The USDA ain't what it used to be. Ever since Earl Butz was charged with creating a highly efficient ag sector under Nixon and Ford the USDA has been about production of cheap calories through industrial agriculture. Enter the Obamas, along with the new Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the U.S. government's relationship with food has gotten a whole lot more progressive.
The kicker happened a couple of weeks ago when a load of grade-A, certified organic compost from the nation's foremost authority on organic growing, The Rodale Institute, was dumped in front of USDA headquarters. The compost, made from leaves, grass clippings, and a small amount of horse manure at the Rodale Institute's site in southeastern PA, is the foundation of the new People's Garden. The USDA decision to make this garden organic is a deeply symbolic gesture that shows an unprecedented commitment to sustainable agriculture.
Image: Joan Shaffer, USDA
Rodale Institute farm director, Jeff Moyer, was on-hand to help with the compost delivery.
Compost is a big part of what makes organic farming work so well. We're happy to donate a truckload of high-quality compost to biologically jump-start this welcome change in the USDA's front lawn. The Secretary wanted the garden to be certified organic, so all the inputs—including compost—need to conform to the NOP standards.
Jake Blehm, Rodale Institute director of operations; John A. Crew, USDA director of operations; Jeff Moyer, Rodale Institute farm director and NOSB chair Image: Joan Shaffer, USDA
Moyer was instrumental in making the connection with the People's Garden and negotiating the delivery. Moyer, as chair of the National Organic Standards Board, learned of the garden and its organic status in conversation with Barbara Robinson, acting chair of the USDA's National Organic Program. He offered the compost, and Rodale received the OK to deliver it.
Rodale Institute CEO Dr. Tim LaSalle chimes in with an explanation why U.S. farmers should be looking to go organic.
Our 60 years of research show that organic farming is the single most significant and immediate step we can take to curtail the potentially devastating effects of global warming. Organic farming delivers other environmental services, improves human health and builds biodiversity above and below the soil line to produce more nutrition per acre. Building soil organic matter saves soil, improves water quality and is the building block for greater nutritional density.
Image: Joan Shaffer, USDA
Along with negotiating the compost delivery Rodale has been involved in the early stages of the garden design, consulting on cover crop selection and crop rotations.
By starting out with certified-organic growing media, the central island of large containers can show off organic crops this growing season. The garden beds will start their three-year transition period with a cover-crop of field peas, a legume crop, to build soil and naturally fix nitrogen with the help of beneficial soil bacteria. Other elements include pollinator crops and a "Three Sisters" traditional complementary mix of corn, climbing beans and winter squash.
If you told anyone working towards a more sustainable, human scaled food system, even as little as 6 months ago, that there would be an organic food garden at USDA headquarters and you would have been laughed out of the room. Today, there are two very high profile organic gardens in Washington DC that are sending a subtle, but strong signal, that agriculture policy in the U.S. is on the cusp of change.
And while they haven't yet received the nod, it's clear that if and when the White House staff calls, a compost laden dump truck will be on the road. Moyers says, "We'd love to have the opportunity to supply our compost, made according to the USDA's organic standard, to the White House."
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