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The Meaning of Organic

Lieutenant governor and organic farmer Dave Zuckerman at the Rally in the Valley; photo by Pamela Hunt
Lieutenant governor and organic farmer Dave Zuckerman at the Rally in the Valley

Written By

Pamela Hunt

Written on

February 22 , 2017

The produce section of any grocery story offers an array of choices, from mass-produced potatoes to locally grown greens, and many items sport labels indicating the conditions under which those foods were grown. Some labels, such as “humanely raised” or even “local,” don’t have to adhere to defined standards, but one label—“certified organic”—is supposed to. Federal regulations govern what organic means and what a producer must do to earn organic certification.

However, not everyone agrees that the certified organic label should be found on fruits and vegetables grown in soil-less hydroponic systems. In 2010, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), which makes recommendations to the National Organic Program (NOP), advised that hydroponically raised produce should not be certified organic. But because the NOP, which adminsters the organic standards, hasn’t acted on this recommendation, some certifying agencies around the country have gone ahead and allowed hydroponic growers to use the organic label. At the request of soil-based organic farmers, the NOSB took up the issue again last year, and some Vermonters have become deeply involved in the debate.

Although many variations of hydroponic agriculture exist, all involve growing crops in a soil-less environment, with nutrition delivered through water on a substrate of coconut coir, rockwool, or perlite. Proponents of hydroponics—and its cousin method, aquaponics, which throws fish into the mix—tout its efficient use of water, a major benefit in many places in the world. Pests are minimal, and producers don’t have to deal with weeds. Plus, these systems can be installed where traditional agriculture is not possible or economically feasible, such as on the roofs of city buildings, in deserts, and on rocky, infertile soil.

Many people select organic produce because it’s produced without dangerous chemicals. But according to Nicole Dehne, certification director at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), “It’s a much broader scope than just the absence of chemicals. The national standards require that producers maintain or improve soil fertility and increase and maintain biodiversity on their farms.” Although she said NOFA-VT sees a place in agriculture for hydroponic growing, it doesn’t support organic certification for soil-less growers, even those who don’t use chemicals. These growers shouldn’t earn the organic label because “they’re missing the whole-farm picture. The organic label is not the right fit for them.”

A Petition to Keep the Soil in Organic

NOFA-VT isn’t alone in its opposition to hydroponically grown foods earning organic certification. To drum up support and raise awareness of this debate, David Chapman of Long Wind Farm in Thetford and David Miskell of Miskell’s Premier Organics in Charlotte created the Keep the Soil in Organic petition, which they delivered to the NOSB. Chapman was also a member of the task force created in September 2015 to study organic labeling of hydroponics and to offer a report to the NOSB. The task force report, submitted in July of last year, recommended that organic certification be reserved for produce grown in the ground, a practice that aligns with the common standard for organic certification in Europe.

On a misty day in late October of last year, a little more than a week before the NOSB was to discuss the task force’s recommendations, Chapman, Miskell, and other farmers, along with politicians and nonprofits, held the “Rally in the Valley” to unify farmers and eaters in support of the petition to keep hydroponics out of organic certification.

Marchers and a group of 26 tractors paraded the half-mile from Chapman’s farm to Cedar Circle Farm, where a crowd of supporters awaited. Politicians joined local farmers at the podium and implored the crowd to join the fight to maintain the integrity of the organic label. Many of these people, from Senator Patrick Leahy, who helped craft the original organic farm bill, to Eliot Coleman of Maine, considered one of the “elder statesmen” of organic farming, to Jake Guest, of Killdeer Farm in nearby Norwich, have spent years if not decades defining what organic means. And the most important part of an organic system, according to these speakers, is the soil.

Some voices were hopeful. “The hydroponic industry underestimates the strength of organic farmers,” said Coleman. “We refuse to let organic lose to profiteers.” Others expressed concern over what they feel is the potential weakening of the organic label. “We’ve got to speak up,” said Chapman, “or we’re going to lose organic.”  Will Allen, owner of Cedar Circle Farm, explained, “I’m not against hydroponics, but I am against freeloading, and that’s what this is. They’re taking advantage and using a label that wasn’t earned.”

Not All Soil-Less Growers Seek Certification

But not all hydroponic growers are seeking organic certification. Green Mountain Harvest Hydroponics in Waitsfield grows a variety of greens, from watercress to salad mixes to baby kale. The owners of this three-year-old hydroponic farm, David Hartshorn and brothers John and Ted Farr, are doubling the size of their quarter-acre greenhouse and working to become more energy efficient through solar power, LED lighting targeted precisely where it’s needed, and a wood-fired furnace that uses scraps from the Farr family’s tree business.

As a soil-based organic farmer himself, as well as a hydroponic one, Hartshorn understands the philosophy behind the organic label. But for him, the benefits of hydroponics negate the need for certification. Nutrients and water cycle throughout the system in an almost perfect efficiency. “A wheelbarrow of rock fertilizer lasts six months and doesn’t get washed away every time it rains,” he says. His yield per acre is greater than from his organic farm. And because the plants are protected from the climate, he can grow and employ workers year-round, which in turn helps his community.

Farther north, in Bakersfield, Shawn Robinson of Finn & Roots aquaponics farm echoes Hartshorn’s commitment to environmentally friendly and energy-efficient agriculture. In describing the solar-powered “Eco-Ark” that houses Finn & Roots’s plants and tilapia, Robinson emphasizes that for him, the most important aspect of being sustainable is efficiency. “Growing more food on a smaller footprint means that the amount of food grown per BTU of heat and lumen of light can be greater with hydroponics and aquaponics,” he says. “Basically, this type of growing is like a car getting more miles per gallon, which soil farmers may view as an unfair advantage.”

But as for organic certification, Robinson says it’s not something he and his wife and business partner, Elizabeth, want. “We would rather people learn about how we grow and make an informed food and health decision,” he says.

However, these two soil-less Vermont farms aren’t typical of the mammoth industrial operations that the Keep the Soil in Organic petition opposes. Whereas both Green Mountain Harvest Hydroponics and Finn & Roots offer products that are clearly labeled as hydroponically and aquaponically grown, that’s not always the case. “Most of the organic tomatoes in the supermarket are hydroponic. They don’t have to label it in any way, so you can’t tell if it’s hydroponic or not. The people in the store don’t know. It’s a secret.”

Muddying the waters a bit is that some of the large growers, such as Driscoll’s, now describe their farming methods as “container growing,” not hydroponics. In 2010, the NOSB recommended that organic production should take place in soil, but that recommendation was unclear to many people. “I talked to people on the board who said they meant that it should be grown in the ground,” he says, “and I’ve talked to others who said, no, we meant that containers should be permitted if they’re based on a fertile soil,” even if that soil is coco coir or peat moss.

Chapman sees the popularity of the organic label among consumers as part of the reason why many hydroponic growers want to become certified organic. “There’s now a market,” he says, “and as a result, there’s money to be made. And the big guys look at that and think, how can we possibly make it so we can call ourselves organic?

Why Soil?

What makes soil so important to the organic movement? That’s a question Chapman asks himself frequently. He says a healthy, fertile plot of land supports crops that contain complete nutrition that he doesn’t believe hydroponics can replicate. “They can make big tomatoes and peppers, but I don’t believe they can get all the nutrients that should be in our food in the correct balance, down to the very tiny parts per million. I don’t think anybody has the wisdom to get that right, whereas the mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria in the soil do get that right because that’s how it evolved over a long period of time.”

Growing food organically can also help restore the ability of soil to sequester carbon. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, regenerative agricultural practices, such as organic farming, can help to reduce atmospheric CO2 while increasing soil productivity and resilience to flooding and drought. Chapman believes that when hydroponic growers tout their products as a solution to desertification of arid farmland, they are addressing a symptom, not solving the root problem. “The real recycling of water is what happens in fertile soil with plants growing on it,” he says.

At the November NOSB meeting, the task force’s report, which recommended against organic certification for hydroponic growers, was on the agenda, but the board ran out of time to discuss it. It sent the issue to the Crop Subcommittee and tasked that group with writing a proposal to be voted on at the April 2017 NOSB meeting.

“It’s unheard of for a proposal from a subcommittee to be voted down,” says Chapman, “but this is a different issue because there is so much money involved. Organic agriculture is at a fork in the road. This is a time when things are going to go one way or the other in organic farming, in terms of what we call organic.”

About the Author

Pamela Hunt

Pamela Hunt

Pamela Hunt lives in South Burlington with her husband and two dogs and writes about travel, food, and general Vermont goings-on. Follow her website.

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