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Faux Organic - the Snake Oil of Gardening

Caution Buyer Beware Sign

As I was planting another area of our home garden with food - real, healthy, clean, true organic food the other day, I began thinking about one of my favorite aggravations with the lawn & garden industry. It’s how people get suckered into all kinds of nonsense and tomfoolery. One of the ways this happens to gardeners, and people in general, is that they get suckered into a belief, an old wives tale or a slick marketing campaign. In some cases it's by “experts” who know not what they preach, or other cases, by "experts" hired by companies as marketers who know exactly what they’re preaching, and whatever they’re selling is far from the truth, but adheres to the audience that they are playing to.

Preaching to the converted.

We’ve all heard the old expression, “Preaching to the Choir.” It’s an old saying that came from a quote in an article from The Lima News, of Ohio back in 1973. The original quote is: “He said he felt like the minister was preaching to the choir. That is, to the people who always come to church, but not the ones who need it most.” This refers well beyond church, to all aspects of life where it can be viewed as pointless to preach to those who already believe in something, or in the case of religion, already have faith.

The original construct of this phrase was coined by John Stuart Mill in a letter that to The Times, of London in 1857. He wrote, “It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.” Boy, do I understand that quote!

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

When it comes to gardening, especially organic gardening, gardeners have thirsted for the quick, easy, holy grail of organics since the 1990’s and early 2000’s when organic actually became a thing with the passing of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. That was when the government asked the USDA to create national standards for organic products. It took ten years for the AMS, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA, to come up with standards for what is and is not organic. They were added to the Federal Register in 2000.

USDA Organic Logo

That’s when the frenzy surrounding marketing “organic” began. We were told through messaging in the marketplace, by influencers in Hollywood and by other socially driven entities that we needed to shop organic, buy organic, eat organic and grow organic. However, the issue with these well intended messages was that the certifications for organic were not at all clear or consistent, and that is where the train wreck at the organic crossroads began to happen.

I too was under the spell of this new organic illusion. I had young kids and was in search of feeding them and raising them on the best possible food available. I joined the Co-Op in Santa Monica so that I could buy many of the new natural and “organic” products that were beginning to flood the market. I don’t think that my youngest daughter at the time ever ate anything that wasn’t “natural” or “organic” from the moment that she took her first swallow of baby food.

I was part of the Southern California lifestyle. We were the perfect test market to be the guinea pigs of organic. We ate it up because we wanted to believe. We prided ourselves in the promoting the healthy, surfed out, lifestyles of the rich and famous backdrop that we were living in. We primed and pumped to be the organic showcase of the United States. Between California, Oregon and Colorado, the AMS knew that they had their battleground states in place as they launched this new global juggernaut. The sales for organic products in 2000 reached 7.8 billion dollars. Not bad for a new industry. Today, the organic market sells over 50 billion dollars worth of products.

We were all chomping at the bit back in 2000 to get our hands on produce and products that were labeled organic, and they were going to miraculously change our health, our well being and our longevity. I was all in. I started spending crazy amounts of money on anything that I could find labeled organic. The AMS was preaching to the choir, and I was helping sing my part, along with millions of others like me as “organic” shot out of the gate.

When people are that hungry for something, or want to believe something so badly, they are almost willing to do anything to get it. Unlike faith, true faith, which is something that we inherently know is the truth, and that becomes an unshakable part of us as we grow our faith. Faith versus want is not flippant, or without common sense, and is a belief that is focused and real. Wanting, wishing and hoping for something to be the next great fix is nice, but it’s not faith. It can be strong and it can cause us to throw our brains out the window as we thirst for this shiny new way of life, or cure, or indoctrination.

This is where on the organic journey one needs to become aware of the “snake oil salesman.” We’ve all heard this phrase. We’ve heard stories and warnings about if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is!

I believe that’s the case with the use of the word organic. The ideology of organic and organic products is a good and noble thing, as was the original snake oil introduced to the West, by Chinese immigrants who were working on the Transcontinental Railroad during the Gold Rush. The snake oil that they were using came from the Chinese water snake which was a mildly venomous snake, whose oil was rich in omega -3 fatty acids that helped with a variety of ailments from arthritis, bursitis, sore muscles and inflammation. Today we use omega-3’s all the time for such things and the truth of the matter is that the Chinese water snakes were high in fatty acids, even higher than salmon, and definitely higher than other snakes.

Chinese immigrants building Transcontinental Railroad
Chinese Immigrants building Transcontinental Railroad

The problem with snake oil and with many things that are good and actually work is that sleazy industry types will come along and hijack the name, and use it in slick marketing campaigns and completely bastardize the original product, idea or remedy. That’s what happened with the Chinese snake oil, and this is how the term snake oil became synonymous with stuff that is fake or junk. The term snake oil salesman became the moniker for hucksters and charlatans who faked people out with the garbage and false or phony products that they were hawking.

Clark Stanleys Snake Soil Liniment sign.

The snake oil salesman perfected the art of smooth talking, slight of hand and promises and fixes regarding their magical product which, in reality, will do no such thing. The grandfather of the modern snake oil salesman, Clark Stanley, a self-decried cowboy, and “Rattlesnake King” launched his assault on the world at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.

First off, I’m going to tell you that rattlesnakes have almost no fatty acids, or omega-3’s like the Chinese water snakes or even Alaskan salmon. So, when we see the “Rattlesnake King” in this guy's self promotion, just realize that he has taken something real, true and was now going to spin it to extract money from people’s pockets.

According to the pamphlets that Stanley handed out at the World’s Fair he had spent years conquering the West, and had learned about the powers of his snake oil from the Hopi “Snake Dancers” who taught him to stare down the venomous snakes without fear.

Stanley’s rattlesnake “snake oil” was the ultimate liniment for pain, lameness, frost bite, chill, bruises, sore throat, and animal and insect bites. His liniments were advertised as, “Good for Everything a Liniment Ought to be Good For.” People flocked to Stanley’s exhibit to watch him grab rattlesnakes from a bag, then slice them open drop them into a giant vat of boiling water. The snake’s fat would rise to the surface of the vat, and Stanley would skim it off the top and mix it with his patented concoction of ingredients and sell it for 50 cents a bottle as Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment. Through his amazing sideshow theatrics, the cowboy, Clark Stanley was able to launch a snake oil empire!

Stanley moved East as he was persuaded by an Boston pharmacist to manufacture the snake oil in bulk. Business was good, so good, that in 1901 he and his partners moved from Boston to an even larger plant in Rhode Island. But in 1916 a shipment of Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was seized by the District Attorney and tested by the Bureau of Chemistry. They found that Stanley’s miracle cure was just a mix of plain old mineral oil, 1% beef fat, capsicum and a drop of camphor and turpentine! There wasn’t a drop of snake oil in his concoction, and the FDA fined him for making false claims under the new Pure Food and Drug Act.

I believe in the truth. I like the truth. There’s nothing wrong with cold hard fact and real, reality checks. You can package up anything, but underneath the shameless promotion and false marketing of goods that aren't really good, is the truth. Today’s world is Clark Stanley’s world on steroids. It’s become a mass marketing, internet marketing, social media, giveaways of buy 3, get 1 free, freebie kind-of-world!

Buy 3 Get 1 Free Sign

It is this hyper speed, buy now, buy more, buy fast, plus get free junk, running for the finish line, that has allowed “Faux Organic” to creep into our markets and gardens with a vengeance.

What is “Faux Organic?” “Faux Organic” is the entire world of products that now exist that are kind of organic, may have a little organic in them, or are just absolute organic hogwash!

Let’s use “organic” fertilizer as an example. There are a ton of fertilizers out there in the lawn & garden market today that are labeled organic. Many of these products have very little real organic inputs in them, or have up to 95-100% of “organic” inputs in them that are permitted for use in organic products.

The problem with even the 100% organic products, because of the shortsightedness of how the AMS and it’s organic certifiers qualify things organic, is that in my opinion many things labeled organic, are absolutely NOT ORGANIC! The problem gets further exacerbated by most of the companies that make, and more importantly, market these “organic” products to the unsuspecting gardener who thinks that because something is labeled organic, that it actually is.

Unfortunately, the Clark Stanley’s of today, the corporations that make the “organic” garden products do only what they need to, to meet the minimum standards set by the organic certifiers, and I mean the bare minimum, to get their sketchy “organic” products into the marketplace and into your garden with lots of advertising dollars, giveaways and promotions through retailers.

In my opinion, these “Faux Organic” charlatans would have been far better off spending their time and money creating true organic products that their customers could trust and rely on. If only most of these hucksters would have spent their energy on the intention of organic labeling, and giving people a real sense of comfort and ease of mind in the integrity of their products, rather than always focusing on the bottom line, the organic market would be a wonderful world for all of us to shop in. Unfortunately, your health, well-being and trust aren’t what is important to most of the lawn & garden product manufacturers, but your money is!

Lets go back to fertilizers. All we have to do is flip a bag over, or turn the box around and look at the ingredients. Generally, the proof is right there on the label of our favorite “organic” gardening products. All we have to do is take the time to look. The red flag! The warning siren! The alarm should sound in our brains once we see the trail of death and destruction that is on the labels, and worse, in the products.

Many of the so-called “organic" fertilizers have bone meal, blood meal or feather meal in them as inputs. All of these are byproducts from conventional agriculture and come from animals that were fed GMO corn, soy and alfalfa. All of these are sprayed with the broad spectrum herbicide, glyphosate. The poor animals eat this garbage and then it is absorbed into their bloodstream, their bone, their organs, their skin, their hair or feathers and then once the animals have been through the fabulous slaughter process, their remains are dried, flash-frozen and ground up for use in our gardens. Yummy, right?

Animal By Product Flowchart
Animal By Product Flowchart

How in the name of anything sane or rational could something that comes from the conventional animal farming system ever be labeled as organic? That’s another story for another time, but it has to do with the USDA, the AMS and the National Organic Program. It is there that the lists of standards are complied of what is and what is not organic. It is here that the door creaks open and then gets blown wide open and off it’s hinges by the Clark Stanley’s of today. The flimflam men of today are many of the most well known and well established companies in the lawn & garden industry. These are the guys who are faking you out when it comes to how they make and manufacture their lines and products, without even a thought about the ramifications of what they are doing. Many of them proudly market that they are strictly adhering to the organic guidelines that have been set by the USDA. Well, how about they lobby for changes to the USDA for real, true, honest-to-God organic inputs in organically labeled products?

In my book, anything with any of those items listed above is definitely not organic, I don’t care what the USDA or any of it’s state certifiers say.

There’s now a new con game that’s being played on you. It’s the Non GMO Project Verified shell game. I see that one of these charlatans has products that claim right there in plain English on their boxes, bags and marketing, that they are Non GMO Project Verified! Really? How in the heck can you be Non GMO when your product has an ingredient in it that came from animals that were fed GMO crops??? You can’t! That’s how.


No-one in the certification chain is making these companies accountable by testing for these claims. Rather they say, well the government says we can use bone meal, blood meal and feather meal that is listed as organic, even though it came from conventional AG, and animals fed with GMO garbage, so we are going to market to you that our product is not only organic, but it is also Non GMO Project Verified.

I don’t care what the USDA says, I say that letting a corporation label a product in that way is false advertising, and is absolutely giving people the wrong impression. It’s deception. It’s giving people the illusion of safety and security when they buy these products with their hard-earned money. They believe that they are buying something that is clean, safe, healthy, actually organic, and now, Non GMO Project Verified, when nothing is further from the truth. It is absolute nonsense, the kind of nonsense that I must call “foul” on as a lover of truth!

Battery cage chicken farm
Battery Cage Chicken Farm

Some of these same con men use green waste compost and hydrolyzed chicken manure in their “organic” soils and fertilizers. Green waste compost that comes from large, municipal waste collections has tons of “greenwaste” in them that have been sprayed with all kinds of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, not to mention millions of pounds of diseased garden waste. Hydrolyzed chicken manure and chicken manure comes from where? Battery cage and large conventional chicken operations that are inhumane in their care and feed. The poor animals are fed GMO feedstocks and live a life that I can’t even begin to comprehend. To label anything “organic” with inputs from either of these two sources is absolute fakery!

I hope this shines a light for all of you who read this on what exactly “Faux Organic” is and if you’ve been bamboozled by one of these swindlers. I am beyond opposed to these conventional AG inputs being used in fertilizer and soil mixes that are labeled organic, because many gardeners have no idea that they are growing food in them, or with them. To me this is a horrifying thought.

Although glyphosate and toxic residues are still in these products, many scientists, or university research papers paid for by the Big CHEM, Big PHARMA and Big AG promote that it’s only small doses of these toxins. They also claim that they are not harmful to humans, although they kill all kinds of other things. Well, in other studies it has been proven over and over that toxins and poisons in small doses over a long period of time can cause cancer and other illnesses related to environmental pollution. And that is exactly what you are doing to your garden when you are using these “faux organic” products… you are polluting your garden, you soil, your plants and ultimately, you and your family!

“Faux Organic” may sound good, or even look good with pretty bags and catchy slogans. You might even get some for free, if you buy a bunch first, How can companies give away free stuff? Must not be worth much in the first place is what I usually conclude.

Ultimately it’s BUYER BEWARE! Do your research. Dig a little deeper before you buy just on name or price. Does the person or “expert” who recommended a product to you really, eat, think and grow organic, true organic? If not, turn away from the side show and seek to support companies that are true organic.

One big tip for you to look at is if the company whose “organic” stuff sells at Big Box stores, then you can pretty much be guaranteed that they use cheap inputs, are part of the conventional AG machine and are probably more concerned with the bottom line then with you. Big Box stores make their money off of cheap and inferior products that they can mass market to the public. Anything labeled "organic" at a big box store isn't worth the packaging it's wrapped in.

If you see a lot of claims, a lot of hype, but not a lot of truth to back it, it’s probably something that someone at one of these big lawn & garden companies learned at a Hopi Snake Dance, and it’s probably Faux Organic and just a batch of snake oil.

© Randy Ritchie 2020

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