Drew and Joan Norman have been farming One Straw Farms since 1983 when they purchased 83 fertile acres in northern Maryland. Since those early days, they adopted organic farming practices that respected the soil, water, and the opulent biodiversity gracing the rolling countryside.
They learned how to battle weeds and pests and navigate market conditions, but never dreamed the USDA would pose the biggest battle of their farming careers.
One Straw Farms is well known in the culinary corners and farmers markets around Baltimore. It was one of the first certified organic farms in the late 1980’s. It flourished with offerings of certified organic tomatoes, kale, collards, chard, eggplant, watermelon, and hard squash.
Drew and Joan were using organic inputs, building soil fertility, and respecting the biodiversity of the land with organic practices. To fight weeds, they typically covered the rows of vegetables with plastic mulch.
The farmers soon realized they were using so much plastic that it filled four dumpsters—that’s 45 miles of plastic each year! “There has to be a better way,” they thought. The Normans wanted to produce organic vegetables without filling the landfill with plastic that takes decades to break down.
When a biodegradable option came along, they decided to try one roll, and it worked great! They understood the law to read that biodegradable mulch was allowed.
The Normans began using biodegradable mulch in 2009; it reduced the plastic going into the landfill and allowed them to get their cover crops in faster.
The USDA interpreted things differently. In 2012 the USDA told Drew and Joan that they had three choices: 1) stop immediately, and you won’t be penalized, 2) fight us, and you will absolutely lose, or 3) withdraw your organic certification, and once biodegradable mulch is approved, reapply for certification.
So, they decertified the farm. Joan recounted why, “We were selling a lot through our CSA, and those customers didn’t care, and our wholesalers said reducing the amount of plastic we use was a good choice. So, we took the leap. We thought it was going to change quickly. It’s allowed in organic production in other countries.”
The Normans attended the 2012 fall NOSB meeting in Providence, RI to make their case. The NOSB voted on the use of biodegradable mulch, and it passed with a vote of 12 to 3.
Joan recalled, “We thought, at that point, we were done and could get on with our paperwork.”
The rulemaking proceeded, and on October 31, 2014 they received a phone call saying biodegradable mulch was approved for organic production.
Then on January 9, 2015 they received another phone call indicating that a memo had been added stipulating that it must be 100% bio-based; it can’t have any petroleum products in it.
“That wasn’t part of the NOSB discussion or the vote,” Joan said. She continued, “There is no product in the world that exists like that! That’s like giving a permission slip to somebody who’s going to time travel.”
In order for things to get better, you have to start somewhere.
Joan and Drew traveled to many consecutive NOSB meetings to testify and urge the board and the NOP to withdraw the last memo, which would allow farmers all over the country to add biodegradable mulch to their toolboxes.
At one meeting, the NOSB asked about the amount of petroleum in the mulch. Joan recalled saying, “Petroleum is used all over the farm, in tractors and packaging… In fact, it’s probably less petroleum than it took to fly one NOSB board member to those meetings.”
The last time the Normans testified in St Louis,a German microbiologist attended who had studied biodegradable mulch for 20 years; she found no toxins after it broke down.
While the NOSB continues to think about allowing biodegradable mulch, they will vote this fall on whether plastic mulch can continue to be used. To solve that problem, all they have to do is get rid of the last memo about petroleum.
In the meantime, things have changed in the market and at One Straw Farms.
Joan recounted, “We had wholesalers saying they needed more local organic produce, so my son said, ‘let’s start using it [organic certification] again.’”
All but 15 acres of their farm is once again certified organic.
Drew misses the advantages of the biodegradable mulch. He said, “All of our cover crops could be planted faster in the fall. I have times when I can’t get them planted because of weather. It eliminates several tractor passes in the fields and buys more time; you’re not picking up plastic which means time, labor, and more petroleum.”
Sometimes you have be the first to push the envelope forward.
Drew and Joan were willing to sacrifice their organic certification for the good of the environment and their belief in true sustainability.
Drew added, “If I’m going to be the best farmer – I have to make the best choices, and I can’t wait for the government to catch up. Meanwhile, we now use plastic mulch, and we pull it up and put it in the landfill.”
Drew and Joan will continue to lobby for biodegradable mulch until the USDA approves its use in organic production.
This is one straw that will not break their spirit for continuous improvement.