Farmer Paul Asks: What Does Organic Mean to You?

Singing Frogs Farm

For someone like me raised in suburbia, meeting real live farmers and listening to their  points of view and concerns has been very enlightening.  I’m convinced that in order to really understand how we might fix our broken food systems, we need to listen to our small scale farmers, especially the ones who are working hard to bring us consistently healthy food, raised ethically and in an earth-nurturing manner.

Paul Kaiser and his wife, Elizabeth,  are such farmers.  They  own and operate Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, California. I met Kaiser, or Farmer Paul, as he is known locally, at the 2012 EcoFarm Conference where we talked about saving bees, creating earth-friendly farms, and the misuse of the terms organically grown and sustainable agriculture.

Defining Organic

Kaiser wants to ask consumers, “what does organic mean to you?”

He pointed me to an essay he wrote on the subject and gave me permission to share some of his thoughts from that piece.

Every week at the farmers’ market customers ask him if he’s “Organic.” He turns the question around to ask what the customer thinks organic means, and invariably he gets an earful. By their responses he’s realized that this word has become loaded with  “feelings, emotions and desires” about our food production system.

His customer’s expectations are:

  • Food that is clean and free of synthetic chemicals.
  • Food that is is healthy and nutritious.
  • Locally grown food by a farmer or rancher that is concerned with the environment and community .
  • Proper stewardship of the land for future generations .
  • That the farmer employs members of the community at a decent and respectable living wage.
Paul Kaiser at the NAPPC 2010
Paul Kaiser received the North American 2010 Farmer-Rancher Award for Pollinator Conservation

Organic is Not Enough

The reality is that organically certified produce and animal products often meet only the minimum requirements of the organic label, and do not encompass the broad practices sought by his customers. These practices were at the heart of the grassroots organic movement in the beginning, but drifted as the movement was industrialized by agribusiness and the USDA.

As Kaiser explains:

“And yet, the label “organic” has been absconded with by the industrial food system in America. Organic farming originated as a grass roots movement by farmers and consumers who wanted to opt out of the industrial food system that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels and treats the environment and soil like dirt.”

“The founding principles of organic farming were rooted in the idea that growing food should not only improve the health of the consumer through chemical-free, more nutrient dense food, but it should also improve the health and resilience of the environment in which it is grown and not harm the workers growing it.  The result: a factory farm can be certified organic, organic milk and meat can come from cows kept on giant feedlots, and, amazingly, additives and synthetic chemicals can still be included in processed organic foods!”

He points to large operations that supply packaged, certified organic salad greens as an example. According to Kaiser, such large scale producers spend 57 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of food energy, compared to a 1:1 ratio, or better, for salad greens grown by small scale, organic family farms.

Industrialized organic farms use practices that result in less biodiversity by using certain organic sprays and fertilizers in the fields, and they rely heavily on off farm manufactured inputs. This is a far cry from the picture of sustainability that consumers assume when they buy “organic”.

Going Beyond the Organic Label

The back of Kaiser’s business card reads: Who’s Your Farmer? He wants you to ask if they are a small scale, diversified grower, following the grassroots principles of organic farming. If the answer is yes, then:

“… no pesticides found their way into any farmworker’s bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics squandered, no subsidy checks written. “

He paraphrases from Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“if the (usually but not always) higher price of locally grown, small scale organic food is weighed against the comparatively low price it extracted from the larger world, it begins to look like a real bargain!”

Read Paul Kaiser’s essay in its entirety.


Paul Kaiser served in the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa, where he worked with several  rural agrarian communities to develop sustainable land use management. Paul earned dual Masters Degrees in Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Development from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and the American University in Washington D.C.  Paul and his wife Elizabeth have married sustainable land management with local food production at their biodiverse and family-friendly Singing Frogs Farm.

Photos: courtesy of Paul Kaiser and Singing Frogs Farm


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top