Read the previous article on this topic here: "Keep soil in organic: Farmers protest hydroponic certification," Oct. 29, 2015

Food grown hydroponically — without soil, in a controlled nutrient-rich solution: Is that organic?

Depends on whom you ask, and there are strong opinions on both sides.

Those opinions boiled over into a protest in Stowe late last month, as organic farmers and their allies urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture not to allow hydroponic foods to be defined as organic.

The farmers say soil is intrinsic to the organic food designation; hydroponic growers say that, as long as other standards are met, the presence of actual soil shouldn’t matter.

The National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory committee, meets twice a year to consider recommendations on organic agriculture procedures and policies. Its recommendations go to the National Organic Program, which administers standards for the USDA.

Pete Johnson, who runs a four-season organic vegetable farm in Craftsbury, organized the protest — complete with a podium made of soil — to show support for the board’s 2010 counsel that hydroponic crops should not be certified organic.

However, the National Organic Program did not implement the board’s recommendation, despite a 12-1 opposition vote.

Johnson said there’s always been a concern that, over time, powerful agricultural interests would dilute the integrity of the organic brand.

Now, he thinks it’s happening.

“Looking back at early USDA definitions, (organic) is all about soil … caring for the soil, caring for the land,” Johnson said.

“The old-time guys who figured this out didn’t think to add anything,” he said, and the soil element was “assumed as part of the principle of it.”

That has certainly been the Vermont way.

“The relationship with the soil is a really foundational part of organic farming,” said Maddie Monty, a policy adviser with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT).

Vermont Organic Farmers LLC, the certification branch of NOFA, certifies nearly all of the 600 or so organic farms in the state, and “doesn’t and has never supported hydroponic,” Monty said.

These distinctions are important because of major competitive and economic factors.

The hydroponic advantage

In today’s market, consumers can increasingly buy what they want whenever they want. They don’t worry about what’s in season. New growing technologies, advances in worldwide shipping, and comprehensive trade and import regulations allow near-constant access to popular fruits and vegetables in most areas of the country.

In hydroponic greenhouses, crops are grown in a neutral medium, such as coco coir (coconut husk fibers), peat moss, compost, or minerals such as perlite or vermiculite; or with exposed roots bathed in nutrient-rich solutions.

The plants’ water and nutrient needs are precisely measured, and greenhouses can be heated or cooled as necessary — little is left to Mother Nature.

There’s no question that hydroponic crops can be grown for less money and less effort than traditional organic crops. Seasons don’t necessarily factor into the controlled environment, and a higher and more consistent output per square foot is virtually guaranteed.

‘Unique model’

NatureSweet LTD grows more than 300 million pounds of vine-ripened tomatoes each year, employing nearly 6,000 people in all aspects of production, from planting to packing.

Its products appear in stores big and small, from urban Super Target and Whole Foods stores to the Shaw’s Supermarket in Waterbury.

“We do have the position that hydroponic produce can be and is just as organic as anything that’s grown in the soil,” said Mike Joergensen, vice president of marketing for NatureSweet. “We have gone through every step of certification.”

The company operates nearly 1,400 acres of greenhouses, most within five non-organic facilities in central Mexico, where tomato growing is “kind of like the Napa Valley and grapes,” Joergensen said.

Now the company owns two facilities in Arizona, both certified organic within the last year and a half by OregonTilth.

“It’s a very small part of the business currently … but we do see the consumer demand in the marketplace” for organic foods, Joergensen said.

“Local growers have their place,” Joergensen said, but “our consumers tell us they still want fresh tomatoes in February — where are those going to come from?”

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity in general for people who are growing things the right way,” Joergensen said. “Within the marketplace, there’s plenty of room for both.”

What’s the beef?

“Small farms growing authentic organic food in soil are competing against very large hydroponic organizations,” said Dave Chapman, farmer and proprietor of Long Wind Farm in East Thetford.

Spanning nearly 2 acres — just over 87,000 square feet — Chapman’s greenhouse complex is large by Vermont standards. Comparatively, NatureSweet’s greenhouses average about 2.5 acres, and the company owns nearly 600 of them.

Chapman cited an even larger company that’s building a 50-plus-acre hydroponic greenhouse in Texas — “it’s going to need its own speed limit,” he said.

Large producers with hyper-efficient, year-round facilities can “really crowd out our domestic organic producers,” Monty said.

Additionally, U.S. law allows produce grown in countries — including Canada, Mexico and Holland, where hydroponic crops cannot be labeled as certified organic — to attain certification if USDA regulations are met.

“It’s like a magic wand — they cross the border and suddenly become organic,” Chapman said.

Chapman sees a bleak future if massive growing operations can win the organic designation.

“If small organic producers have any interest in wholesaling their crop, it’s going to become very difficult, if not impossible,” he said. “In five years, or perhaps sooner, there will be almost no soil-grown tomatoes or peppers in supermarket chains in most of the country.”

Moving forward

The farmers hope the Stowe protest pays dividends.

Chapman hopes the National Organic Program and USDA will listen to the traditional organic farming community and reconsider the recommendation on hydroponics.

The National Organic Standards Board is a “conservative, moderate group with number of representatives of agribusiness,” Chapman said. “These are not wild people.”

With nearly 600 organic farms, and solid support statewide for family-run and small businesses, “places like Vermont do show the art of the possible,” Chapman said.

“A lot of us work day in and day out to produce food that’s labeled this way,” Johnson said. “Five, 10, 15 years down the road, we want that label to mean something.”

Managing editor

Managing Editor, Stowe Reporter • Waterbury Record • News & Citizen • Stowe/Green Mountain Weddings • (802) 253-2101 x11 •

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