws requiring proper soil stewardship. 

The largest rallies were in Vermont and Jacksonville, Florida with hundreds of farmers and eaters calling on the USDA to keep organic farming based in the soil.

The failure of the USDA to uphold the legislation governing soil health and animal welfare resulted in the formation of the Real Organic Project.

Here is an eye-opening quote for you:

“In case you don’t know, there are 1,200 lobbyists on the hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend about $350 million a year on forming opinions in Washington. And that’s more than the defense industry, so don’t underestimate their power.”

 – Representative Chellie Pingree, Maine

What Is Real Organic Certification?

Real Organic certification is an add-on label to already certified organic farms. It ensures that the farm plants are grown in healthy, living soil and they raise their animals humanely and on pasture.

Their goal is to help farmers and consumers differentiate farms that are growing their animals and crops not only to the letter, but also the spirit, of the certified organic standards.

Just like National Organic Programs, there are yearly inspections of the farms to ensure they are adhering to the standards outlined by the Real Organic Project.

Becoming Real Organic Certified does not require an annual fee. Their certification program is funded by eaters, farmers, and private foundations that want to see a certified organic system that embodies integrity, transparency, and the spirit of organic farming.

Right now, there are over 500 farms across the U.S that have the Real Organic Project certification.

What I Learned

Call me naive, but before educating myself about the Real Organic Project, I assumed that the USDA’s Organic Certification meant that veggies were grown in the ground with no chemical inputs. That’s what I thought organic meant.

To now know that this is not true anymore is really deflating. I mean, what is the point of the USDA label besides increasing the price of whatever product it is on?

Watching the videos in the symposium and learning more about what is actually happening with organic certification today has got me really fired up and I want to inform as many people as possible about the true state of their food.

I can see how frustrating and aggravating it must be for Real Organic farmers trying to compete with Big Ag who bend the rules in their favour on a regular basis. It must seem like an insurmountable task to take on this industry. 

I am thankful for organizations like the Real Organic Project that are not keeping quiet and instead, rising up against Big Ag and bringing awareness to the general public.

Although our market garden is just starting out and is not certified organic (yet), learning about the pitfalls of certification has definitely given me direction and motivation to do the best I can at practicing truly organic techniques and providing quality veggies for our customers and ourselves.

Transparency is key to trusting where your food comes from, so that’s where we are going to start.

Please pass this article along to anyone that you feel needs to see it, or send them the link to the Real Organic Project here. This is a message that needs to be heard.

Let’s take back the organic movement and support small, local farmers who practice true organic methods.

Let me know what you think about the state of organic certification where you live in the comments below.

Stay local,

Kathy & Jon

your friendly neighbourhood growers



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