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What's In A Label? Hydroponic And Soil-Based Farmers Differ On Meaning Of 'Organic'

A rally in Thetford two years ago criticized the USDA's move to allow vegetables raised hydroponically to be labeled as "organic."
Rebecca Sananes
VPR File
At a rally in Thetford earlier this month, farmers, lawmakers and advocates protest the potential inclusion of hydroponically-grown food among foods that can be labeled "organic."

This week, the National Organics Standards Board plans to decide if hydroponically-grown foods, which use a water-based model of cultivation, can be sold under the label “certified organic."

But some organic farmers and advocates are objecting to the change, saying the label should be rooted in soil-based growing.

Audio for this story will be posted.

On a gray afternoon in Thetford, at the end of the harvest season, farmers and advocates rally holding signs that say "soil is the soul of organic."

Eliot Coleman is one of the farmers. His peers call him an "elder of the organic movement." The calluses on his hands are stained with soil.

Coleman is hoping the National Organic Standards Board will vote to keep hydroponically-grown food from earning an organic label.

“As far as we're concerned, if it’s not grown in soil with all the wonderful features soil puts into the plants, it’s not organic,” he said, casually leaning on a tractor.

Coleman thinks that the central principle in growing organic produce is that the farmer feeds the soil, not the plant.

Part of the legal qualification of organic farming — and in Coleman's opinion, the label consumers have come to trust — is about healthfulness and stewardship of the land.

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
Protesters in Thetford hold signs and wear brown arm bands, a symbol of their solidarity with keeping the label "organic" rooted in soil.

But Mark Mordasky, who owns Whipple Hollow Hydroponic Farm in Florence, says a sustainable model is important to him too.

“We're in a greenhouse. We're not doing anything with the land, good or bad,” he said. “We're not irresponsibly using land, we're simply choosing not to use land at all. Does that make us not organic?”

The greenhouse looks like it could have been designed by Steve Jobs, sleek and clean, with rows upon rows of identical tomato plants stabilized in organic coconut fibers.

These plants are fed liquid fertilizers, which could be made from organic materials — but Vermont organic certifiers bar Mordasky from labeling his produce as organic.

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
At Whipple Hollow Hydroponic Farm in the town of Florence, tomatoes are grown without soil in a greenhouse all year long. They are fed special liquid fertilizers that replace the nutrients normally found in soil (pictured bottom right).

Mordasky thinks that on a planet with fewer places to grow food and more mouths to feed, it's worth accepting different growth methods under the organic label.

“If we had all of our nutrients organic," he argues, "all of our pesticides and herbicides, whatever we're doing to control disease, we're organic, and the medium itself that the roots are growing in is also organic, all the inputs are organic. The outcome, it seems to me, would be organic."

Credit Rebecca Sananes / VPR
Rebecca Ruplin, one of the growers at Whipple Hollow Hydroponic Farm, shows the roots of lettuce being grown hydroponically. They are stabled in an organic coconut fiber, which does not provide any added nutrients to the plant.

But Mark Kastel, a senior policy adviser at the Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit that investigates agricultural and farm issues, says most hydroponically-grown food is not coming from small start-ups in Vermont. In fact, it's not coming from the United States at all.

“The vast preponderance of market participation is from giant multinational corporations that have acres and acres under glass or in sealed industrial buildings in the United States, in Mexico, in Holland and some in Canada,” Kastel says. “They are importing product into the United States labeled as organic that cannot be sold as organic in their own countries.”

Kastel says the legislation passed in Congress regarding organic certification already stipulates that it is a soil-based growth method. The Cornucopia Institute has filed legal complaints against large organic certifiers CCOF and Quality Assurance International.

"This is basically telling the bank robbers that we're going to legalize what you've already done and we won't put you in jail." — Mark Kastel, Cornucopia Institute senior policy adviser

According to Kastel, these large certifiers have been illegally certifying hydroponic foods as organic.

“There are somewhere in the range of 150 or more hydroponic operations certified as organic, in the U.S. and internationally, shipping product in the U.S. market that are ‘organic,’” he said. “So this is basically telling the bank robbers that we’re going to legalize what you’ve already done and we won’t put you in jail.”

The National Organics Standards Board plans to vote this week. The decision at stake for the $40-billion-a-year industry will have impacts that reach from small Vermont farms to global corporations.

But both hydroponic producers and soil-growing advocates will be parsing lucrative labels into the future.

Update 4:18 p.m. 11/18/16: The National Organic Standards Board is sending the question of whether to include hydroponic produce in organic labeling back to committee.

A subcommittee will further research the issue of whether selling certified organic produce means the food has been grown in soil.

David Chapman owns Longwind farm in Thetford. He served on the USDA task force that studied the question.

He is against hydroponics being considered organic and thinks the lack of a decision will green light more hydroponic corporations to take on the organic certification.

“I think it means that the National Organic Program is going to be so compromised, it probably will never get fixed” he said. “Organic farmers are going to have to consider whether the federal organic label serves them anymore.” 

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