The Rally in the Valley
"Organic without soil is like democracy without people."
Over 250 people came together on a cool overcast day at the end of October to protest the eroding USDA standards for organic certification. The issue was the certification of soilless growing as organic. The hydroponic invasion started as a tiny exception here and there years ago, Now it has become the dominant form of production for certified "organic" tomatoes and berries in the US. What began as a minor trickle has become a major flood, as the hydroponic greenhouse producers of the world have discovered that the USDA will allow them entry into the coveted organic market. By changing the fertilizer brew in their mixing tanks to "natural" (but highly processed) soluble fertilizers, and then switching to "approved" pesticides, the hydroponic producers can miraculously become "organic" overnight.
The Rally in the Valley began at Long Wind Farm as a large group of marchers led a cavalcade of 26 tractors on a short trip through East Thetford to Cedar Circle Farm. The marchers included over 100 organic farmers from Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania. There were conventional farmers as well who shared the belief that all good farming begins with the soil. The marchers carried signs calling on the USDA to do its job and protect the organic standards. The tractors were festooned with signs that said, "Keep the Soil in Organic." There was singing and laughter as the procession made it's way to a field behind the Cedar Circle farm stand.
In a field behind the farm stand, a farm wagon was set up as a speaker's platform. Enid Wonnacott, the Executive Director of NOFA VT welcomed everybody and introduced Patrick Leahy, the US Senator from Vermont who co-sponsored the bill that created the National Organic Program. It is the NOP that sets the standards for organic certification in America.
Senator Leahy, a long time champion of the organic farming movement, challenged the crowd to keep the pressure on the Department of Agriculture. “ Nothing against hydroponic farming, but I know the fight I had to go through to get the original organic regulations passed,” he said. “The Organic Food Production Act is one of my proudest pieces of legislation. Every so often someone will try to undercut it. We know what grown in the soil means, and we know what hydroponic means. I want ‘organic’ to mean organic! ” The crowd cheered Leahy as he continued, "We have to redouble our effort. When I am on the phone with the Secretary tomorrow, I can say that I was here, and I saw my fellow Vermonters. Do you agree that we should keep "organic" organic?" to which there was much shouting in agreement. "So when I call tomorrow, I want to be able to say, 'They said let "organic" stay organic. We know what grown in the soil means, we know what naturally grown means, and we know what hydroponic is. Nothing against hydroponic, but let's keep "organic" organic. And as long as I'm there, I will fight to do that. It's not a Democrat or Republican issue. It's the RIGHT issue."
“I’m not against hydroponic, but I am against freeloading,” said Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), standing on the farm wagon perched behind a pile of rich compost. Welch was one of several elected officials and organic farming leaders who addressed the crowd of roughly 250 farmers, food advocates, and Vermont residents. “This is a big deal. We're talking here about hydroponic. If you do it in Holland, or you do it in Japan, or you do it in Canada, they've got laws. In all of the European Union they've got laws that say, 'Sure you can do hydroponic. But if you want to call it organic, export it to the US. They're suckers." Welch insisted, "I'm not against hydroponic. None of us are. But I am against freeloading and freeriding. And that is essentially what has happened. There has been a movement that began years ago that is being sustained by farmers who have a commitment to how they treat the soil, the way they produce their crops, and the way they deliver their food. It's organic food. And there is this whole exhaustive, comprehensive way of farming that renounces a lot of the things that we know are doing damage to this planet. Organic products are what people want."
"But you’ve got folks out there, including Big Ag, who want a free ride,” Welch said. “They want to get the benefit of the hard work that organic farmers do and take some of that market share with a label that wasn’t earned. Now we're seeing that with this hydroponic definition that only the US allows."
"So this is not so much about complaining about hydroponics. This is about reasserting the absolutely important value of what REAL organic means. What it means to our health, what it means to our soil, and what it means to our future."
The US government is alone among developed countries in granting the much-desired “organic” label to hydroponic growing. Hydroponic production is a soil-less process that has long been the norm in conventional greenhouse production. Now it is fast becoming the norm in organic certification for several major crops, such as tomatoes and berries. Hydro plants are fed via fertilized irrigation water. This process has long been embraced by conventional greenhouse producers for its simplicity, high yields, and low costs. Experts say the explosive growth in hydroponic imports may force some organic farmers out of business in as little as five years.
Vermonter Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer who served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, told the crowd that the hydroponic incursion has become an “invasion,” as more and more hydroponic producers from around the world discover that they can now gain access to America’s coveted organic market.
Peppers from Dutch greenhouses that could never be certified as organic in Holland become “organic” when they cross the border, both Welch and Chapman explained. Hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes from Mexico and Canada are now pouring into the US. Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry grower, now has over 1000 acres of hydroponic berry production.
“The Federal standards are being taken over by the hydroponics industry,” said Chapman, who noted that Driscoll’s is now one of the most powerful voices on the National Organic Program. “Unless we can fight back, ‘organic’ will soon become meaningless. This hydroponic invasion has been almost invisible to the farmers and eaters of America, as no hydroponic food is labeled as such. The more that I learned serving on the USDA Task Force, the worse it got. Who knew that over 1000 acres of Driscoll’s “organic” berries were actually hydroponic? None of us knew.”
In 1980, USDA Secretary Robert Bergland initiated a study, Report and Recommendations On Organic Farming, which stated: “Soil is the source of life. Soil quality and balance are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Healthy plants, animals and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”
“Organic has always meant grown in the soil,” Eliot Coleman, an influential author and spokesman for the organic farming movement in the U.S., told the crowd. “We refuse to let the promise of organic agriculture be compromised by profiteers. We have won before and we will win again.”
Organic farming has grown from a small, niche market to a booming, $40-billon industry that “has been great for our rural economy, and we don’t anything interfering with that,” U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) told rally-goers. “It is our job to make sure we preserve that brand.” Pingree, who runs an organic farm in New Haven, Maine, warned farmers what they’re up against: “There are 1200 lobbyists on the hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry. They spend $350 million dollars a year on forming opinions in Washington, and that is more than the defense industry.”
“So don’t underestimate their power,” she added. “They would be very happy to have a lot of variations on ‘organic’ to water down this brand, and the consumer will be completely confused. “
Agrarian Elder Jake Guest looked back on his many years as an organic vegetable farmer. He recalled composing the first NOFA organic standards by the light of a kerosene lamp many years ago. As he wrote those standards, he was surrounded by the books written by earlier organic pioneers such as Albert Howard, Eve Balfour, Rodale, and Albrecht. “They all wrote about soil as the basis for organic farming. We have a right to the word organic. This hydroponic bullshit is a perversion.
“We’ve come to call the materials we can use in organic production as ‘amendments’, which according to Webster means ‘materials that aid plant growth indirectly by improving the condition of the soil.’ It is such a bizarre concept that you can take what we call ‘amendments’ and make it the whole system.”
Renewing the soil without pesticides or chemical fertilizers is also one of the few solutions to global warning, noted Will Allen, owner of Cedar Circle Farm and author of 2008 anti-pesticide manifesto, The War on Bugs. (Allen recently received an award from Politico for his organizing work on GMO labeling.) “Regeneration is trying to take emissions that have already been produced and put them back in the soil. Our soils are our single biggest sink for carbon so that we can actually fix climate change by taking all those greenhouse gasses and putting them back in our soils, and we know we can do that with organic farming.
“We can be the solution to climate change,” Allen said. “How are we going to sequester carbon in water? Hydroponics is going backwards.”
Organic farmer David Zuckerman is Lieutenant Governor-elect of Vermont. ““What happens in our soil is the combined ecosystem that makes our food possible,” he said. “Organic without soil is like democracy without people.”
The final speaker was Tom Beddard from Lady Moon Farms of Pennsylvania. He said, “For us, to be a certified organic farmer begins and ends with how we care for the soil. The soil truly is the soul of organic farming, and this a sentiment shared by the vast majority of organic farmers worldwide.
“It has been said that no one in the stores can tell the difference between hydroponic and soil grown. But it’s easy. Just taste it!”
Soil vs. Water debate
The National Organic Program is the branch of the USDA that sets the standards. It has struggled with controversy in recent years as Big Ag makes its presence felt in organic agriculture. In meat, milk, and eggs, the Federal organic standards have been attacked by the organic community on their laxness on animal welfare. Large “certified organic” egg operations often lock chickens into desolate warehouses for their entire lives. Many large “certified organic” dairies deny cows access to pasture, and require milking three times daily.
In recent years, hydroponic facilities have found a way to obtain organic certification, despite growing in a way that defies the essence of organic farming: “Feed the soil, not the plant.” That motto captures the philosophical difference between conventional agriculture, which focuses on supplying the needs of the plant, versus organic farming, which focuses on supplying the needs of the soil.
Organic farmers believe that a healthy soil community, with myriad species of large and small organisms, and a blend of mineral and organic materials, provides plants with what they need for true health. In an organic system, plants are not passive consumers of fertilizers, but are dynamic energy sources that, through photosynthesis, provide food for the many soil organisms that in turn feed the plants.
The hydroponic invasion into “organic” fruits and vegetables
Most hydroponic production facilities in the U.S. were started after the 2010
recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board (the advisory board to the USDA) that called for excluding all hydroponics from the organic label.
And yet, since that 2010 recommendation, the USDA has welcomed all hydroponic production into the organic certification program, going so far as to issue a clarifying statement in 2014 that hydroponic production qualifies as organic if the companies use “permitted” fertilizers.
Opposition to that decision has been building steadily in the past few years, as organic farmers and consumers have gradually discovered what is happening. In 2016, a letter calling for a moratorium on granting the organic label to all new hydroponic production was signed by 45 organizations, such as NOFA, Beyond Pesticides, Center For Food Safety, Organic Consumers Association, Food Democracy Now!, Soil Association and Cornucopia Institute. These organizations represent over 2 million members. Beyond that, U.S. senators Patrick Leahy, and Bernie Sanders, along with Congressman Peter Welch, have called for a moratorium on new hydroponic certification. The USDA has declined all these requests for action.
New federal decisions around the corner
On November 16, the National Organic Standards Board will once again consider a proposal to prohibit organic certification to hydroponic producers. The hydroponics industry is attempting to prevent the proposal from coming to a vote of the full Board. Whichever way the Board votes, it is likely that it will be a long struggle before the USDA will actually prohibit hydroponics.
And so the struggle of Vermont’s organic farmers will continue.