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Once upon a time, there became a choice between conventional agriculture and organic farming. It was a choice to be made by both farmers and the consumers of their products. Today, there are more choices to be made, and the new choices about differing styles of organic farming were the subject of a recent webinar presented by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s virtual conference earlier this month.

Historically, one of the impetuses for organic agriculture came from the work of George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute. There, Carver explored solutions to the monocropping of cotton, which was ruining soils in the South. His answer to soil depletion involved composting and using systematic crop rotation to restore nitrogen to the soil naturally. Thus, organic farming isn’t a new-fangled idea, but one that dates back over 120 years.

Noted organic pioneer Eliot Coleman, of Four Seasons Farm in Maine, explained during the presentation that organic farming is all about using nature to return nutrients to the soil, which enables the necessary balance between the soil system and the water system. He called organic farming an adventure that involves humans and how to best use their planet’s resources for human survival.

The focus of the webinar then shifted to showing that the newest challenge to organic farming has become the adoption of practices that have not remained true to the regulations and/or the spirit and theories behind organic practices. One example given was the way huge confinement-style “organic dairies” are often unable to comply with the pastured grazing requirements for organic milk and are essentially large feedlots with insufficient access to grass for their dairy animals — a practice that would turn away many consumers seeking organic milk if they were aware of these conditions.

Since grazing has a big impact on milk quality and its free fatty acids, there is not always a significant difference between the milk produced by so-called organic factory-style farms and non-organic dairies. The result is that consumers are being misled into paying a premium for milk labeled as organic, but which might not meet some of the organic label’s important criteria.

Perhaps the biggest threat to true organic farming is an emerging controversy about whether hydroponically grown produce raised in greenhouses can be considered as organic. This discussion centers on Certified Organic rules that specifically mention soil and soil management, along with the belief that building healthy soils and growing healthy plants in that soil is foundational to organic farming.

From a production standpoint, hydroponic farms are relatively low-resourced and have been able to get around the requirement that organic soils must not have been exposed to herbicides or pesticides for at least three years. Thus, the traditional organic farmer faces a prolonged period of growing restorative cover crops before being able to gain organic certification.

Conversely, and ironically, a would-be organic hydroponic grower selects a tract of land, sprays down its vegetation with an herbicide, compacts and levels the soil and then covers it with plastic, atop which plant containers are placed and fed nutrients through tubes. It amounts to “instant organics” with no waiting period before implementing production, creating an uneven playing field. Furthermore, proponents of traditional organic farming believe hydroponics is bad for humans because soil becomes “dead” when nothing is growing on it and this, in turn, is not good for our planet’s climate.

Soil-based organic farmers are calling “foul” to hydroponic incursion into the organic produce landscape. They believe that hydroponic practices do not represent good stewardship of the land nor “clean” food.

Dave Chapman, owner of Long Wind Farm in Vermont and executive director of the Real Organic Project believes that the upsurge in hydroponics is changing the whole landscape of organics.

While Chapman states that hydroponics “might be a fine system,” he added, “It’s just not organic.”

He expressed frustration that hydroponics doesn’t build the soil, yet it is backed by powerful lobbyists pitching it to retailers, as well as to the USDA. The government’s position is that their organic rule nowhere states that hydroponics is disallowed, and so soil-less produce is permitted to be sold as organic.

Chapman and others note that a large part of their frustration is that there’s no way for a grocery shopper to tell which are traditional Certified Organic products and what has been hydroponically grown. Another concern is how to make consumers aware of the importance in differentiating between the two.

Traditional organic growers believe that hydroponics represents both unfair competition for them, as well as a fraud on consumers who think they’re preserving the environment and eating healthy when they buy, and pay more for, products designated as organic. With hydroponics’ lower production costs that can translate into lower consumer prices, Chapman fears for the future of traditional soil-grown organics businesses.

There are those who believe that the best way to confront this issue is to come up with a different, unique name for traditional soil-farmed organics. However, long-time organic farmers say they’ve worked too long and hard to achieve organics’ name recognition. After touting the multiple advantages of organic production methods, environmental assistance and health benefits, they are unwilling to allow another system of growing to pirate away their existing designation.

In an effort to raise the consciousness of consumers and “organic policymakers who don’t know what organic is anymore,” the Real Organic Project (ROP) was founded in 2018 to address these challenges. Gatherings of organic proponents bearing signs have popularized slogans such as “Get the Dirt on Crops,” “Don’t Water Down Organic” and “Keep the Soil in Organic” to make their position clear. Clearer still is ROP’s new certification and logo program designed to attract both soil-based farmers and consumers who want traditionally raised organic products. It is an “add-on” designation, meaning applicants for ROP’s certification program must already be Certified Organic growers.

ROP is pledged to a certification system which has integrity, transparency and is geared toward helping farmers improve the soil and the quality of their products. ROP’s view is that soil represents the history of the organic movement, but should be its future, as well, in order to have a positive effect on climate change, among other plusses. Thus far, ROP has certified 500 organic producers, who are now entitled to use the eye-catching bright blue and green Real Organics seal on their products to alert consumers to their high standards.

The ROP certification process is free and involves a one-hour inspection by ROP during the growing season. Further details and the 15-minute online certification application may be found at http://realorganicproject.org/apply.

The Real Organic Project also offers numerous informative videos at its website, including the five-part webinar series from their Real Organic Symposium held last month. Its topics include the ROP’s purpose; soil health; farming and climate; health and nutrition; and what organic proponents can do to advance their cause. “Tickets” to this online series are available through Feb. 28 and is free to active students and farmers, or available at a cost of $49.37 to others.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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