Do-It-Yourself Food Safety: An Interview with NOFA's Julie Rawson

Julie Rawson is the executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Mass Chapter, a position you might say she has held since the day she walked in the door in 1984. "I went to a meeting and they put me on the Board — which is often the case with non-profits, right? — and I just started doing things for the organization. I think I officially took on the title, I don't know, maybe five or six years ago."

For close to three decades, Rawson has not only farmed the land, but cultivated a rich network of farming community resources, information and programs that are available to the public and more valuable now than ever before. As the food supplies for both wealthy and developing nations have become increasingly mass-produced using chemical pesticides and GMO-tweaked seeds, questions about the safety of our current and future food supply demand immediate attention.

Corporate agriculture believes it has learned to control nature and make a nice tidy profit in doing it; everyone on the planet must eat. Consumers love the year round variety of perfect produce at relatively cheap prices. Organic farmers know that while chemicals provide immediate growing results, they also slowly — or in some cases very quickly — kill the land and poison its food.

NOFA is a regional community of farmers, gardeners, landscapers and consumers working to educate its members and the general public about the benefits of local organic systems. The seven state chapters include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

NOFA/Mass, headquartered in Barre, offers programs in organic lawn care and organic accreditation, advanced grower seminars, a soil building workshop series, a food self-reliance workshop series, cheese-making workshops, an organic food guide, a raw milk network, a bulk order program, wild edible walks, beekeeping, community dinners, policy work around GMOs and other issues, referral directories, extension programs around the state and region, and many other services and events including major winter and summer conferences each year. Anything you'd like to know about organic farming and sustainable living is available through one of its members.

Rawson's Massachusetts chapter hosts the NOFA annual conference at UMass Amherst each year in August featuring over 225 workshops on organic farming, gardening, land care, draft animals, homesteading, sustainability, nutrition, food politics, activism and more. Now in its 38th year, the event is affordable, family friendly and a fun place to learn hands-on about gardening and sustainable living.

I contacted NOFA to learn what we — everyday eaters — should know about protecting our food supply today and into the future. Even though we may not all be farmers or food growers, we are all consumers. As down to earth, salt of the earth and Mother Earth as they come, I learned from Julie that the best thing I can do is just dig in.

Carol Bedrosian: Few of us grew up believing we'd ever have to wonder about the safety of food in our grocery stores. How did we get here?
Julie Rawson: When the organic movement started there was a lot of concern about pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, all the "cides" out there killing things. The forerunners of the organic movement were about making things happen in a way that's in cooperation with nature as opposed to coming in and being a big bully and pushing our weight around. You know, human beings having dominance in nature as opposed to human beings in collaboration with nature.

But, since the early '90s maybe, when genetic engineering came in and Monsanto first came out with some of their genetically modified organisms, now that stuff's ubiquitous with the acceptance by the federal government of GMO alfalfa.

Alfalfa is a main source of food for all your ruminants. So now all of our milk is in danger of being genetically modified. And sugarbeets can cross with vegetables — they can cross with regular beets and with Swiss chard — sugar beets have been added to the list, so now you're talking about garden vegetables being genetically modified unwittingly.

The GMO thing is really closing in on us. Even if people strive very hard not to have genetically modified crops in their diet there are less and less things available for us to be sure of. It's very hard right now to raise corn not genetically modified because corn pollen is very promiscuous. It will travel as far as 60 miles.

Soy beans, that's not so true; they pretty much stay at home. Although most soy is genetically modified, you can certainly raise a non-genetically modified soybean without much problem. All the stuff in the beet family is like a quarter of a mile or something for pollination purposes. Things scatter and it transfers very quickly. It's almost impossible getting canola that's not dangerous for you at this point in time.

Carol Bedrosian: There's been a lot of discussion lately about GMOs, some people saying that it hasn't been proven to be harmful and other people saying that even if we don't have the proof that it's harmful, we can't take the risk that it might not be harmful.
Julie Rawson:Well, there's a lot of proof in other countries. The fact is that in this country it's illegal for anybody to do any research to see if there are any problems with it because they have patented seeds. So it's all locked up.

However, there have been many studies done in other places that show that genetically modified organisms are very dangerous for the health of beings that ingest them. On the NOFA Mass website we have an entire genetic engineering news section, including non-GMO food guides. If people want to go there and do some reading, we have a lot of information up there for teaching people about where GMOs are in your food and how to avoid them.

There's a new campaign called Just Label It, which Stonyfield is really behind and other organizations including the Non-GMO Project, that came out of an organic summit back in June. There is more and more call to actually pressure the government, although they have done nothing. We watched Obama roll over and play dead on that. The corporate connection to government is too entrenched at this point to be able to expect anything from the government. But, you know, there's always hope that where there's democracy there's… [laughs].

Carol Bedrosian: Well, if we can't expect the government to take the lead, what can individuals do?
Julie Rawson: I think what NOFA's all about and other organizations like us, is about either raising your own food or buying it locally and knowing your farmer. Living a real local culture.

But there's plenty of local GMO food being grown in this state. A lot of people say, "I can't afford organic feed so I'm going to buy conventional feed, but my animals are free range." But they're still getting the GMO organisms in their feed, and so it passes through to the meat of the animal and the milk and the eggs. These dangers are worse than when we were just dealing with pesticides and chemicals. Because we're still dealing with chemicals, but now we have added this GMO thing on top of it.

Grandchildren Sammy and Anya Kittredge mind the Many Hands Organic Farm table at the Barre Farmer's Market. The certified organic 160-person CSA operated by Julie Rawson and husband Jack Kittredge sells vegetables, chicken, eggs, turkey, pork and beef they have raised.

Grandchildren Sammy and Anya Kittredge mind the Many Hands Organic Farm table at the Barre Farmer's Market. The certified organic 160-person CSA operated by Julie Rawson and husband Jack Kittredge sells vegetables, chicken, eggs, turkey, pork and beef they have raised.

Carol Bedrosian: Don't GMO crops need specific pesticides to grow in?
Julie Rawson: Well, if they're being grown in dead soil or on unhealthy soil they will need pesticides in order not to be attacked by pests. But it's our experience that when you have your soil microbiology and your soil mineralization in appropriate quantities so that things are healthy….I mean, the world lived without chemicals for many, many, many millions of years.

But the fact is that chemicals are easy and people can hire up people to work for them and can remove themselves from having an active hand in creating a healthy ecosystem for plants to grow in and animals to grow in. One of the major things that NOFA does is to help reteach people about how to raise really healthy food in a balanced system. You know it's not terribly easy, but there's certainly a lot of templates out there that work.

Carol Bedrosian: What are some of the most important features of growing healthy food in your soil?
Julie Rawson: This really goes hand in hand with stopping global warming also. There's something interesting I learned at the Acres Conference about a month ago. That's an organization that's as old as NOFA — NOFA is 40 years old in the region — and they come from the Texas area. This organization is more large-scale, Midwest and Western farmers, and they have really come to the same place that NOFA has. We're coming together after all these years.

Many of those people were conventional agriculture people but they've really moved into organic. What we learned from them is this confirmation about the biological nature of farming and how, with proper mineralization, it's really all about feeding the microbial life in the soil and keeping them happy. When you keep them happy, they're the ones that are going to provide adequate food for the roots of the plants, which are then going to grow better and be stronger and resist insects and disease.

Carol Bedrosian: How do you feed the microbial life of your soil?
Julie Rawson: They like minerals. Their job is to chew up minerals and feed them back to the roots so that the roots can utilize those minerals; they need them in micro-amounts. So we add minerals with some sort of carbohydrate — and the sun is our great friend in this because the sun provides an engine to produce carbohydrates — which go down into the roots of the plants, the plants then feed those carbohydrates to the microbial life, and then they give back the chewed up minerals for the plants to uptake to build itself.

So it's a very nice cycle. And then you have nitrogen fixation from the atmosphere, so there's no need for you to have injections of nitrogen into your soil system, and you have this nice wonderful loop going using photosynthesis. That's the initiator of all this so that the plant and the microbial life can work in conjunction with each other to survive.

Carol Bedrosian: How do you know what your soil needs?
Julie Rawson: Before corporations took over agricultural research in universities back in the '30's and '40's, there was a lot of good research done on understanding how to raise crops without chemicals and about plants' basic needs: how much calcium they need, how much phosphorous they need, all of the various nutrients and micronutrients, not only in this country but in other places, too. Tuning in to that kind of information, and then making sure that those things are in balance is going to provide what you need in your soil.

But there's another piece to it, too. Even if you really didn't know all that stuff, if you hadn't done the research or known that you want 75% base saturation of calcium, for example, in your system; if you look at a natural growing system as something where you want to put back in more than you've taken out, for starters — which is good with all relationships, right? — you're going to have better relationships if you give more than you take — then watch how nature does its job with the soil. If you go into the woods, you see layers and layers of mulch made up of leaves and downed branches and all those things, and you have animals coming through and dropping their manure. Then it mixes up there and composts at some level, and that feeds the roots, which feeds the microbes in the soil.

So using nature as an example, you keep your soil clothed at all times. That means having a cover crop on it, or any kind of mulch like leaves or hay or straw or seaweed, depending on where you are. Cornstalks. Gathering up perennial leaves and using it as mulch because when you cover that soil you enhance the conditions for the soil's microbial life.

And it's not just the microbial life but also the earthworms. If you run a system that is earthworm friendly, that's probably the best thing you could ever do. There's some amazing figure, which I can never remember the stats for, but worms will rototill your soil several times over in a year. What they do is they go up above the soil and pull things down. They pull leaf litter down into their holes, chew it up, digest it. They're in a symbiotic relationship with the plants and microbial life. They break things down and then the microbial life can break it down further and proliferate.

Carol Bedrosian: What can you do to make your garden more earthworm friendly besides mulching it?
Julie Rawson: You could get a soil test done. Usually in this part of the country calcium is much lower than it should be. There's a real fear of putting calcium limestone in the soil because people are afraid they're going to up the pH to a place where nutrients aren't going to be available to the plant. A lot of what we're learning is that you do need 70-75% base saturation of calcium in your soil. If you don't have calcium, then your cell walls are not going to be strong, just like people whose bones won't be strong. So plants, like a tomato, will get blossom end rot or black spots and will almost implode. You need to build that cell wall strength and you need a good strong percentage of calcium.

One of the things that NOFA does for small gardeners is a bulk order in January each year. You can order small amounts with a group of people together and get a decent price on some of these mineral amendments that you need for your system.

Carol Bedrosian: What an excellent service!
Julie Rawson: We do a lot of education for people about how to raise better food. One of our members has this little tag line on his email that says, "NOFA Mass: Not just for farmers." NOFA is for farmers and homesteaders and gardeners and consumers and landscapers and activists, too — people who are interested in fighting GMOs, for example. Anybody who's really interested in their food and where it comes from. We hold many on-farm workshops. They're scattered throughout the region and the state, all throughout the year. And of course the biggest thing that happens each year is the summer conference at UMass Amherst. That's open to anybody. And there's a ton of stuff on our website.

Carol Bedrosian: Can you talk a little bit about raw milk? Why all the controversy? What are the benefits?
Julie Rawson: The sad thing is that this is part of that mindset that you either figure that nature is your friend and that you're a part of nature or that nature is dangerous and it's out to get you. The fact is that raw milk is real milk, and pasteurized milk is milk that has had all the digestives enzymes that were present there for calves to digest, killed by the pasteurization process. So in a lot of ways it's kind of a dead food and anything that's dead is not going to be nutritious because we need enzymes in our food to help our own enzymatic reactions happen appropriately so we can digest. So what we're looking for is live food that can be health-giving food.

Carol Bedrosian: What is the legal status of raw milk in Massachusetts or New England?
Julie Rawson: If you have a face-to-face relationship with the farmer you can buy raw milk on the farm in Massachusetts. You can't buy it for your neighbor and you can't buy it in the store.

Carol Bedrosian: You can only buy it directly on the farm.
Julie Rawson: Yes, it's different in every state. Some states it's completely illegal, some states you can buy it in the grocery store, it's variable all over the country. We have the NOFA raw milk network for two reasons — because it's healthful for people and also because it helps farmers to actually stay in dairy. I'm sure you know that huge numbers of dairy farmers have gone out of farming. They've had to give up their farms because they couldn't afford it. But raw milk farmers can ask for a better price for their milk and they can pretty much stay in business.

Carol Bedrosian: Because it can't be sold in stores.
Julie Rawson: And because people have learned to pay for good food.

Carol Bedrosian: I see a lot of similarities to the legalization of marijuana. Raw milk is a naturally occurring product, unadulterated, and it's the same thing with marijuana. It's a plant that grows. Julie Rawson: Except cocaine is naturally occurring too…

Carol Bedrosian: But it's not. Cocaine is processed and refined. Raw milk and marijuana are not refined. How can the possession or sharing of naturally occurring substances be illegal?
Julie Rawson: These things more often have less to do with food than not being able to make money on them. But there were times in the urban areas where people were actually getting quite sick from raw milk. The animals never saw the light of day and were being fed food not appropriate for cows. That's when the whole public health thing came up back in the 'teens and such.

Carol Bedrosian: The animals weren't being properly cared for.
Julie Rawson: Right, urban milk was not healthy. But that can be true of anything.

Carol Bedrosian: Can you also speak a little bit on bees?
Julie Rawson: A lot of our bee activity is in Boston. We've been doing a lot of organizing around bee issues in Boston and the Boston area. We're actually going to have an organic bee school this year. I think a tour of the hives will be in the summer time. But we also always have bee workshops at the conferences.

I'm not the expert on bees — the colony collapse disorder, for example — but a lot of that was, again, connected to pesticide use. It really lowered the immune system of the bees, such that they were taken over by mites. Bees, along with anybody else, have to be strong and healthy in order to survive and not contract these diseases. The use of pesticides and chemical agents is very hard on bees. They visit the plants, get pollen from the pesticide-laden plants on their feet and they bring it back to the hive and infect the whole place.

Carol Bedrosian: Is this going to be an ongoing problem or do you think the danger has passed?
Julie Rawson: No, I don't think it's going to go away until we get rid of the chemicals.

Carol Bedrosian: Is it possible that we could lose all of our pollinators?
Julie Rawson: Who knows what's going to happen. Are we going to befoul our nest completely? Or are we going to wise up, wake up and start realizing that we can't throw everything around without killing ourselves. That's a question for society.

What NOFA tries to do is to provide alternatives that work. What they're saying — it doesn't work; what we're saying — it does work. Working with nature does work and it can happen this way.

Carol Bedrosian: Are you hopeful for the future of our food?
Julie Rawson: There's nothing to do but to work hard and hope because we could all hang ourselves now or we could just get out there and fight the good fight. So, I raise all my own food, teach other people how to raise their own food and make sure that it's as organic as it can be. I trust the earth to cleanse itself when given a chance.

The take home is feed the biology and they will feed us. Not only will they feed us, they will re-carboinate our soil such that we have less carbon dioxide and it's going back into the soil. We're sequestering carbon instead of expending it. We're keeping our field covered in the winter time and we're building organic matter and humus rather than squandering it. There's a lot of normalization that can happen; nature can clean herself up very quickly given the chance. Yeah, I'm imminently hopeful.

There's this great book out there now called Earthing; it's about electron exchange and how as electrical beings we really need electron infusions. Walking barefoot in the dirt is one of the best ways to make that happen. So not only are we raising good food and we're out in the garden, but we're actually rejuvenating ourselves.

I'm a farmer because I like to play in the dirt. I wish that for everybody, to be able to take that advantage. It's a wonderful thing to do with your family, it's a wonderful thing to do for your own therapy, it saves money in the long run. When you put healthy food in your body you're going to have a healthier system, you're going to be more energized and excited about life and possibilities. So I would say do everything you can to get yourself near a piece of dirt and get out there and play in it.

For more information about NOFA/Mass or the summer conference visit or call 978-355-2853. Contact Julie at

Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change holistic magazine. Visit