Organic Experience

Organic foods have been a passion of mine for all of my adult life. Back in 1972, I planted my first organic field of 12 acres on 50 acres of land that I had purchased outside of Gainesville, Florida. I didn’t know much about farming at the time, but I was fortunate to know a kind old farmer, Ed Turlington, who taught agricultural practices in the local college I attended. Ed became my first agricultural mentor and used to meet me at my farm before 6 am and teach me how to turn the soil, lay out the rows, and implement other agricultural practices used by southern farmers for generations before him. Ed was a dedicated and hard-working man. In fact, I was embarrassed the first day when I arrived at the farm just a little after 6 am only to find Ed was already on the tractor and had several rows turned as well as the whole perimeter laid out.

Back then I didn’t know much about cover crops either, so we used a composted mix that was produced by Lee McComb, another organic farming mentor from Lady Lake, just south of Gainesville. My old friend Philip Hiss and I took 80 lb bags by hand, and we spread the whole 12 acres-one bag at a time. It was back-breaking work, but we loved it (we were young and full of energy then-still full of energy now, just not so young anymore). As time went on, I learned more about green manures like legumes, rye, and buckwheat. I preferred the green manure cover crops (and still do) to off-farm inputs because I didn’t have to worry about what was in them.

Over the years, I studied companion planting and lunar cycles. I went to Acres USA farm conferences and workshops. I visited farmers on their farms all over Florida, the Caribbean, and Latin America. I farmed in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Mexico, as well as Haiti and the Bahamas. I’ve seen a lot of farms and farming systems, and I’ve broke bread with a lot of farmers from the USA to Latin America to the Caribbean to India and Australia. If the truth be told, I’m happiest when I’m hanging out with farmers on their land. There is a beautiful and abiding sense of peace that is present when walking with a farmer on the land he has worked and toiled on. This is what I enjoy.

In 1989, after several failed attempts in the 70’s to form an organic farmers association, I became one of the founders of the Florida Organic Growers and Consumers Association, known as FOG (short for Florida Organic Growers). After about a year of weekly meetings with Robin Lauriault, Tommy Simmons, George Kalogridis, Marty Mesh (the current Executive Director) and Tim Logan, we finalized the first charter, organizational structure, and certification standards. In an effort to craft sound, scientifically validated production standards suitable to the State of Florida, we reviewed and utilized dozens of certification standards that were in various stages of development. With our strict standards and a sense of mission we visited every “organic” farm in the state and self-certified all the eligible farmers, which at that time was about a dozen. This was the beginning of certified organic agriculture in the Sunshine State. From these humble beginnings, Florida now has nearly 200 certified organic farms and handling operations.

My active involvement in organic agriculture in the South during the 80’s and a keen interest in doing everything I could to further this way of farming landed me on the first steering committee representing approximately 40 organic farmer organizations in the US. The group known as the Organic Farmers Association Council (OFAC), was the voice of organic agriculture in the national debate and development of the Organic Production Act of 1990. The Organic Production Act of 1990, which is the legal authority for organic agricultural practices and organic labeling laws, was a national legislative success which would not have been possible without the vision and tireless efforts of thousands of organic foods consumers, farmers, and manufacturers. The legislative heavy lifting was done by the visionary Senator Leahy and his staff, including the present Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, who was his Senior Science and Technolgoy Advisor at the time. I was fortunate to have served with many of the early organic activists and pioneers like Fred Kirshenmann (farmer/philospher and founder of Farm Verified Organic and presently Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture), George Siemon (CEO and founding farmer of Organic Valley Family of Farms), Joe Smillie (Executive VP, Quality Assurance International, and current NOSB member), Bill Wolf and Katherine DeMatteo (Wolf-DeMatteo & Associates), Elizabeth¬† Henderson (organic farmer and community activist), and many others, too numerous to mention.

Over the 35+ years of my involvement with organic agriculture, I have had the distinct privilege to meet and work with many farmers and campesinos. I was always struck by both their  steadfast personal commitment and their heartfelt love for the land and their work. This has left me with an abiding love for the earth and those who work it. My labor of love,, is dedicated to informing consumers of the vital role that organic farmers and food producers play in creating a just, sustainable, non-toxic and peaceful food system for our world family.

Over the years, my vision of the role of organic food production in the larger global food distribution system has evolved considerably. In 1972 when I planted my first organic field of vegetables as a college student, no serious person at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), which is part of the largest land grant University in the Southeastern US, or the USDA believed that organic farming was a viable commercial option. Today, we have not only proven organic agriculture is commercially viable, we have also proven it to be superior to conventional production systems in the quality of the products, the sustainability of the system, the environment, and the quality of life it produces. But more importantly we have begun the dialogue about the implications of incorporating even broader social and environmental issues into our production systems with specific emphasis on the health and welfare of the environment, farm workers, and consumers alike. This dialogue holds the promise of true food security and consequently world peace. This is what I believe.