Sad news for the organic vision




Note: This piece also appears on the Chelsea Green website:

I wrote the passage that follows near the end of 2010, in the midst of working on a chapter about the early history of organic certification and my role in it.  This experience came to mind when I heard about the abrupt dismissal of Mark Keating, a former National Organic Program (NOP) colleague who had recently returned to the staff after Miles McEvoy took over the helm of the program over a year ago.  Having a high regard for Miles and his understanding of organics I had some reason to hope that, despite the fact that this program is now on everyone’s radar and has grown to become its own division, some vestige of that egalitarian organic spirit might be resurrected.

Sadly, it seems I was mistaken.  Mark is fighting his dismissal, which happened just before Thanksgiving with no recourse.  The documents he circulated make it clear that the grounds for this action were primarily his refusal to kow-tow to his immediate superior in the hierarchy and admit wrongdoing in voicing his opinion about a standards question during a conference call with the NOSB Livestock Committee.

Many doubtless would argue that hierarchy is necessary to get things done – someone has to be the boss, and insubordination should not be tolerated.  I disagree.  There is no need for this kind of authoritarian bullying, ever.  The inevitable result is paranoia and resentment among other subordinates.  Subtle acts of sabotage and undermining are manifestations of this situation—taken to extremes we recognize the origin of the expression “going postal.”  It is doubtful there ever would have been an organic program if creativity and outspokenness had been stifled this way from the beginning.  It is a shame that the organic values of compassion and collaboration have fallen by the wayside in the process of regulating the organic label.  It did not have to be this way, and the spirit of organic is diminished by it.

More information about the situation can be found at:

How did a social ecologist from Vermont end up in Washington writing regulations at USDA?

It was January of 1994, and I had just left Vermont to live in Jamaica.  I rented out my house to friends and flew into Montego Bay with a lot of baggage and my four year old daughter in tow.  I had with me a primitive prewindows laptop and the hope that I could stay in touch with my Goddard students via email, which at that time was far from universal.

There was no phone in our little cinderblock house, and no cell reception – the phone booth down the street would have to suffice for occasional collect calls to the US.  I could go on line from Falmouth, where a friend had a tailor shop with a phone line. In addition to a sumptuous stipend (by Jamaican standards), the Goddard job paid my expenses to attend residencies in Vermont twice a year.  I was also developing a volunteer project to work with organic farmers in Jamaica that would pay for my living expenses there.  A sketchy hodge podge of income, but my credit card would tide me over if need be.

I was ready to leave the world of organic certification behind now that things were becoming professionalized.  However, the organization of professional organic inspectors (IOIA, now International Organic Inspectors Association) was putting on a training program in Florida, an easy hop from my new home, and I was invited to give a talk to the trainees. It seemed like a good idea to keep up my credentials in case I could pick up some inspection work.

That was where I met Michael Hankin, then second in command at the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Michael appeared to be a stereotypical nondescript bureaucrat – glasses, bald, maybe mid-forties.  Soft-spoken and a stutterer, he seemed sincerely interested in learning all he could about the organic world.  We sat and chatted after my talk, and he began telling me that they now had funding to hire more staff people, and a specific mandate to bring in someone from outside USDA with some expertise in organic certification to help write the regulations.  Then he mentioned the salary and benefits that went with the job, when they expected to officially announce it, and other details, looking at me expectantly.  I was starting to get a clue. “Why are you telling me all this?” I asked.  “You’re not doing Organic Farmer any more, are you?” he grinned.

This was a possibility that had never entered my mind–I was caught totally off guard and rendered speechless.  My first words were: “Oh No! — “Me??? Move to Washington, DC???  You’ve gotta be kidding!”  No, he calmly answered, he was perfectly serious.


We arrived at our furnished apartment in Takoma Park, MD at the end of August.  Matches (now known as Bentley, his ‘Babylon name’), Opal and I drove down from Vermont in my little Honda Civic, while Stewart transported our possessions in his pickup truck.  Opal was to start kindergarten in another couple of days, and my new job was to begin after Labor Day.  I was still suffering from the miserable flu I contracted during the mythically horrible experience at the US Embassy in Kingston, and on top of everything had to find a walk-in clinic over the weekend to treat a bladder infection.  I was, in short, a wreck—emotionally as well as physically.  Once again I found myself in a totally new life, new job, far from close friends and family, wondering what planet I was on.

My first challenge was simply to find room 2510 of the USDA South Building – the second largest building in Washington after the Pentagon, originally designed as a prison.  On the walls around the office were a series of quotes about yeoman farmers and soil from authors such as Liberty Hyde Bailey and Wendell Berry.  Everyone was welcoming – there were a couple of other new staff people, eight in all counting Hal Ricker, the Program Manager, and Karen and Gayle, our support staff, but I was the only one who was totally new to USDA.  From the start, Michael did everything possible to ease my transition, even offering to lend me some money till I started getting paychecks.

Details of my first months are fuzzy, but the first task I was given was to draft a set of basic principles of organic agriculture.  When I stopped laughing, I typed in my favorite saying at the top of the page:  “The only thing I know for sure is not organic is dogmatism.”  Ted Rogers, our resident quote catcher, quickly printed out that statement and put it up over the office door.

I soon learned that all Federal agencies have their particular cultures, and that within USDA there were still more differences among the branches.  However tight or loose, progressive or conservative the agency, all conformed to a strongly entrenched bureaucracy and a rigid command and control style hierarchy.  First hand observation confirmed my intuition that this military approach, so unlike the egalitarian nonprofit world I came from, was a source of much dysfunction in government.  It certainly confirmed my abhorrence of hierarchy as the root of all evil.

Our miniscule program was housed within the huge Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), responsible for all the commodity programs and promulgator of the largest number of regulations, covering standards for products such as peanuts, cotton, dairy products and potatoes, among others.  Although I knew a lot about organic certification and standards I knew nothing about regulations.  Never having even read a Federal regulation, now I was being asked to write one.  I assumed there would be someone on staff at AMS charged with translating concepts required by the various programs into the proper regulatory language and format.  No such luck.

It is a miracle that I survived this learning experience with my sanity intact.  What got me through, other than my family and frequent visits to the Erhardts, my ‘adopted’ farm in Maryland, was the atmosphere of trust and collaboration among equals cultivated within our little team by Michael Hankin.  It was this sense of being free to be myself and speak my mind, explore possibilities and try things that were ‘outside the box’ that made it possible for me to do the work that was in front of me.  Michael also ran interference for me with the bureaucracy, shielding me from its worst absurdities and coaching me on how to circumvent them.  We were flying under the radar, almost unnoticed and largely the subject of wagers amongst the other AMS programs as to how quickly we would fail.

The group’s commitment to the deeper meaning of organic – its bigger picture vision or soul – was what most impressed me and earned my unwavering loyalty.  We were not perfect human beings  – Michael’s extreme compassion and emotional sensitivity, while exemplifying the ‘new age guy’ in some respects, also manifested as indecisiveness; his softness and vulnerability made him an easy target within the system.  Unfortunately, a key skill that was lacking among us was any kind of political savvy.  We were a bunch of starry eyed idealists (except maybe for curmudgeonly Ted), naively believing that if we did what was right and were true to the organic vision we would be supported by the organic community.  Boy, were we ever wrong.