Organic farmers rallied in East Thetford, VT, on Sunday, October 30, to protest the eroding organic standards of the USDA—particularly the fed-eral government’s decision to permit labeling of hydroponic fruits and vegetables as “organic.”
U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy challenged the crowd to keep the pressure on the Department of Agriculture. Leahy was one of several elected officials and organic farming leaders who addressed the crowd gathered in support of strict labeling for organic products. “I know the fight we 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. We know what grown in the soil means, and we know what hydroponic means. I want ‘organic’ to mean organic! ”
“I’m not against hydroponic, but I am against freeloading,” said Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT), standing on a farm wagon. “You’ve got folks, 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.”
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.”
The US government is alone among developed countries in granting the much-desired “organic” label to hydroponic growers. Hydroponic pro-duction is a soil-less process that has long been the norm in conventional greenhouse production. Now it is fast becoming the norm in U. S. organic certification for several major crops, such as tomatoes and berries. Hydro plants are fed via fertilized irrigation water. Experts say the explosive growth in hydroponic imports may force some organic farmers out of business in as little as five years.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
Rally in the Valley
Men and women farmers, many wearing hand-knitted wool hats and work gloves against the chilly weather, came from as far away as Maine, Pennsylva-nia, and New York. The Rally in the Valley began at noon Sunday with a 26-tractor cavalcade that started at Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, VT, and rolled slowly to nearby Cedar Circle Farm. “Keep the Soil in Organic” and “Take Back Organic” were among the hand-made signs that marchers carried as they sang to onlookers. Twelve-foot-tall puppets made by Vermont’s Bread and Puppet Circus, depicting the sun and the moon, led the way.
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.
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.