Linley Dixon, Ph.D., a vegetable farmer and soil scientist with the food and farm watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute, wrote an article in the spring of 2015 about hydroponics, the technology of growing tomatoes, strawberries, and other plant-based foods without soil.
Dixon’s primary question was this: Can hydroponics be organic?
“Hydroponic production is not mentioned in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990,” she wrote on the Cornucopia website, “however, in 2010 the National Organic Standards Board formally recommended that hydroponic systems be prohibited from obtaining organic certification.”
Dixon went on: “In direct contradiction to the Board’s recommendations, the USDA’s National Organic Program has sided with industry lobbyists pronouncing that hydroponics is allowed. And, despite the objections of many organic stakeholders, some accredited certifying agents are certifying hydroponic operations.”
What does this mean? Hydroponic foods are being called organic, and many people don’t think it’s a good idea.
The heart of the matter is dirt. In hydroponic systems, plant roots grow in nutrient solutions—mainly water and dissolved fertilizers—rather than in soil. Many farmers and fans of organic agriculture believe organic foods must be soil-grown.
“Fertile soil is the most important factor in organic growing because of all its known and yet to be discovered benefits on the nutritional quality of crops,” Eliot Coleman, an organic farmer and author, wrote for Civil Eats. “Hydroponic growing removes the crucial soil factor and replaces it with soluble nutrient solutions that can in no way duplicate the complex benefits of soil.”
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is an advisory group that makes recommendations to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture on organic products. The NOSB will decide this November whether to keep the soil in organic, and organic farmers and eaters in northern New England will gather in Vermont in October to rally in support of soil-grown organic foods.
Rally in the Valley
The Rally in the Valley will be held at noon on Sunday, Oct. 30, at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vermont.
“The organic community will come together to make our voices heard by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB),” organizers wrote in a statement on the Rally in the Valley website.
The rally will feature a tractor cavalcade, speeches, music, and food from the Skinny Pancake restaurant. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy will attend the event, and will be honored for his years of work on the National Organic Program. Coleman will also attend to speak about the explosion of hydroponic fruits and vegetables sold to American consumers under an organic designation.
Hydroponic trade groups are lobbying to sway or block the NOSB vote. Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA), an organization of organic farmers and supporters, will make a short film about Rally in the Valley to present as testimony during the fall NOSB meeting in St. Louis.
Senator Leahy, Congressman Peter Welch, and Senator Bernie Sanders have all supported NOFA’s position to keep the soil in organic, writing public letters to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The Vermont Congressional delegation, along with 40 international organizations and more than a thousand organic farmers and supporters, have also submitted petitions calling for a moratorium on all new hydroponic certification until the problem is solved.
According to a statement on the Long Wind Farm website, the issue is crucial in maintaining the integrity of organic standards. Long Wind Farm is an East Thetford, Vermont, organic tomato farm and long-time supplier to the Co-op.
“This hydroponic invasion is rapidly pushing aside soil growing as the ‘organic’ norm in a number of vegetable and berry crops,” said the statement. “As their corporate influence grows, it is becoming ever more difficult to return the organic label to it’s original meaning.”
To learn more about Rally in the Valley, visit the website.
Rally in the Valley Participants
Eliot Coleman—4 Seasons Farm
Enid Wonnacott—NOFA Vermont
Kate Duesterberg & Will Allen—Cedar Circle Farm
Roger Noonan—Middle Branch Farm
David Zuckerman & Rachel Nevitt—Full Moon Farm
Nicole Dehne—Vermont Organic Farmers
Jake Guest—Killdeer Farm
Paul Harlow—Harlow Farm
Anne and Jack Lazor—Butterworks Farm
Pete Johnson—Pete’s Greens
Jack Manix—Walker Farm
Howie Prussack—High Meadows Farm
Mike Collins—New Athens Farm
Maddie Monty—NOFA Vermont
Greg Stevens—NOFA Vermont
Kim Mercer—NOFA Vermont
Karl Hammer—Vermont Compost
Steven Wisbaum—Champlain Valley Compost
Russell Pocock—Ferme Sanders
Ben Uris—Foster Farm Botanicals
Andre Cantelmo—Heron Pond Farm
Justin Rich—Burnt Rock Farm
Bruce Kaufman—Riverside Farm
Norah Lake, Chris Polashenski, & Lauren Stevens—Sweetland Farm
Davey Miskell—Miskell’s Premium Organics
Dave Chapman & Claudia Henrion—Long Wind Farm
Liz Henderson—NOFA NY
Andrew Knafel—Clear Brook Farm
Steve Gilman—NOFA Interstate Cßouncil
Tom Beddard—Lady Moon Farms
Jon Satz—Wood’s Market Garden
Deo Honigford—Hurricane Flats Farm
Danielle Allen & Ben Dana—Root 5 Farm
Christa Alexander & Mark Fasching—Jericho Settlers Farm
Greg Georgaklis—Farmers To You
Mike Brownback—Spiral Path Farm
Adrianna Natsoulas—NOFA NY
Tim Sanford & Suzanne Long—Luna Bleu Farm
David Marchant a& Jane Sorensen—River Berry Farm