NOP Struggles with Question of Organic Hydroponics

Certified organic hydroponic facility in Montreal

Certified organic hydroponic facility in Montreal

For years the National Organic Program (NOP) has debated the proper role of hydroponics in organic certification. The current status, which satisfies no one, is that a hydroponic operation is allowed to be certified if a local certification program determines that it is meeting all the provisions of the foundational Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA).

With major companies like Mexico’s Wholesum Harvest (tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, peppers) and Driscoll’s (berries) entering the market, however, economic pressures have intensified. Soil based organic growers are challenging the soilless growing basis of hydroponics. It may be a fine way to produce food, they say, but it is not organic. Organic growing requires soil.

Is this true?

As individuals, many of us have our own point of view on this topic based on learning and experience. But answering this question where it counts, at the level of the USDA and the NOP, calls upon skills that must have been handy in settling some of the early church debates about the nature of God. It ends up requiring a very careful reading of original texts, a thoughtful analysis of past canonical decisions, and mustering a significant majority of votes at key gatherings.

In the last couple of years many small organic growers, whose markets are being taken over by hydroponic competition, have pressed the NOP to disqualify soilless organic operations. They have called rallies and demonstrations, sponsored petitions and press releases, and lobbied groups for support. To back up their positions both sides of the debate have been busy.

The wording of the OFPA has been scrutinized, various historical decisions of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) have been compared, a special Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force has been appointed and has reported, a recent meeting of the NOSB was tasked with deciding the question but couldn’t, the topic has become an example, in Congressional testimony at the Senate Agriculture Committee, of the need for “reforming” (weakening) organic program restrictions, and now a decision is on the docket for the fall 2017 Jacksonville meeting of the NOSB.

This issue of The Natural Farmer is designed to help you, dear reader, fully understand the question. To do so we cite the wording of key documents, relevant early decisions, and contemporary opinions. We also explain the long history of water based growing, explain the various hydroponic systems currently in use, and interview individuals active in running and certifying “organic” soilless production. We have made an effort to present both sides as transparently as we can, and given them roughly equal time. We hope this is helpful to you and urge you to make your feelings known about this topic.

Like genetic engineering, sludge, and irradiation, hydroponics is a controversial method in the organic movement. All stakeholders should weigh and consider the various points of view and participate in a decision that it is either not allowed, or if allowed, in exactly what ways. It should not be left up to individual certification programs. That just invites “certifier shopping” and a continual strain on program integrity.

The History of Hydroponics

Chinampas - the floating gardens of Mexico

Chinampas – the floating gardens of Mexico

Hydroponics, the growing of plants without soil, has a long history, from growing in very ancient civilizations to modern food production in harsh environments or raising high value products in controlled situations.

Of course hydroponics preceded soil growing in the sense that plants evolved in the oceans, the first soilless growing nutrient medium. But as a farming system, many believe it started in the ancient city of Babylon with its famous hanging gardens, which are listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Many gardening writers have suggested that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were in fact an elaborate hydroponics system, into which fresh water rich in oxygen and nutrients was regularly pumped.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

Detailed descriptions of the Gardens come from ancient Greek sources, including the writings of Strabo and Philo of Byzantium. Here are some excerpts from their accounts:

“The Hanging Garden has plants cultivated above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. The whole mass is supported on stone columns… Streams of water emerging from elevated sources flow down sloping channels… These waters irrigate the whole garden saturating the roots of plants and keeping the whole area moist. Hence the grass is permanently green and the leaves of trees grow firmly attached to supple branches… This is a work of art of royal luxury and its most striking feature is that the labor of cultivation is suspended above the heads of the spectators”.

More recent archaeological excavations at the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq uncovered the foundation of the palace. Other findings include the Vaulted Building with thick walls and an irrigation well near the southern palace. A group of archaeologists surveyed the area of the southern palace and reconstructed the Vaulted Building as the Hanging Gardens. However, the Greek historian Strabo had stated that the gardens were situated by the River Euphrates. So others argue that the site is too far from the Euphrates to support the theory since the Vaulted Building is several hundreds of meters away. They reconstructed the site of the palace and located the Gardens in the area stretching from the River to the Palace. On the river banks, recently discovered massive walls 25 m thick may have been stepped to form terraces, the ones described in Greek references.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic records dating back to several hundred years BC describe the growing of plants in water along the Nile without soil. There are also reports that the Roman Emperor Tiberius grew the cucumbers he craved out of season via water culture. A primitive form of hydroponics has also been carried on in Kashmir for centuries.

Chinampas in Lake Tenochtitlan

The floating gardens of the Aztecs of Central America are another example. A nomadic tribe, they were driven onto the marshy shore of Lake Tenochtitlan, located in the great central valley of what is now Mexico. Roughly treated by their more powerful neighbors, denied any arable land, the Aztecs survived by exercising remarkable powers of invention. Since they had no land on which to grow crops, they determined to manufacture it from the materials at hand.

In what must have been a long process of trial and error, they learned how to build rafts of rushes and reeds, lashing the stalks together with tough roots. Then they dredged up soil from the shallow bottom of the lake, piling it on the rafts. Because the soil came from the lake bottom, it was rich in a variety of organic debris, decomposing material that released large amounts of nutrients. These rafts, called Chinampas, had abundant crops of vegetables, flowers, and even trees planted on them. The roots of these plants, pushing down towards a source of water, would grow though the floor of the raft and down into the water.
These rafts, which never sank, were sometimes joined together to form floating islands as much as two hundred feet long. Some Chinampas even had a hut for a resident gardener. On market days, the gardener might pole his raft close to a market place, picking and handing over vegetables or flowers as shoppers purchased them.

By force of arms, the Aztecs defeated and conquered the peoples who had once oppressed them. Despite the great size their empire finally assumed, they never abandoned the site on the lake. Their once crude village became a huge, magnificent city and the rafts, invented in a gamble to stave off poverty, proliferated to keep pace with the demands of the capital city of Central Mexico.

Upon arriving to the New World in search of gold, the sight of these islands astonished the conquering Spaniards. Indeed, the spectacle of an entire grove of trees seemingly suspended on the water must have been perplexing, even frightening in those 16th century days of the Spanish conquest.

William Prescott, the historian who chronicled the destruction of the Aztec empire by the Spaniards, described the Chinampas as “Wondering Islands of Verdure, teeming with flowers and vegetables and moving like rafts over the water”. Chinampas continued in use on the lake well into the nineteenth century, though in greatly diminished numbers.

Scientists and the Study of Plant Nutrient Requirements

The earliest recorded scientific approach to discover plant constituents was in 1600 when Belgian Jan van Helmont showed in his classical experiment that plants obtain substances from water. He planted a 5-pound willow shoot in a tube containing 200 pounds of dried soil that was covered to keep out dust. After 5 years of regular watering with rainwater he found the willow shoot increased in weight by 160 pounds, while the soil lost less than 2 ounces. His conclusion that plants obtain substances for growth from water was correct. However, he failed to realize that they also require carbon dioxide and oxygen from the air.

In 1699, John Woodward, a fellow of the Royal Society of England, grew plants in water containing various types of soil, the first man-made hydroponics nutrient solution, and found that the greatest growth occurred in water that contained the most soil. Since they knew little chemistry in those days, he was not able to identify specific growing elements. He thereby concluded that plant growth was a result of certain substances and minerals in the water, derived from enriched soil, rather than simply from water itself.

In the decades that followed Woodward’s research. European plant physiologists established many things. They proved that water is absorbed by plant roots, that it passes through the plant’s stem system, and that it escapes into the air through pores in the leaves. They showed that plant roots take up minerals from either soil or water, and that leaves draw carbon dioxide from the air. They demonstrated that plants roots also take up oxygen.

Further progress in identifying these substances was slow until more sophisticated research techniques were developed and advances were made.

The modern theory of chemistry, which made great advances during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, subsequently revolutionized scientific research. Plants, when analyzed, consisted only of elements derived from water, soil and air.

In 1792 the brilliant English scientist Joseph Priestley discovered that plants placed in a chamber having a high level of “Fixed Air” (Carbon Dioxide) will gradually absorb the carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Jean Ingen-Housz, some two years later, carried Priestley’s work one step further, demonstrating that plants set in a chamber filled with carbon dioxide could replace the gas with oxygen within several hours if the chamber was placed in sunlight. Because sunlight alone had no effect on a container of carbon dioxide, it was certain that the plant was responsible for this remarkable transformation. Ingen-Housz went on to establish that this process worked more quickly in conditions of bright light, and that only the green parts of a plant were involved.

In 1804, Nicolas De Saussure proposed and published, results of his investigations that plants are composed of mineral and chemical elements obtained from water, soil and air. By 1842 a list of nine elements believed to be essential to plant growth had been made out. These propositions were later verified by Jean Baptiste Boussingault (1851), a French scientist who began as a mineralogist employed by a mining company, but turned to agricultural chemistry in the early 1850s.

By feeding plants with water solutions of various combinations of soil elements growing in pure sand, quartz and charcoal (an inert medium not soil), to which were added solutions of known chemical composition. He concluded that water was essential for plant growth in providing hydrogen and that plant dry matter consisted of hydrogen plus carbon and oxygen which came from the air. He also stated that plants contain nitrogen and other mineral elements, and derive all of their nutrient requirements from the soil elements he used, he was then able to identify the mineral elements and what proportions were necessary to optimize plant growth, which was a major breakthrough.

In 1856 Salm-Horsmar developed techniques using sand and other inert media. Various research workers had demonstrated by that time that plants could be grown in an inert medium moistened with a water solution containing minerals required by the plants. The next step was to eliminate the medium entirely and grow the plants in a water solution containing these minerals.

From discoveries and developments in the years 1859-1865 this method was proven by two German scientists, Julius von Sachs (1860), professor of Botany at the University of Wurzburg (1832-1897), and W. Knop (1861), an agricultural chemist. Knop has been called “The Father of Water Culture”.


In that same year (1860), von Sachs published the first standard formula for a nutrient solution that could be dissolved in water and in which plants could be successfully grown. This marked the end of the long search for the source of the nutrients vital to all plants.

This was the origin of “Nutriculture” and similar techniques are still used today in laboratory studies of plant physiology and plant nutrition. These early investigations in plant nutrition demonstrated that normal plant growth can be achieved by immersing the roots of a plant in a water solution containing salts of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), sulfur (S), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg), which are now defined as the macroelements or macronutrients (elements required in relatively large amounts).

With further refinements in laboratory techniques and chemistry, scientists discovered seven elements required by plants in relatively small quantities – the microelements or trace elements. These include iron (Fe), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), boron (B), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), and molybdenum (Mo).

The addition of chemicals to water was found to produce a nutrient solution that would support plant life, so that by 1920 the laboratory preparation of water cultures had been standardized and the methods for their use were well established.
In following years, researchers developed many diverse basic formulas for the study of plant nutrition. Some of these workers were Tollens (1882), Tottingham (1914), Shive (1915), Hoagland (1919), Deutschmann (1932), Trelease (1933), Arnon (1938) and Robbins (1946). Many of their formulas are still used in laboratory research on plant nutrition and physiology today.

Interest in practical application of this “Nutriculture” did not develop until about 1925 when the greenhouse industry expressed interest in its use. Greenhouse soils had to be replaced frequently to overcome problems of soil structure, fertility and pests. As a result, research workers became aware of the potential use of Nutriculture to replace conventional soil cultural methods.

Prior to 1930, most of the work done with soilless growing was oriented to the laboratory for various plant experiments. Nutriculture, chemiculture, and aquiculture were other terms, used during the 1920s and 1930s to describe soilless culture. Between 1925 and 1935, extensive development took place in modifying the laboratory techniques of Nutriculture to large-scale crop production.


 Hydroponics in WW IIIn the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dr. William F. Gericke of the University of California extended his laboratory experiments and work on plant nutrition to practical crops growing outside for large scale commercial applications. In doing so he termed these Nutriculture systems “hydroponics”. The word was derived from two Greek words, hydro, meaning water and ponos meaning labor – literally “water-working”. His work is considered the basis for all forms of hydroponic growing, even though it was primarily limited to the water culture without the use of any rooting medium.

Hydroponics is now defined as the science of growing plants without the use of soil, but by use of an inert medium, such as gravel, sand, peat, vermiculite or sawdust, to which is added a nutrient solution containing all the essential elements needed by the plant for its normal growth and development. Since many hydroponic methods employ some type of medium that contains organic material like peat or sawdust, it is often termed “soilless culture”, while water culture alone would be true hydroponics.

Today, hydroponics is the term used to describe the several ways in which plants can be raised without soil. These methods, also known generally as soilless gardening, include raising plants in containers filled with water and any one of a number of non-soil mediums – including gravel, sand, vermiculite and other more exotic mediums, such as crushed rocks or bricks, shards of cinder blocks, and even styrofoam.

There are several excellent reasons for replacing soil with a sterile medium. Soil-borne pests and diseases are immediately eliminated, as are weeds. And the labor involved in tending your plants is markedly reduced.

More important, raising plants in a non-soil medium will allow you to grow more plants in a limited amount of space. Food crops will mature more rapidly and produce greater yields. Water and fertilizer are conserved, since they can be reused. In addition, hydroponics allows you to exert greater control over your plants, to unsure more uniform results.

All of this is made possible by the relationship of a plant with its growing medium. It isn’t soil that plants need – it’s the reserves of nutrients and moisture contained in the soil, as well as the support the soil renders the plant. Any growing medium will give adequate support. And by raising plants in a sterile growing medium in which there are no reserves of nutrients, you can be sure that every plant gets the precise amount of water and nutrients it needs. Soil often tends to leach water and nutrients away from plants, making the application of correct amounts of fertilizer very difficult. In hydroponics, the necessary nutrients are dissolved in water, and this resulting solution is applied to the plants in exact doses at prescribed intervals.

Until 1936, raising plants in a water and nutrient solution was a practice restricted to laboratories, where it was used to facilitate the study of plant growth and root development.

Dr. Gericke grew vegetables hydroponically, including root crops, such as beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, and cereal crops, fruits, ornamentals and flowers. Using water culture in large tanks in his laboratory at the University of California, he succeeded in growing tomatoes to heights of 25 feet.

Photographs of the professor standing on a stepladder to gather in his crop appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Although spectacular, his system was a little premature for commercial applications. It was far too sensitive and required constant technical monitoring.

Many would-be hydroponic growers encountered problems with the Gericke system because it required a great deal of technical knowledge and ingenuity to build. Gericke’s system consisted of a series of troughs or basins over which he stretched a fine wire mesh. This in turn was covered by a mulch of straw or other material. The plants were placed on this mesh, with the roots extending downward into a water/nutrient solution in the basin.

One of the main difficulties with this method was keeping a sufficient supply of oxygen in the nutrient solution. The plants would exhaust the oxygen rapidly, taking it up through the roots, and for this reason it was imperative that a continuous supply of fresh oxygen be introduced into the solution through some method of aeration. Another problem was supporting the plants so that the growing tips of the roots were held in the solution properly.

In 1936, W. F. Gericke and J. R. Travernetti of the University of California published an account of the successful cultivation of tomatoes in a water and nutrient solution. Since then a number of commercial growers started experimenting with the techniques, and researchers and agronomists at a number of agricultural colleges began working to simplify and perfect the procedures. Numerous hydroponic units, some on a very large scale, have been built in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Israel, Japan, India, and Europe. In the United States, without much public awareness, hydroponics has become big business, more than 500 hydroponic greenhouses have been started.

Hydroponics in World War II

Dr. Gericke’s application of hydroponics soon proved itself by providing food for troops stationed on non-arable islands in the Pacific in the early 1940s.

The first triumph came when Pan American Airways decided to establish a hydroponicum on the distant and barren Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in order to provide the passengers and crews of the airlines with regular supplies of fresh vegetables. Then the British Ministry of Agriculture began to take an active interest in hydroponics, especially since its potential importance in the Grow-More-Food Campaign during the 1939-1945 war was fully realized.

During the late 1940s, Robert B. and Alice P. Withrow, working at Purdue University, developed a more practical hydroponic method. They used inert gravel as a rooting medium. By alternately flooding and draining the gravel in a container, plants were given maximum amounts of both nutrient solution and air, supplied to the roots. This method later became known as the gravel method of hydroponics, sometimes also termed nutriculture.

In wartime the shipping of fresh vegetables to overseas outposts was not practical, and a coral island is not a place to grow them. Hydroponics solved the problem. During World War II, hydroponics, using the gravel method, was given its first real test as a viable source for fresh vegetables by the U. S. Armed Forces.

In 1945 the U. S. Air Force solved its problem of providing its personnel with fresh vegetables by practicing hydroponics on a large scale giving new impetus to the culture.

One of the first of several large hydroponics farms was built on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. Ascension was used as a rest and fuel stop by the United States Air Force, and the island was completely barren. Since it was necessary to keep a large force there to service planes, all food had to be flown or shipped in. There was a critical need for fresh vegetables, and for this reason the first of many such hydroponic installations established by our armed forces was built there. The plants were grown in a gravel medium with the solution pumped into the gravel on a preset cycle. The techniques developed on Ascension were used in later installations on various islands in the Pacific such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

On Wake Island, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii, normally incapable of producing crops, the rocky nature of the terrain ruled out conventional farming. The U. S. Air Force constructed small hydroponic growing beds there that provided only 120 square feet of growing area. However, once the operation become productive, it’s weekly yield consisted of 30 pounds of tomatoes, 20 pounds of string beans, 40 pounds of sweet corn and 20 heads of lettuce.

The U. S. Army also established hydroponic growing beds on the island of Iwo Jima that employed crushed volcanic rock as the growing medium, with comparable yields.

During this same period (1945), the Air Ministry in London took steps to commence soilless culture at the desert base of Habbaniya in Iraq, and at the arid island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, where important oil fields are situated. In the case of the Habbaniya, a vital link in Allied communications, all vegetables had had to be brought by air from Palestine to feed the troops stationed there, an expensive business.

Hydroponics and Military Bases

Ascension Island, site of hydroponic installation raising fresh vegetables for service members

Both the American Army and the Royal Air Force opened hydroponic units at military bases. Many millions of tons of vegetables produced without soil were eaten by Allied Soldiers and Airmen during the war years. After World War II the military command continued to use hydroponics. For example, The United States Army had a special hydroponics branch, which grew over 8,000,000 lbs. of fresh produce during 1952, a peak year for military demand.

They also established one of the worlds largest hydroponic installations, a 22 hectare project at Chofu, Japan. It became necessary to use hydroponics in Japan because of the method of fertilization of the soil by the Japanese.

It had been their practice for many years to use “Night Soil”, containing human excreta as a fertilizer. The soil was highly contaminated with various types of bacteria and amoeba, and although the Japanese were immune to these organisms, the occupying troops were not.

Covering 55 acres, it was designed to produce both seedlings and mature vegetables for American occupation forces. It remained in operation for over 15 years. The largest hydroponic installations up to that time were built in Japan using the gravel culture method. Some of the most successful installations have been those at isolated bases, like Guyana, Iwo Jima and Ascension Island.

Commercial Hydroponic Installations

After World War II, a number of commercial installations were built in the United States. The majority of these were located in Florida. Most were out of doors and subject to the rigors of the weather. Poor construction techniques and operating practices caused many of them to be unsuccessful and production inconsistent. However, the commercial use of hydroponics, grew and expanded throughout the world in the 1950s to such countries as Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, Sweden, the USSR and Israel.

One of the many problems encountered by the early hydroponics pioneers was caused by the concrete used for the growing beds. Lime and other elements leached into the nutrient solution. In addition, most metal was also affected by the various elements in the solution. In many of these early gardens, galvanized and iron pipe were used. Not only did they corrode very quickly, but elements harmful or toxic to the plants were released into the nutrient solution.

Nevertheless, interest in hydroponic culture continued for several reasons. First, no soil was needed, and large a plant population could be grown in a very small area. Second, when fed properly, optimum production could be attained. With most vegetables, growth was accelerated and, as a rule, the quality was better than that of soil grown vegetables. Produce grown hydroponically had much longer shelf life or keeping qualities.

Many of the oil and mining companies built large gardens at some of their installations in different parts of the world where conventional farming methods were not feasible. Some were in desert areas with little or no rainfall or subsurface waters, and others were on islands, such as those in the Caribbean, with little or no soil suitable for vegetable production.

The Bengal SystemBig commercial American headquarters in the Far East have over 80 acres devoted to vegetable units, to feed landless city dwellers, while various oil companies in the West Indies, the Middle East, the sandy wastes of the Arabian Peninsula and the Sahara Desert, operating in barren areas, especially off the Venezuelan Coast at Aruba and Curacao, and in Kuwait have found soilless methods invaluable for ensuring that their employees get a regular ration of clean, health-giving vegetables.

In the United States extensive commercial hydroponics exist, producing great quantities of food daily, especially in Illinois, Ohio, California, Arizona, Indiana, Missouri and Florida. Also there has been a development of soilless culture in Mexico and neighboring areas of Central America.

In addition to the large commercial systems built between 1945 and the 1960s, much work was done on small units for apartments, homes, and back yards, for growing both flowers and vegetables. Many of these were not a complete success because of a number of factors: poor rooting media, the use of unsuitable materials (particularly in constructing the troughs used as growing beds), and crude environmental control.

Even with the lack of success in many of these ventures, however, hydroponic growers the world over were convinced that their problems could be solved. There was also a growing conviction in the minds of many that the perfection of this method of growing food was absolutely essential in light of declining food production and the worldwide population explosion.

Recent surveys have indicated that there are over 1,000,000 household soil-less culture units operating in the United States for the production of food alone. Russia, France, Canada, South Africa, Holland, Japan, Australia and Germany are among other countries where hydroponics is receiving much attention.

In addition to the work being done to develop hydroponics systems for the production of vegetables, between 1930 and 1960 similar work was being conducted to develop a system to produce livestock and poultry feed. Researchers had found that cereal grains could be grown very rapidly in this manner. Using grains such as barley, they proved that 5 pounds of seed could be converted into 35 pounds of lush green feed in 7 days. When used as a supplement to normal rations, this green feed was extremely beneficial for all types of animals and birds. In lactating animals, milk flow was increased. In feedlots, better conversion rates and gains were achieved at less cost per pound of grain. In breeding stock the potency of males and conception in females increased dramatically. Poultry also benefited in many ways. Egg production increased while cannibalism, a constant problem for poultry raisers, ceased.

Here again, however, in developing a system that would produce consistently, a number of problems arose. The early systems had little or no environmental control, and with no control of temperature or humidity, there was a constant fluctuation in the growth rate. Mold and fungi in the grasses were an ever-present problem. The use of thoroughly clean seed grain with a high germination ratio was found to be absolutely essential if a good growth rate was to be achieved.

Nevertheless, in the face of these and other obstacles, a few researchers continued to work to perfect a system that could produce this feed continuously. With the development of new techniques, equipment, and materials, units became available that were virtually trouble free. Many of these are in use today on ranches, farms, and in zoos all over the world.

Hydroponics did not reach India until 1946. In the summer of that year the first research studies were commenced at the Government of Bengal’s Experimental Farm at Kalimpong in the Darjeeling District. At the very beginning a number of problems peculiar to this sub-continent had to be faced. Even a cursory study of the various methods which were being practiced in Britain and in America revealed how unsuited they were for general adoption by the public of India. Various physiological and practical reasons, in particular the elaborate expensive apparatus required, were sufficient to prohibit them.

A novel system, of which practicability and simplicity must be the keynotes, would have to be introduced if hydroponics was to succeed in Bengal, or in fact ever to prove of widespread value to the people of this part of Asia. Careful appraisal of salient problems during 1946-1947 resulted in the development of the Bengal System of hydroponics, which represented an effort to meet Indian requirements.

Plastics Key to Success

With the development of plastics, hydroponics took another large step forward. If there is one single factor that could be credited with making the hydroponics industry the success it is today, that factor is plastics.

One of the most pressing problems encountered everywhere was the constant leaching of detrimental elements into the solution from concrete, rooting media, and other materials. With the advent of fiberglass and such plastics as the different types of vinyl, polyethelene film, and the many kinds of plastic pipe, this problem was virtually eliminated. In the better producing systems being built in the world today plastics are used throughout, and other than a few isolated bronze valves, there is absolutely no metal. Even the pumps are epoxy coated. Using these types of materials, along with an inert material as a rooting medium, the grower is well on his way to success.

Plastics freed growers from the costly construction associated with the concrete beds and tanks previously used. Beds are scraped out of the underlying medium and simply lined with a heavy vinyl (20 mil), then filled with the growing medium. With the development of suitable pumps, time clocks, plastic plumbing, solenoid valves and other equipment, the entire hydroponic system can now be automated, or even computerized, reducing both capital and operational costs.

Future Trends in Hydroponic Development

A problem that has developed in the past few years is the ever-increasing cost of energy for heating. In many areas the high cost of fuel has caused a number of installations that were operating at a profit to suddenly plunge deeply into the red, and some operators have been forced to shut down entirely in the colder months. Since this is the time of year when vegetables are at or near peak prices, these increased fuel costs have had a disastrous effect on the industry as a whole.

One bright spot in this picture is the development of solar heating systems. Much research has and is being done in this field, and there are many ready-built systems available on the market today. Also available are a number of publications with detailed plans on how to build one’s own solar energy system. There will of course, be many new developments in this field over the next few years, and solar energy may eventually solve the dilemma for all growers.

Currently, plans are being drawn for using the techniques of soilless culture on space flights and even on the moon, or beyond. For hydroponics, the future seems very bright.

The cost to the would-be commercial grower for a properly designed hydroponic system, housed in a manner that provides good environmental control, can run into thousands of dollars. For this reason, one should check very closely the qualifications of the seller. He or she should require proof of claims regarding production and profit capability, back-up service after the sale, research facilities and past records of the manufacturing company.

If a person is willing to work and apply him-or-herself, plants can be grown hydroponically by a complete novice with no past experience at growing crops. The owner of a small 10×12 foot hydroponic greenhouse will be able to produce all the fresh vegetables needed by a family of four or five, provided he or she operates the unit on a year round basis.

Hydroponics can also be profitable on a commercial scale if the grower devotes the time and attention required for any successful business. The average yield of tomatoes per acre is eighteen times greater than in conventional soil methods.

Baystate Organic, a Certifier of Organic Hydroponics

Don Franczyk

photo by Jack Kittredge
Don Franczyk, Baystate Organic administrator, at home where he works

Many of our readers are too young to remember this, but the National Organic Program came into effect only 15 years ago, in 2002. Before that a network of dozens of public, private, and non-profit organizations served to certify organic farms. Each certified to its own rules and its own standards — although 95% of these were the same, many memorable arguments took place about the 5% or fewer that diverged.

In the Northeast most NOFA chapters and MOFGA set up their own state certification programs, with the exceptions of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New Jersey, where the state departments of agriculture played that role. This author served on the NOFA/Mass Certification Program for over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s and well remembers the long night meetings and arcane debates about Chilean nitrate, agronomic responsibility, and how much manure free range chickens can deposit in a pasture before it stops being a pasture (200 lbs of elemental N per acre per year, we decided, thanks to Bob Parnes’ incredible reference book on fertility sources!)

When the federal National Organic Program became law in the fall of 2002 (it took twelve years after Congressional 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act for the USDA to come up with acceptable regulations) we all had to decide what to do with our certification programs. Most public state programs continued, although a few shut down eventually. Many private and non-profit outfits (like MOFGA and NOFA in Vermont and NY) became accredited certifiers under the NOP. Some ceased operation or, like NOFA/Mass, spun off their certification committee as a fully independent entity to go on to become NOP-accredited.

That is how Massachusetts Independent Certification, Inc. was born. It continued to operate under the licensed name “NOFA/Mass Certification Committee” for a transitional year or two, but finally became the current “Baystate Organic Certifiers”, headed by administrator Don Franczyk.

“I don’t have any background in agriculture,” Don confesses. “I was born in Chicago. I grew up there and when I was 13 my family moved to Massachusetts. I worked in high tech up until the nineties, but then I started thinking I needed a change. I started looking into farming. My dad had a garden when we were kids. I always hated what he sprayed in it – Sevin – I hated that smell. So organic gardening made sense. I went to NOFA meetings and did a lot of reading, and in 1998 my wife Karen and I bought a farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts.”

Karen was against the idea of farming at first, Don says. She thought he was having an early mid-life crisis. But he talked her into it over time.

“She didn’t mind doing something different,” he explains. “She has done other things that are different – having our kids at home, or extended breast feeding. She was just concerned about uprooting our whole family.”

They started out trying to market with a CSA, but couldn’t get to the level of participation they needed to support the venture. Karen’s sister worked at Whole Foods, however, so they started selling wholesale there, specializing in tomatoes.

About this time Karen joined the NOFA/Mass board. Don went to a couple of meetings, but couldn’t stand them. He wanted to do something to help out, however, and joined the Certification Committee when Ed McGlew was the administrator.

“Ed tried to talk me out of joining,” Don recalls, “but I did anyway. That was probably in 1999 or 2000, so it was still the NOFA/Mass Certification Committee. The federal program had put out draft regulations, but was still getting comments back and hadn’t started the national program yet – all us small groups were still certifying to our own standards.”

Don was on the Certification Committee when Ed resigned. Kelly Phelen, Ed’s assistant, ran the program for a year but didn’t want to do it full time so the program was going to end if they didn’t find another person to run it.

“Judy Gillan talked me into doing the program,” sighs Don. “I needed some income to supplement the farm income, and didn’t want to go back into high tech, so I took the job. It was a part time job for a long time.”

At about that time the final NOP regulations were promulgated and the patchwork of certifiers around the country had to conform to the national rule. At a long board meeting NOFA/Mass debated forming an LLC to run the program and maintain the certification revenue, but finally opted for a clean separation between the quasijudicial certification work and the education and advocacy role of the chapter.

“I think splitting the advocacy and regulatory work was great,” Don asserts. “It was a wise decision for NOFA/Mass to let us go and be somebody else. We have certain tasks and a function to do and that is our life. It allows us to make decisions strictly on our role as a certifying agent, based on the standards and not influenced by anything else.”
Originally Baystate Organic was only a Massachusetts agency, didn’t certify in other states, and didn’t certify processors. But in 2003 they added in processing and working in other states. Connecticut NOFA had a certification program but decided to close it down and the state was supposed to take it over. But once the state found out how much regulation was involved they bowed out as well. So in 2003 Baystate started working in Connecticut as well as Massachusetts.

“Over time we’ve added operations in a number of areas.” Don says. “We have about 450 certified operations now. Probably 300 are in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with the rest spread over the other states. We have a core full time staff of seven — three administrators who work with me, and three full time specialists. Then we have a number of part time inspectors. Overall the staff is 7 full time people, 2 part time file clerks, and 5 or 6 part time inspectors. The inspectors can work for other agencies besides us. All of us full time people work out of our homes. But the files are taking over my house and we’re getting an office next year!”

Baystate certification is a 4-step process. When an application comes in, it must be checked in for completeness. Then it goes out for initial review for compliance with the standards – which involves communicating back and forth with the client. Then it goes out for an inspection. Then it comes back to Don or to another trained administrator for final review. At that point a certification decision is made, which can be certification, renewal, or rejection for non-compliance.

“The board does not do any of this work,” Franczyk explains. “It serves to set corporate goals, run the corporate paperwork, etc. For a while we had a volunteer certification committee, but we got rid of that because you have to know so much specialized knowledge that it was too much for volunteers.”

Baystate’s biggest vegetable farm is about 200 acres, but except for that and one or two others above 150 acres, most of their crop farms tend to be well under 50 acres, with many under 10 acres. Their mix of fully organic farms versus organic/conventional ones is about 50 – 50. Quite a few certify their crops but not their livestock because organic grain is expensive, even non-GMO grain is high, and many can sell animal products as grassfed or local and people will buy them. But Don thinks that there is a tremendous market for organic meat and eggs – we don’t produce anywhere enough in the Northeast.

The organization is interested in slowly expanding and has been going to trade shows and reaching out to encourage farmers to get certified.

“We find it very helpful to let farmers know how the system works,” says Franczyk, “and that they have the option to pick a certification group that fits them. Certification is kind of a captive market and if people think they have to go to a particular agency it makes it more captive. We feel there should be alternatives. We are willing to grow but don’t have a set number. We think there is a good opportunity out there for a group like us – people are paying too much and not getting good service. Our selling point is that we are affordable. We keep our fees very low. We have excellent customer service and we are inclusive. We won’t turn away anyone, even small farms. Our mission is to make sure that certification is available to anyone who wants it.”

Baystate tries to balance out small and larger farms, losing money on the small ones, but making it on the larger ones and processing operations that are in no way large, but are large compared to the other farms. They balance each other out so the group can afford to stay in business.

“We are right at the bottom of the rate scale,” Don asserts. “We can’t compete with a state agency because they are subsidized. If you go to the Rhode Island DEM you are going to get a better fee than here. But we are the low end for private certifiers, and dramatically lower than some. Our goal is that when we certify a small farm we want to make it affordable. Of course we have to send a trained person to inspect, but if we certify a small farm we are incurring a small risk of fraud or anything else that would come back on us. The larger the operation, the more risk there is going to be.

“We are comparable to NOFA-NY or MOFGA,” Franczyk continues. “Sometimes our category fee is lower, sometimes higher. But basically it is the same. But it is all based on gross sales and then there is a cap at $10,000,000. But every certification agency is different. Some have all sorts of ancillary fees, for instance. Some charge extra for the inspection, which we don’t do unless it is outside our core area, say in the West. The only extra fees we have are for exports, and one for new operations when they show up.”

Baystate is part of an accredited certifiers organization so they can talk to other agencies and research troubling issues apart from the USDA. They try to make an independent decision, but be sure they are reflecting what others in the industry know, too, to avoid certifier shopping, where growers will go from one of certifier to another, trying to get an opinion they want. That was a prevalent pre-NOP practice.

Baystate has looked at social justice certification as a new program, but feels that so far there hasn’t been much demand for it.

“It has to be something that people will pay for,” Don stresses, “because we can’t run it for free. We’ve talked about it but so far not gotten involved. There are some programs like that on the processing side already, like Fair Trade coffee, so people are not going to join two.”

Running a certification program for a government is a somewhat schizophrenic task, to listen to Franczyk explain it. For some things the rules are clear and you have quasi-governmental power of enforcement.

“There is, for example, the whole misunderstanding that you can grow crops and sell them as organic without being certified,” he relates. “That is not the case. You can make whatever claims you want privately, but if you represent the product as organic when you sell it and you are over $5000 gross per year, you have to be certified. People don’t understand that and will get fined if they do it.”

Most crop standards are also clear and unambiguous, Don feels. Other areas, however, are a lot grayer.

“Honey is a good example,” he says. “You can certify it, and many European countries do, but there are no standards here for it, only ‘guidances’. So different certifiers treat them differently. Honey is like mushrooms or hydroponics in that each agency has more leeway since there are no official standards. Honey goes into the livestock standards, sort of. But you have to figure out a whole lot of it yourself. Mushrooms go into the crop standards, sort of. But again you have to figure out a whole lot of it yourself, along with anything to do with sprouts and microgreens. As long as you root your decisions in one or more guidances you will probably sustain yourself if questioned by the NOP.”

On hydroponics, Don feels the certification decision really depends on the details of the operation.

“The NOP allows hydroponic certification,” he states flatly. “They made this decree a long time ago. There is a statement that hydroponics are allowed so long as they are consistent with the Organic Foods Production Act. So if they fit with the OFPA, they can be certified.

“But what does it mean,” he asks, “to be consistent with the OFPA? You can’t have synthetic nutrients or anything that is a contaminant in hydroponics. You can’t have the crop contact any prohibited substance. No synthetic micronutrients unless allowed by the standards, no fertilizers at all (that is where the problem comes for most hydroponic growers – they want to use synthetic fertility.)

“But you could try compost tea,” he concludes, “although I think that would be difficult. But it is really a lot up to us, the certifiers. There are no specific standards like there are for dairy farms, for instance. As a former farmer I would say that, yes, there are different levels of farming and some do a better job by feeding the soil and using it to feed the crops. But the way the standards work, there is no judging better or worse. There is just allowed and not allowed.”

Baystate currently certifies three hydroponic operations, according to Franczyk. They get 50 to 75 calls inquiring about hydroponic certification over the course of a year, but almost all of them never send in an application or call them back. He feels that is because they can’t get a system that meets the requirements of the standards. It is very difficult to do. In conventional hydroponics you can purchase a nutrient mix, primarily from synthetic chemicals. But this doesn’t work for organic. You have to devise your own nutrient sources – there is nothing commercially available you can purchase.

“I have heard complaints,” sighs Don, “that there are a lot of people out there getting hydroponic operations certified organic. We’re not seeing that. I don’t know what the industry numbers are, and possibly there are other agencies that are certifying a lot, but Baystate has 3 out of 450. That is not a lot.

“There is a huge movement toward urban agriculture and aeroponics,” he continues. “People who have unused buildings like warehouses in urban areas are interested in that. But we’ve never been able to get an aeroponic operation even remotely close to certification. They use towers and I’m not really sure how they function, but they still have the problems of getting nutrients organically.

“I think what people don’t like about the allowance for hydroponics,” he concludes, “is that you are recreating soil. We have this wonderful soil already, but instead of improving that and growing crops there we are looking at a system that replaces that — so we have more control. But it requires replacing everything. All the nutrients that were available in soil have to be replaced inside. Some people like the controlled environment because they can produce in it year round. They are in control, they can tie in other things, like aquaponics. But it is not easy to do that organically.”

When you add in aquaponics, of course, you are raising fish in a controlled environment too. You have to tinker with the water and add substances so that you are sure the water remains a proper environment for the fish. But what you are adding in most cases is not natural substances. That causes problems because that water then can’t be used in the system to grow the hydroponic plants.

Baystate doesn’t certify any aquaponic operations. Every one that has come to them has been turned down because of some problem regarding inputs — either for the fish or down the line for the crops. In any case, the fish can’t be certified fish anyway, no matter how organically they are raised. The Fish and Wildlife Service control federal rules about fish, not the USDA. Baystate can certify systems which use the runoff from aquaponics, but not the aquaponic system itself.

“Feed the soil, not the crop” is an old argument in organics. But, says Franczyk, you can go down into California or Florida or Mexico where these big industrial vegetable operations are growing in what looks like sand and wonder – are they really feeding the soil when they are growing that much organic crop? Or are they doing a liquid nutrient based crop production system, but just in a ‘soil’ matrix?

Other crops can be certified although grown in a soilless system, points out Don. If you go to a high volume mushroom facility, it looks nothing like a farm. Mushrooms can use lots of things for substrates that aren’t soil. Also, a microgreen is pretty much a sprouted plant. It’s a little larger than a sprout, but not much. It is at an age when it doesn’t need much nutrition and is still working off whatever was supporting it in the original seed.

“To us,” reasons Franczyk, “hydroponic is like every other soilless system that is allowed. Mushroom production, sprout production, container growing in greenhouses, many microgreens – they don’t involve soil either. Soilless is not defined by the NOP. It is a vague area. This is one of the things that was talked about years ago – we were going to get supplementary rule making to guide us. It never happened.

“The National Organic Standards Board creates guidance,” he continues, “but their real job is to evaluate materials and maintain the National List. When they do offer guidance, those documents have to be put into federal rulemaking. That is where this breaks down. We were originally going to have different rules for hydroponics and mushrooms, maybe. But none of that ever happened. So it has been left up to the certification agencies to determine what is certified.”

Not all certifiers agree whether mushrooms are even livestock or crops, much less require soil in the mix. MOFGA thinks of mushrooms as livestock because of where fungi fit into the tree of life. Baystate understands that argument, but puts them in crop production.

“How about compost or potting soil,” suggests Don. “I would say true compost is not soil. Nor is potting soil. But people grow in it and mix it with peat and vermiculite and other things. Is that organic? With hydroponic, people get upset because there is sometimes nothing even like soil. You can use nutrient film technique where there is no media at all. Or often they will use coconut coir to anchor the roots. Same with some of these other container growing systems — they all use substrates that aren’t soil.

I asked Franczyk how he felt about hydroponic producers in other countries, where such operations may not even qualify for domestic organic certification, getting certified to NOP standards by USDA accredited agencies and then importing that ‘organic’ product into the US to the detriment of US soil-based producers.

“That is the way it works in many Third World countries,” he admits. “If you want to market your product in the EU or the US, you get certified to the standards of the place you are marketing. It is also true that many other countries don’t allow organic hydroponics. So we are the outlier, organically, because we allow it. I don’t know if the Mexican standards allow it, but the Canadian ones don’t. Mexicans, however, do get hydroponic crops certified to the NOP rules and market them here.”

Don feels that a regulation on the horizon that is far more important to the future of organic farming is the pending animal welfare standards. Baystate was an early defender of strict outdoor access for poultry and sued the USDA to defend it, losing to the decision allowing henhouse ‘porches’. It looks now as if porches may be disallowed if the new animal welfare standards are promulgated.

Franczyk feels that if they had some definition on organic hydroponics, one way or the other, it would be great. People could either certify these operations and know that this is going to continue, or not certify them and say it requires some kind of soil. But he is skeptical that will happen, because what really defines soil is hard to pin down.

“One funny thing that is part of the impetus for hydroponics,” smiles Franczyk, “is something that we get calls about all the time, but can’t certify, and that is marijuana. A lot of marijuana is grown hydroponically. And there are people who want to have organic marijuana. But it is on a federal controlled substance list so even though it is legal in Massachusetts, we can’t certify it. Actually, I have heard that the Massachusetts law requires marijuana to be grown organically. But I‘m not sure how they can ascertain that if we can’t certify it!”

The How-To of Organic Hydroponics

There is a long standing debate as to whether soilless hydroponic systems can ever be completely organic. For the most part, this debate is the result of disputed ideas about what organics actually means. Even in the commercial horticultural world, things are not clearcut when it comes to what is and what isn’t considered organic.

In many parts of the world, certified organic systems must have soil as the cornerstone of their production. In the United States, certain types of hydroponic systems can become organically certified without the use of soil.

While the reasoning behind whether or not hydroponics is organic is still under debate, hobby growers need not bother with the large scale logic. Instead, they should decide what organics means to them and follow techniques to fulfill their own ideologies.

For some growers, producing organic and natural crops from an indoor garden simply means avoiding the use of toxic chemicals such as synthetic pesticides, fungicides and sterilization agents. These types of growers choose to focus more on natural approaches while fully embracing hydroponic methods.

For others, growing organically means incorporating the use of organic nutrients combined with beneficial microbial populations similar to the methods used by soil-based organic producers. Unfortunately, it’s not just a simple case of switching from traditional, fertilizer-salt-based nutrients to organic ones since many early hydroponic systems were never designed to be used with organic compounds and many growers have run into major issues when trying this.

Traditional hydroponic nutrients are made from fertilizers such as calcium nitrate, potassium nitrate, monopotassium phosphate, iron chelate and many others that, when dissolved into water, dissociate into ions ready for immediate uptake by plants. This is what allows for such rapid and balanced plant growth.

The plants never have to starve or wait for nutrient ions to become available. However, calcium nitrate and many others used in traditional hydroponic systems are not considered organic, but synthetic or manmade, and are not part of an organic system.

Replacing highly effective and carefully calculated fertilizer salts with organic nutrient sources is not easy. Manufacturers of hydroponic fertilizer products go to great lengths to get the ideal parts per million of each nutrient ion in their products so plants grow as fast and balanced as possible.

With organic nutrient sources, it’s impossible to be so precise, so mineral deficiencies within organic hydroponic systems are often an issue. Also, organic nutrients contain a great deal of carbon, which nonorganic nutrient products do not provide. This carbon is an ideal source of food for microbes in the nutrient solution and root zone, feeding both beneficial and pathogenic fungi and bacteria.

If unwanted microbes begin feeding on the carbon from organic nutrient sources, things can get a little toxic, creating slimy nutrient solutions, anaerobic root conditions, diseases and even plant die back. To avoid these problems, organic growers just starting out should begin slowly and with systems known to have a better success rate.

Suitable Hydroponic Systems and Growing Mediums

Among the most successful systems for organic hydroponics are aquaponic systems. If the system is run with the correct fish-to-plant ratio and a good rate of mineralization carried out by specific bacteria, aquaponics is one of the easiest approaches to organics.

Novice growers should start with low nutrient demanding crops, such as lettuce, salad greens and fresh herbs, and gradually build up to fruiting plants as the system matures and  higher rates of mineralization occur. Even though aquaponic systems provide good levels of nutrient ions from fish waste, high nutrientdemanding crops may still need a little supplementation, especially extra trace elements from time to time.

Aside from aquaponics, many successful, organically certified commercial hydroponic systems incorporate the use of a natural growing substrate to support the plants and provide a high surface area for the large population of microbes needed to process (mineralize) the organic fertilizer sources.

Many of these mediums use coconut fiber as a base because it is a natural material amended with a range of other substrates such as high quality composts, vermicast (worm castings), perlite, bark, peat, vermiculite and even rice hulls. There are also organic growing mixes on the market specifically designed for hydroponic systems.

It is important for the growing medium to be free draining and highly aerated. It should ideally contain some already-mineralized nutrients (compost and vermicast), and be a source of naturally occurring beneficial microbes, or have them inoculated into it before planting occurs. A good medium for organic production has proven to be a mix of coconut fiber, coarse perlite and high-quality, fully processed vermicast (20%) to provide some immediately available nutrients and diverse microbes that will process the organic nutrient solution when it is applied.

New organic substrates incorporated into a hydroponic system should be conditioned before use—fully moistened, inoculated with microbes, fed a small amount of organic nutrients and left to sit in a warm growing area for at least 1-2 weeks before planting out. This gives microbial communities time to establish and build up numbers before starting to break down organic compounds into plant usable nutrient ions ready for the first plants to go in.

Once plants are in place, the irrigation system needs to be run a little differently than traditional, non-organic hydroponic systems. Drip irrigation at the root zone is advised. The root zone should never be over saturated; only a small volume of leachate from the base of the growing containers is required.

A plant’s root zone in organic systems is finely balanced between the requirements of the microbes and the root system itself. Both require high levels of oxygenation, and overwatering excludes much of the aeration in the pores of the growing medium.

Organic systems have a higher requirement for oxygenation in the root zone due to the heavy populations of microbes required. Many failures in organic systems are directly related to overwatering and poor aeration.

EC and pH Levels

Electrical conductivity (EC) and pH control is also different in organic hydroponic systems. Many organic nutrients don’t conduct electricity, so EC readings may not be a true indication of the concentration of an organic solution. A garden’s pH levels also tend to run higher in a healthy, organic system than many growers are used to maintaining in standard hydroponics.

Since pH-lowering acids commonly used in hydroponics such as nitric and phosphoric acids are not organic, pH is best left to stabilize on its own. Some organic nutrient products naturally have a high pH, so growers should try to select those that have a more suitable pH range for use in soilless systems.

Organic Nutrients

There are a few different approaches to obtaining and using organic nutrient sources in a hydroponic system. It can be difficult to get a balanced and suitably high ratio of all the essential minerals from organic sources alone, so experimentation with different products is helpful. There is a range of liquid organic nutrient concentrates on the market, as well as some fertilizer salts that are considered organic and naturally occurring to help boost growth where required.

Generally, sulphate trace elements, such as iron sulphate, copper sulphate, zinc sulphate, manganese sulphate and magnesium sulphate (Epsom salt), are allowed under organic production, so these can be used to help round out any deficiencies that may occur with organic nutrients.

An organic iron chelate can be made by mixing iron sulphate with citric acid powder to replace the synthetic iron chelate (EDTA or DTPA) commonly used in traditional hydroponics to ensure ongoing iron availability. Growers often need to blend two or more organic liquid fertilizers to provide sufficient and balanced nutrient levels for most hydroponic crops.

An organic base product (often a concentrated fish emulsion base or similar) blended with an organic liquid calcium is a good place to start. An organic nitrogen product may be required later on. Growers should aim to use products that have been designed for soilless systems wherever possible.

The main difficulty with running organic systems is obtaining sufficient amounts of nitrogen and calcium, which are required in large amounts by plants. Organic systems rely on microbes in the root zone to convert organic compounds into plant available nitrogen sources and sometimes this process does not occur fast enough for uptake.

Calcium is difficult to obtain rapidly from organic nutrients as it relies on the breaking down of calcium containing materials such as limestone. Growers who have hard water sources containing naturally occurring calcium have a major advantage in this case because this form of calcium is readily available for plant uptake.

It is possible to make an organic nutrient solution completely from raw materials rather than relying on commercially bottled products. While liquid biodigesters that turn raw organic materials into usable plant nutrients have been used by some growers, the more reliable method for smaller systems is vermiculture (worm farming).

Vermiculture is a highly efficient way of processing high mineral raw materials, such as manures, limestone, blood and bone, fish meal, seaweed meal, guano and others, into usable, mineralized hydroponic nutrient solutions that also provide the benefits of a diverse population of beneficial microbes.

The successful use of vermiculture to process organic fertilizers relies on two things. First, the vermicast must be processed to completion and then extracted into water for use in a hydroponic system. The extract or liquid draining from the vermicast system should not be used as a nutrient solution until the vermicast itself has been fully processed.

Many worm juices on the market are highly diluted and often not balanced enough to use as a stand alone nutrient solution. Second, the quality of the raw materials going into the vermicast system will determine how balanced the final nutrient will be. High mineral sources, such as fish, blood and bone meal are often dried and ground into products, while food scraps, weeds and vegetation contain only low levels of minerals and will not make a nutrient solution concentrated enough for most hydroponic systems.

One of the main problems with organic nutrients is concentration. Most organic liquid products are not as concentrated as standard, salt based fertilizer formulations, so plants may become weak, stretched and more prone to disease.

Growers need to be aware of what underfed plants look like and boost nutrient concentrations as soon as these conditions are detected. Nutrient additives and boosters, such as humic and fulvic acid, are a good addition to organic systems as they help facilitate nutrient uptake and are generally considered organic.

Pest and Disease Control

Once growers have established a healthy root zone and are feeding plants a suitable organic blend of nutrients, the next step in organic production tends to be pest and disease control. Synthetic or chemical pesticides and fungicides are not considered organic, which eliminates some of the highly effective controls many hydroponic growers depend on.

With organic production, prevention of pest and disease problems becomes even more essential. The use of screening vents, double door entries, close inspection of planting material entering the growing area, sticky indicator traps and careful monitoring of plant health are essential in preventing or catching infestations early on.

Among the organically allowable pest control products, many indoor gardeners are already familiar with neem oil and extracts, which are derived from the Indian neem tree. Many neem spray products are considered organic and help control a wide range of insect pests.

Beneficial and predator insects as part of an integrated pest management program are also widely used by organic growers, and there is a range of microbial spray products on the market such as Bt for caterpillars.

Disease control can be little more complicated. Fortunately, biological controls like Beauveria spp. and other non-synthetic fungicides based on microbial species are available. Local hydro shops will have more information on all of these options.

Running a successful organic hydroponic system involves some trial and error. What works for one grower may not work for another. There is a lot more to the biological side of organic plant nutrition than we understand, much of it to do with microbial balance and populations in the root zone and nutrient solution. Overall, being successful in organic production is an exciting achievement and is one more growers are experimenting with.


Types of Hydroponic Systems

When you think of hydroponics, you instantly imagine plants grown with their roots suspended directly into water with no growing medium. However this is just one type of hydroponic gardening known as N.F.T. (nutrient film technique). There are several variations of N.F.T. used around the world and it is a very popular method of growing hydroponically. What most people don’t realize is that there are countless methods and variations of hydroponic gardening.

Wicks System

Wicks System

Wicks System

Seen as the most simplistic hydroponic system. The Wick system is described as a passive system, by which we mean there are no moving parts. From the bottom reservoir, your specific Growth Technology nutrient solution is drawn up through a number of wicks into the growing medium. This system can use a variety of mediums, perlite, soil or cocoa.



Water Culture Hydroponics

Water Culture

Water Culture

This system is an active system with moving parts. As active hydroponic systems go, water culture is the simplest. The roots of the plant are totally immersed in the water which contains the specific Growth Technology nutrient solutions. An air pump helps oxygenate the water and allow the roots to breathe.

NOTE. Very few plants other than lettuce will do well in this type of system.




Ebb and Flow System

Ebb and Flow System

Ebb and Flow System (Flood and Drain)

This hydroponic system works by temporarily flooding the grow tray. The nutrient solution from a reservoir surrounds the roots before draining back. This action is usually automated with a water pump on a timer.





Drip System

Drip System

Drip System (recovery or non-recovery)

Dip systems are a widely used hydroponic method. A timer will control a water pump, which pumps water and the Growth Technology nutrient solutions through a network of elevated water jets. A recovery system will collect excess nutrient solution back into the reservoir. A non-recovery drip system will avoid this allowing the pH of the reservoir not to vary. If using a recovery system, be sure to check the pH level of the reservoir regularly and adjust using either pH UP or pH Down solutions on a more frequent basis.



NFT System

NFT System

N.F.T System

The N.F.T system is at the forefront of people’s minds when hydroponics is mentioned. Nutrient Film Technique uses a constant flow of your Growth Technology nutrient solution (therefore no timer is required). The solution is pumped from a reservoir into the growing tray. The growing tray requires no growing medium. The roots draw up the nutrients from the flowing solution. The downward flow pours back into the reservoir to be recycled again. Pump and electric maintenance is essential to avoid system failures, where roots can dry out rapidly when the flow stops.



Aeroponic System

Aeroponic System

Aeroponic System

Aeroponic systems are seen to be a high tech method of hydroponic growing. Like the N.F.T system the growing medium is primarily air.

The roots hang in the air and are misted with nutrient solution. The misting of roots is usually done every few minutes. The roots will dry out rapidly if the misting cycles are interrupted.

A timer controls the nutrient pump much like other types of hydroponic systems, except the aeroponic system needs a short cycle timer that runs the pump for a few seconds every couple of minutes.

Main Street Farms:

Allan Gandelman (left) and Bob Cat (right) in one of their high tunnels.

photo by Allison Usavage
Allan Gandelman (left) and Bob Cat (right) in one of their high tunnels.

some material here was also taken from an article on Main Street Farms by the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming

When I was looking for a certified organic hydroponic farm to feature in this issue, I put out the word to NOFA members. Several suggested that I pick Main Street Farms, an operation in central New York that has an aquaponic and hydroponic component, the hydroponic part of which is certified by Baystate Organic (also featured in this issue).

Although Main Street is not typical for organic hydroponic farms in that a large portion of their business is derived not from hydroponics but from growing in soil, I felt it would be a good choice to interview. In part this was because I figured growing in both media would give them the ability to compare and contrast those two approaches. In part it was because the owner I spoke with, Allan Gandelman, was willing to be entirely forthcoming about their methods and I wasn’t sure I would get such transparency from other hydroponic growers.

The towns of Homer and Cortland, where the Main Street Farms operate, are deep in New York state farm country — 25 miles east of Ithaca, 30 miles south of Syracuse, and 40 miles north of Binghamton. Compared to the rest of the Northeast, New York has a wealth of open farmland, sizeable population centers, and a farming infrastructure – tractor dealerships, slaughter houses, feed stores, food processors – that can support new farm ventures. Add to that reasonable land prices, and what better place for wannabe farmers to try their wings?

Which is exactly what Allan Gandelman and Bob Cat did when starting Main Street Farms.

“I started the farm about six years ago,” recalls Allan. “Before that I was a high school social studies teacher locally. I was teaching and I was disillusioned with the food system and I wanted to figure out:
one, how to get local produce into the food system because kids weren’t learning and school lunches were so bad that the kids often ate just a bag of chips and a bottle of soda, and
two, how to educate children and consumers in general about eating healthy and the importance of buying local.”

Allan took a year-long Sustainable Farming Training Certificate course and a Farm Business Planning Course from the nearby Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming during the Center’s first year of operation. He liked what he learned. He also had been researching hydroponic and aquaponic systems and thought they might be a good way to achieve his goals for a localized growing platform.

“I read about aquaponics,” Gandelman says, “and thought it was cool. I went to visit Growing Power in Milwaukee and thought it was awesome. His sys-tem is designed more for employing neighborhood people and not making money, though.

“I bought an old flower nursery in Homer,” he continues, “and I started out building an aquaponics system there in a greenhouse. I just went online to learn how to do it. Mostly YouTube! I visited a lot of aquaponic farms all over the country to see what they were doing, and built a small scale system as a proof of concept. It worked.”

At that point Allan asked Bob to join him. Bob was working as an outdoor environmental educator at the time, also with kids. The food the kids were being fed was also not very good, which led Bob to think about eating better food. He took the Sustainable Farming Certificate Course the next year and went into a partnership with Allan.

They started doing soil-based plant sales and a market garden in the nursery’s greenhouses while Allan built the aquaponics production facility. It took him about a year to build. He doesn’t really have a technical background, just an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Geography, and a Masters in Education. But summers he did a lot of carpentry, construction work, plumbing, and used to buy and fix up houses.

“Foreclosures mostly,” he says, “and fixed them up myself. I think I bought my first house when I was 21. Now I’m 35. I’d need a summer project when I was in school so I’d buy a house and fix it up. For me this was no big deal – plumbing, electric, all of it. I’ve managed a lot of projects as a result. It translates well to farming.

Allan is from New Jersey and New York City, but went to school in the Hudson Valley and New Paltz, and lived there for about 10 years. He dreamed about starting a farm there, but the land was too expensive. He found it much easier in Homer, with wide open markets because of Syracuse, Ithaca, and Binghamton being so nearby.

 The peas grow vigorously in the nutrient solution from the fish waste

photo by Jack Kittredge
The peas grow vigorously in the nutrient solution from the fish waste.

The farms currently produce about 30 acres of vegetables on three sites, including in about 25,000 square feet of plastic covered space. They have upwards of 200 tillable acres available to them and every year are taking on more and more. Counting both owners it employs about ten people, year-round. The aquaponic/hydroponic facility is the only one they heat in the winter. All the other covered spaces are high tunnels where they grow in the winter with no heat.

“The farm is called Main Street Farms,” explains Allan, “because you can really have an aquaponic/hydroponic farm like this on every main street. This model has achieved some of my original goals, but over the years we have expanded significantly mostly through field production in soil rather than our aquaponic system. We are really involved in the local community and that has helped a tremendous amount. We have three locations and people drive by our greenhouses all the time. So we have become part of the landscape.

pea shoots ready to harvest.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Hydroponically raised pea shoots ready to harvest.

“We sell to the school system now, too,” he continues. “which was one of our goals. The irony is that they don’t buy the stuff that is grown in the aquaponic system because it is too based on specialty crops and too expensive. What they are buying is field crops like lettuce, winter and summer squash. We can’t beat the grocery store prices on those, but the school districts around here have a USDA grant where they can pay a little more for local produce. It is a miniscule part of our gross sales, but it gets them higher quality food and works for that goal.”

Allan also has a lot of connections to the Universities. He has done a bunch of research projects with the people at Cornell in the ag school and is in a good location for that kind of collaboration.

The farm sells a big volume of greens in September and October to SUNY Cortland. The students want it, and the college itself has a sustainability plan so they need to buy local and sustainably grown food.

The central part of New York is jam packed with CSAs and local food options. Syracuse University and Cornell have food clubs, food field trips, and buy-local groups, and there is plenty of interest in local food. Allan’s girl friend is beginning a Masters degree in Food Studies at Syracuse.

One of the farm’s major markets is an innovative 250-share CSA that goes year round. Every year they build more high tunnels for winter growing. This year they introduced an innovative way to pay for shares.

“Our CSA is now on a weekly payment system,” Allan explains. “If someone wants to skip a week they can. They just log in to their online account. They can go back on whenever they are ready. We live in an area that isn’t affluent and for people to spend $500 or $600 for a season of produce is a lot of money. So by doing a weekly thing if they go on vacation and don’t have to pay for their share, they’re happy. They don’t feel like they have wasted money. For us, we are getting those people to eat better and they are part of the farm.

Allan in the aquaponic facility he built five years ago.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Allan in the aquaponic facility he built five years ago.

“We still have 30 to 40% of our members,” he continues, “who just mail us a check for the whole thing. Some pay for the season and miss half the pickups. They don’t care. But we had other people in the past who would freak out about missing one week and paying for it. Also, we have two sizes of shares, but any

CSA share is a lot of vegetables and if people don’t eat all of them in one week they can finish them off the next week and skip the new ones for a week. It prevents the problem with backlogs of vegetables in refrigerators!

“This is the first year,” he concludes. “that we are doing that pay-as-you-go system, and people are loving it. On July fourth a lot of people put their accounts on hold to go on vacation. So that was several thousand dollars on hold, but we have other markets and it meant people were taking advantage of the system. They are part of the farm and they are not wasting their $25. But before the hold system we would harvest the vegetables, set them somewhere, and then compost them. That was no good! And this way we have labor savings. But if we had done this 5 years ago as a brand new farm we couldn’t afford to do it this way. Too risky!”

The rapid growth of the farm is in part due to an aggressive strategy of investment and hiring. For one thing, they keep upgrading their facilities by building high tunnels. This year, in addition, they have secured an old warehouse in Cortland and are setting up a new packing and washing facility there. It will be heated and insulated and built on a concrete slab so they can use a forklift to move stuff around!

Allan is putting in a commercial kitchen there and they will move everything directly from the field down there for washing and packing. It is only a mile from the production areas and the efficiency of labor will be much better.

“Right now our facility is too small to run pallets through,” points out Gandelman, “and so right now we are moving things many times more than we need to. The labor savings alone will pay the rent for us – not to mention people’s comfort level in the winter! Half of what we do is in storage vegetables so we are washing and packing every week of the year. When you are doing that in a retrofitted barn and the water is freezing, people are miserable!”

Allan also feels their growth is based on his willingness to reach out for staff instead of doing everything himself.

“I have hired people to do some of the stuff that I used to do in marketing,” he explains, “and that has freed me up to create better systems, hire the right people, stuff like that. When I was doing it all with my business partner Bob, we didn’t have time to expand!”

Of course the down side of this approach is that you don’t always find the right person. Right now Allan has no full time greenhouse manager – just one employee coming in for a few hours – so he has to fill in and it is hard to do all he should. He is just too busy to keep up with it all.

“We had a great woman manage it all but she moved to Colorado,” he laughs. “We have lost two workers to Colorado now. Greener pastures! We can’t pay what they pay!”

For the first time, Allan this year reached out for workers under the H2A program. They now employ 2 Jamaicans, and he is pretty happy with their work.

“They work,” he says. “They know what they are doing. These guys have farms in Jamaica in the winter and have been coming to New York and working in apple farms for 20 years. They are older guys and I found housing for them. They aren’t here to mess around. They don’t take days off. They want to work as much as possible every day. They know plants.

“We’re not used,” he continues, “to having our harvest crew know anything! We were hiring college kids and local people. We would tell them to go make a bunch of chard and they do it and you look at it and you say: ‘You put four leaves in here that are diseased or have pest damage.’ The guys from Jamaica know how to make a nice looking bunch! It is just different.”

The farm’s minimum wage is $12.38 an hour and the pay is above the living wage for Cortland County. The farm hires someone to cook lunch for the employees every day. Farm work at Main Street Farms is not enough to make a middle class job, Allan understands. But one of his goals is that farmers should be getting the same pay as teachers.

“We should be at that level,” he feels. “Until we get there I won’t be satisfied. Otherwise the food system is unstable.”

The greenhouse Allan uses for his aquaponic and hydroponic operation is slightly longer than usual, about 112 feet, by 30 feet wide. It is double skinned to preserve heat, which is one of the primary expenses of the system. They have a natural gas furnace for hot air, and were using it to heat the circulating water the fish live in. Allan got a grant, however, from NYSERTA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to install solar thermal panels to heat that water. They look like solar electric panels but are for heating water. There are definitely savings when using solar versus propane, but in the winter there is only so much heat available from the sun before they have to use the gas again.

“Here you can monitor that whole system,” Gandelman says, standing at a control panel at one end of the greenhouse. “We have a hot water holding tank outside which is at 147 degrees on a cloudy day. The collectors are at 93, the heat exchanger is at 84, and the fish tanks are at 75. When the system needs heat it runs glycol through the heat exchanger to the holding tank and pulls the BTUs out of the holding tank and sends them to the fish tanks. Once the holding tank goes below 150 the solar panels start pumping hot glycol back into the holding tank.”

The actual aquaponic/hydroponic system Allan has designed is not too far distant from what Will Allen uses in Milwaukee and John Todd and others designed at the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod in the seventies. Back then they had tilapia in tanks and grew in solar greenhouses. There is not a lot of research published about their work, but they had separate water filtration systems to keep the circulating water healthy for the fish and not let the fish wastes overpower the plants. They got into biological filtration systems, repeating much of what nature does, and that moved into work in waste water treatment. It is much easier to raise money on the municipal scale to treat waste water than to raise food. So a lot of the New Alchemy work has gone in that direction since the Institute shut down.

Allan’s system has rows of tanks running down the length of the greenhouse. Each row has 3 levels of tanks. The bottom tank has the fish and the two top ones have microgreens floating on racks in the filtered water pumped up from the fish tanks.

Right now Main Street uses tilapia, a common name for any of hundreds of species of cichlid fish from the lilapline cichlid tribe of mainly freshwater fish inhabiting shallow streams, ponds, rivers and lakes and less commonly found living in brackish water. They tastes like catfish or other mildly flavored white meat fish and take a year to grow. Tilapia have increased in popularity as a food fish since they grow well in farmed fish environments.

The fish are fed pelletized meal made from ground up fish, which is commercially available. Main Street sells the fish gutted and scaled, either fresh or frozen. Allan and the farm staff clean and process the fish themselves in a commercial kitchen, which is a lot of work, he says. They hope to diversify into yellow perch and maybe largemouth bass this winter, fish that also grow well in this environment.

A pump takes the water from the fish in the bottom tank up to the top and then gravity feeds it all the way back down, feeding the greens in the top and middle levels, until it gets back to the fish in the bottom tank. A biofiltration system is under these beds. It collects the solids, they break down, and red wiggler composting worms that live in there in the water eat the solids. The biofilter is colonized by different bacteria. There is one that eats ammonia. It shows up right away. If you had a fish tank at your house you would have the same bacteria show up. They are converting the ammonia to nitrites. Then another bacteria converts nitrites to nitrates. The nitrates are what the plants take up.

photo by Jack Kittredge Pipes carry fish nutrients to upper level tanks where it is gravity fed to the plants.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Pipes carry fish nutrients to upper level tanks where it is gravity fed to the plants.

Tubes carry air into the tanks to oxygenate them, but they are turned off for the summer. Right now the backflow of the water is enough to oxygenate it. But the basic system as Allan designed it has held up well for 5 years.

“You can grow any leafy green in this water, “ says Gandelman. “We were doing a lot of lettuce for a while. These are microgreens here now — they are the most profitable. They won’t be harvested for another week. They go to restaurants and stores, mostly. We have mizuna, arugula, mustard greens, kale, cabbage, peashoots. They are sold in little clamshell containers and are put on meals as a garnish or used in salads. They are tasty and mildly spicy. We grow them on these burlap racks, just floating in the tanks. They mostly need nitrogen to grow, which they get from the fish waste. They also need iron, which we add as a trace mineral every month. There is plenty of phosphorus in the fish waste. These greens grow in 14 to 21 days, and don’t need much else. You can add micronutrients if you want, but the fish waste has most of them already because we feed them a balanced feed. In this system the fish are putting in amino acids and things that are good for the plants.”

The greens could all grow in soil – the farm used to grow them in soil in trays on tables. It would be a lot of work bending over to grow them in the ground, but you can grow them in media on tables in a hoophouse.

“The microgreens all have their preferences,” says Allan. “This is mizuna and it is yellowing a little. It doesn’t do great in the heat, but it does well in the winter. This cabbage is doing awesome. These are peashoots just ready to harvest. We vary our mix depending on the season and what does best.”

A year-round growing environment like this, with high nitrogen nutrient water, poses a lot of pest issues, especially on salad greens and leafy greens. Mostly it is insects, says Gandelman, primarily aphids.

photo by Jack Kittredge Allan inspects the control center for his solar hot water system.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Allan inspects the control center for his solar hot water system.

The greens are certified organic, so the farm is not spraying, but it is still growing year-round and doesn’t shut down so that makes it a little bit tricky with the greens that grow here. There is not a time when the pests are frozen out or can’t find crops to feed on.

Costs are also a problem. The mission was to get food in to the schools and feed people, so it has to be affordable, whether it is certified organic or not.

“The economics don’t work great,” admits Allan. “They’re okay. But for this to really work we would have to build a four or five acre greenhouse. You need to get economies of scale, and that is really the scale to make this work profitably as a stand alone system.

“Everything in here is expensive,” he continues. “And growing high calorie food out in the field, like potatoes or carrots or beets, is way more cost effective for us and much more cost effective for the end consumer. You can get a much higher volume of food for the same money as you can with leafy greens. You know? Leafy greens just don’t have a lot of calories.

“We sell them retail for $32 a pound,” he adds. “Wholesale that is $24 a pound, to restaurants, mostly. Each one of these racks might yield a half pound. It’s not a ton of money but it is enough to keep the place going. Growing them this way is lower in labor costs because you are constantly watering them in soil and this takes care of that. On tables the soil dries out so fast you are always watering. Here you don’t have to pay attention to that. But here you have to pay the electric, the heat… “

Main Street isn’t really big enough to go through a food distributor, so they do all their own distribution – restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets.

Allan shows the hot water collectors he has installed on the south side of the aquaponic greenhouse

photo by Jack Kittredge
Allan shows the hot water collectors he has installed
on the south side of the aquaponic greenhouse

Allan says if he had to do it over again he would probably just build more high tunnels. The price of land is not that high and they don’t utilize the aquaponics operation as much as they could, especially in the summer, so it is not as profitable as it could be. Finding the right person to work there is part of the problem. If they could do that, he thinks it would be more profitable.

“I’ve done a lot of workshops on aquaponics,” Gandelman reflects. “People want to get into it as a retirement plan. But it is a little risky for that. The startup overhead is really high. I tell them they are better off building a high tunnel for $5000 or $7000 and growing in the soil. Then go to the farmers market and see how you feel about it. Then, after a year or two, you can put an aquaponic system in that high tunnel if you still think that is what you want to do.”

Asked how he would redesign an aquaponics system now, after working with this one for five years, Allan says he wouldn’t use a vertical stack system like this, but put the fish in tanks in a garage and pump the water into a greenhouse with one level of floating racks. Such a design would call for more upfront costs, but in the long term he thinks it would be better to separate the fish and the plants more. He still likes the idea of doing aquaponics because it is different and he likes being a diversified farmer.

“I could grow 200 acres of cabbage in soil and sell it all,” he sighs, “but that sounds boring. The aquaponics thing is just another piece of our diversified operation. That is why it works. If it was just aquaponics, on that scale, it would be too difficult and not that interesting to me.“

Gandelman pays attention to the national discussions about organics and hydroponics, but it doesn’t really affect Main Street Farms that much. They are certified organic because they can be, but it’s not that important to their marketing.

The three level of tanks in the aquaponic operation.

photo by Jack Kittredge
The three level of tanks in the aquaponic operation.
The fish are in the bottom tank, microgreens in the top two.

The tilapia are not certified for one simple reason: there is no such thing as organic fish food. The farm buys the best fish food they can find. But the USDA can’t certify sea food and the fish food is made up mostly of other fish. So the tilapia can’t be certified until someone makes a plant-based fish food that can be certified first.

The greens can be certified because the manure from the fish is being broken down in a biofiltration system and never really touching the plants. The worms eat the manure, the solid fish wastes, and their castings then break down in water to provide the micro and macro nutrients. The worms just reproduce and keep going. The same rules apply as in the soil where you apply manure and then it is broken down by bacteria. Allan has to follow the same NOP rules about not applying manure that is not broken down to plants until after 120 days. That is really a big reason they have not expanded the aquaponics part of the operation — because of those limits on nutrient use for the plants.

“I don’t think that hydroponics by itself should be allowed as organic,” Allan states. “There are no bacteria or organisms in the system. But this is a living ecosystem. It’s not working with synthetics, it is working through organisms, bacteria, fish, worms. It is very similar to a soil system.

“If you go down to Florida,” he continues, “you can see where they grow organic tomatoes in sand and fertigate them with minerals. They use things like bat guano and say that is okay, but that is the same as hydroponics – supplying nutrients through irrigation.

“People say they want the crops grown in soil, “he concludes. “But if the reason they want that is because of the living organisms in soil, this system has that. The whole thing is based on worms, manure, and bacteria. But in a straight hydroponic system, even if you create an organic nutrient, there is no living bacteria that really power it.”

One of the reasons Gandelman is not more supportive of hydroponic growing is that he has seen it taken to extremes.

“A friend of mine now has the biggest indoor vertical farm in the world,” he reveals. “He started here at Cornell and he was growing baby arugula in the late nineties. No one wanted that. It was like: ‘What the heck is baby arugula? It’s spicy and bitter. We don’t want to buy this crap!’ But fast forward to 15 years later and everyone wants baby arugula!

“So now everyone wants those baby greens,” he continues, “arugula, baby spinach, baby kale, now it is a thing. And a vertical system is perfect to grow those short, fast turnaround things. To make money you have to be harvesting constantly. You don’t want to be waiting like we do for storage cabbage – it takes a whole year for one crop. With a vertical system they are harvesting 52 times a year. At those economies of scale it is profitable, but at mine, not so.

Farms crew pick spinach.

photo by Allison Usavage
Bob Cat and a couple of workers from the Main Street Farms crew pick spinach.

“A vertical farm is where you grow everything indoors in a stacked system,” he concludes. “What we have is two levels here. What they have is 10 or 15 levels of racking, and every rack is a different bed. It goes 15, 20, even 30 feet high. They use the same physical footprint, but times 15. They are in New Jersey, in Newark, in an old steel mill. They are growing what in the field could be 100 acres of arugula. And they are right next to their New York City market, so they have lowered some of their transportation and freshness costs. Plus that whole industry of hydroponics and vertical farming is moving to robotics. Soon they won’t have much of a labor bill. Also, if you are an indoor farm in New Jersey, your competition is outdoor farms in California. If California has a drought, labor problem, pest outbreak, you’re totally immune from those problems.”

Allan feels that food costs in the US country are too low. He goes to the Syracuse farmers market, which is monstrous. They have 400 vendors and get 20,000 buyers a day. A lot of the growers, however, are the old conventional vegetable growers who want to beat everyone on price. That doesn’t make sense to Allan. He thinks we need all levels of production in our food system, and the prices have to support that.

“Because this work is important on different levels,” he insists. “The most basic level is from an environmental quality perspective. We’re an organic farm so we take care of the soil and the environment much better than bigger conventional farms. The next level is that we’re growing food for our local community so we’re helping people to eat better, eat healthier, eat what’s in season, and not go to the grocery store so much. And then on a whole different level, we have a decent sized farm business and a bunch of employees which makes us feel really good that we can provide jobs and employ people, and take part in our community that way.

“Sure, there is a potential to make money too,” he adds. “But like in any farming venture, aquaponics or field production, all the stars have to line up perfectly for you to do that. If you get the right people, the right markets, the right product, the right system, the right scale, just at the right time – then you have a chance! If any one of those variables is not lining up, though, it won’t make money.”

§ 205.203 Soil Fertility &  Crop Nutrient Management  Practice Standard

Editor’s note: this is the actual language from the National Organic Program’s Rule relative to the issue of soil and hydroponics. It does not define specific land practices that producers must use. But it does identify general soil management and environmental protection objectives. From these objectives, producers and the organic certifiers they work with must determine whether specific farming practices meet the NOP criteria. Readers wishing further insight into this rule and how to apply it may want to read an ATTRA publication by Barbara C. Bellows called “Soil Management: National Organic Program Regulations” available at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/download.php?id=180

(a) The producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil and minimize soil erosion.

(b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials.

(c) The producer must manage plant and animal materials to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances. Animal and plant materials include:

(1) Raw animal manure, which must be composted unless it is:

(i) Applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption;

(ii) Incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles; or

(iii) Incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles;

(2) Composted plant and animal materials produced though a process that:

(i) Established an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1; and

(ii) Maintained a temperature of between 131 °F and 170 °F for 3 days using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system; or

(iii) Maintained a temperature of between 131 °F and 170 °F for 15 days using a windrow composting system, during which period, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

(3) Uncomposted plant materials.

(d) A producer may manage crop nutrients and soil fertility to maintain or improve soil organic matter content in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances by applying:

(1) A crop nutrient or soil amendment included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production;

(2) A mined substance of low solubility;

(3) A mined substance of high solubility: Provided, That, the substance is used in compliance with the conditions established on the National List of nonsynthetic materials prohibited for crop production;

(4) Ash obtained from the burning of a plant or animal material, except as prohibited in paragraph (e) of this section: Provided, That, the material burned has not been treated or combined with a prohibited substance or the ash is not included on the National List of nonsynthetic substances prohibited for use in organic crop production; and

(5) A plant or animal material that has been chemically altered by a manufacturing process: Provided, That, the material is included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production established in § 205.601.

(e) The producer must not use:

(1) Any fertilizer or composted plant and animal material that contains a synthetic substance not included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production;

(2) Sewage sludge (biosolids) as defined in 40 CFR part 503; and

(3) Burning as a means of disposal for crop residues produced on the operation: Except, That, burning may be used to suppress the spread of disease or to stimulate seed germination.

Appendix J to the Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force Report: Letter from Michael Sligh

Michael Sligh

Michael Sligh

(This is a statement by the founding chair of the NOSB concerning the key 1995 recommendation on hydroponics passed by the NOSB. This recommendation is the foundation of the current allowance of hydroponics and debate over the proper role of soil in organic systems.)

I am Michael Sligh, and was a founding member of the NOSB from 1992-1997 and served as the founding chair and vice-chair to the second chair. I did publish, A Guide To The Development of US. Organic Standards, in 1997, that contains all of the Original NOSB recommendation to USDA for the development of the US Organic Regulations.

This record records that the Board did pass a three line recommendation on April, 25, 1995:

Hydroponic production in soilless media to be labeled organically produced shall be allowed, if all provisions of the OFPA have been met.

We had been required to make some recommendations on a wide range of specialized subjects prior to submitting our final recommendation to USDA for the development of US NOP regulations. The Hydroponic discussion was very short and consisted of only a few minutes of full board discussion during our April, 25, (1995) meeting. USDA’s own transcripts from the period of 1992 – 1995, also only records this same one reference from that April 25th meeting, but it does add that:

“Kahn* concluded his report by reading the hydroponics recommendation that would allow organic labeling for products from soilless media if all other National Program requirements are satisfied. Baker expressed his concerns about the philosophical problems associated with soilless production. Kahn noted that the recommendation only allows for the possibility of an organic hydroponics industry developing. Kahn recognized that hydroponics is a practice that is dependent on synthetic inputs and wants to open up dialogue with its proponents.”

* Gene Kahn was the chair of the Crops Committee during that period and wanted a “place holder” for future discussions.

On a personal note, my understanding of that statement, that “all provisions of OFPA have been met”, was the key to my voting for that very brief recommendation. As one that both worked on the OFPA and as the founding chair and a founding board member; I understood OFPA to be about organic farming, which meant that the goal, (as our NOSB definition of organic farming stated and was also adopted at that same April meeting in Orlando, states” …based on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony….The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.”

Additionally, the OFPA refers to soil about ten times:

and specifically

“(b) Crop production farm plan.

(1) Soil fertility. An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

(2) Manuring.

(A) Inclusion in organic plan. An organic plan shall contain terms and conditions that regulate the application of manure to crops.”

So, in conclusion, in my opinion OPFA includes the “following key provisions that must be met” – “would include a farm plan; that fosters soil fertility, includes crop rotations, is compatible with a system of sustainable agriculture, does not harm soil organisms and does not include any production practices that are inconsistent with this chapter.”

Hope this helps,

all the best,


Comments of NOSB Members and Other Participants on Hydroponics at April 2017 NOSB Meeting in Denver

Asa Bradman(editor’s note: The meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in April included a vigorous discussion of how hydroponic growing should be treated – allowed in organic production or not. No decision was planned at that point, but the issue was clearly controversial. Below are statements from members and others attending the meeting which we hope will give you a sense of the feelings there.)

Asa Bradman (environmentalist): I’ve read every public comment that has come in. I have the task force report in front of me. I would appreciate if Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest (large hydroponic producers) would come forward with a very clear description of their systems.

Emily Oakely (farmer) continues with the hydroponic discussion: Stakeholders on all ends of the spectrum do not want us to delay a decision on this because we will create more conflict within the community. In the fall, we need to put forward a proposal on what we can agree on.

Emily OakleyThe farmers are on the farm and not present at this meeting, so I feel the weight of representing the perhaps 75% of organic farmers that are small scale. Many people come to farming because it is both a business and a cause. Organics was a hippy back to the land movement, and now it encompasses a wide spectrum.

I’m under no illusion that the organic food at the grocery store comes from a five acre farm, but I want to see the standard applied equally to all stakeholders. My expectation is that the soil will provide the fertility. Outside sources are provided on an as needed basis. I can’t imagine a soil system where an input is required for the survival of the crop.

Ashley Swaffar (farmer – designation protested by Cornucopia): I can’t vote on a hydroponic proposal without a container proposal too. If we move forward on any definition, I need to feel like containers are safe.

Harriet BeharHarriet Behar (environmentalist): Organic is not input substitution. It is a whole system. It is about the environment, healthy food, a type of agriculture that offers hope for fixing the problems that we already have for seven generations and beyond.

I was an organic inspector for 20 years. When I ask farmers initially why they went from conventional farming to organic, they say a family member has cancer. When I went back a few years later, there was more to it. They saw biodiversity on the farm, they saw a healthier herd. The farmers don’t want to go back to conventional production, even if they lose the higher price.

Dave Mortensen (scientist): There’s a credibility problem in science today. While scientists are incredibly objective about their methods, they are subjective about the questions that they ask. Very few people ask why are we asking these questions and not others. As a group we need to be asking the right questions.

Dave MortensonIn my view as an agroecologist and ecotoxicologist, what’s the ecological footprint of the practices? How resilient are the systems? What are the ecoservice implications? I understand food deserts. I understand different communities and points of view. We must create space for conversation and that means together, face-to-face. We need to get out and see these operations.

Ashley Swaffar: “I would like to see another discussion on this and, at the earliest, a vote on this next spring.” I really would like to see a container discussion document come forward and be voted on at the same time as the vote on definitions.

Steve Ela (farmer): I take literally that the producer must improve soil, water and natural resources.

We need to move beyond the biology – biology happens everywhere. We need multiple trophic levels. Do we have nematodes, fungi, and mammals, as well as bacteria?
Steve Ela
An organic system should sustain itself with less human input, not more human input. If you remove everything but water, how long will that system maintain itself? I’ve grown for 15 years, and I understand the older I get the less I know.

I try to keep my hands off of the system unless there is something catastrophic – for me that would be codling moth. We need to foster natural systems as much as possible. I fall on the side of human hubris. I don’t think we can reliably engineer a natural system.

Dan SeitzDan Seitz (consumer): As a consumer representative on the board, consumers are schizophrenic. They want cheap food, nutritious food, year-round food. So it is going to be difficult to base this decision on them.

This issue gets at the heart of two basic conflicting paradigms: the mechanistic paradigm where humans have the capacity to improve the human condition indefinitely; and the natural paradigm where we should mimic natural systems with minimal influence.

Ian Justus, representing Driscoll’s: We need to clarify definitions. No one knows what percent of fertility comes from liquid nutrients. In response to a question from NOSB member Francis Thicke (environmental), Justus says Driscoll’s only grows the nursery plants but they have individual growers that all have different practices. Everyone is using blends of fertility from the National List. Emily Oakley (farmer) asks if they can use 50% compost in the containers. Justus responds that you need to have a better definition of compost. We need to separate soil from fertility. But 50% is too high for our growers for a compost that supplies fertility. We want to distribute the fertility. Most of the fertility is needed later in life.

David Ferman of Coalition for Sustainable Organics and Marketing Director of NS Brands – produce organic hydroponic container tomatoes in Arizona. Consumers believe organic is about healthier products for them and their families, not improving the condition of the soil, he said.

Jason Kamimoto of Rocket Farms: We use peat moss and turkey fertilizer pellets to grow in containers. We meet the Canadian organic container standards that require minimum soil volumes and limit liquid nutrients.

Michael Hasey of The Farming Fish: We grow in the ground, and aquaponically. It is all a very sustainable system that recycles nutrients and should be considered organic.

Sam WelschSam Welsch, owner of the certification agency One Cert: Federal law, specifically OFPA 6513, requires that an organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

When asked by NOSB member Ashley Swaffar how no-till systems fall under “proper tillage,” Welsch replied that no-till is included in proper tillage and fosters soil fertility through the organic content of the soil. It is certainly possible to monitor the quantities of liquid fertilizers applied, to keep them below the 20% amount of total fertility for example, but the standards need to be clear and the actual source of liquid fertility inputs need to be disclosed for traceability.

Nate Lewis of the industry lobbyist group, the Organic Trade Association: We need to look for consensus and compromise. We support the 2010 recommendation as well as guidelines for container production.

Jason Whitcher, speaking for a distributor of container and soil grown products: Container production uses the same inputs as soil growers, therefore they should be allowed to be organic.

Kristin Adams of the certifying agent MOSA supports the continued growth of organics through the allowance of aquaponic, aeroponic, hydroponic, and container hydroponic growing.

David Hiltz (of Acadian Seaplants) produces products from algae: Does not want to be restricted from using brown, green, or red algae harvesting.

Hydroponic supporter Bill Broydrick to the NOSB: Our containers are more sustainable than soil farming, we use fewer fertilizers and less water.

Brunno Da Silva Cerozi of Superior Fresh testifies that aquaponics tie the link between animals and plants for nutrient cycling. In soils, a soil solution is required between the root and the soil too. Microbes are involved in delivering the nutrients in both systems.

Gerald Davis of Grimmway Farms, former NOSB member: “Reject allowing liquid substrate container farms under the organic label.” 

Phil LaRoccaPhil LaRocca, farmer, wine maker, and CCOF board president: “I’ve spent half of my life building soil. Having said that, we would like to see organic hydroponics labeled “hydroponic” under the organic label and let the consumer decide. If I have a choice between a tomato grown in the soil and hydroponic, I would choose the soil. However, if the only choice was organic hydroponic and a conventional soil grown tomato, I would choose the organic hydroponic.”

Scott’s Miracle Gro company representative testifies in support of organic hydroponics: “As the world’s population grows, there is the need for new technologies.”

Gail Nelson of G&G Connections: Increased shortages of organic produce are being felt in the marketplace. Hydro organic farming is an innovation in organics that can deliver the needs of the consumer.

Conventional hydroponic grower Tanimura and Antle tells the NOSB that they have large acreages of conventional hydroponics ready to transition to organic if it is allowed.

Wil Hemeker of the University of Akron Research Foundation testifies that all systems are biologically complex, both hydroponic container systems and soil.

Tom Beddard at rallyTom Beddard of Lady Moon Farms: “OFPA got it right. Soil fertility is the benchmark for being an organic farm. An entire complex organic production system centered around the soil is progress, not a simple hydroponic system. Calling hydroponics/containers ‘organic’ is capitulating to market forces. In my experience, you can’t have a container system that doesn’t end up depending almost entirely on soluble fertilizers.”

Jay Feldman, former NOSB member and executive director of Beyond Pesticides: The integrity of the organic seal is currently in jeopardy. Hydroponics: There was a previous board decision in 2010, and there is no new information. The NOP should move forward on this.

Madison Monty of NOFA-VT tells the NOSB that she would like to see container standards developed more clearly before containers are allowed to be certified. In the meantime, only ground production can be certified organic in line with the EU.

Theo Crisantes, a grower for Wholesome Harvest, a giant hydroponics producer.  Crisantes says he has been certified organic for 10 years in containers filled with coco coir.

Jim GerritsenJim Gerritsen, an organic potato farmer, Cornucopia policy advisor, and president of OSGATA: “We’ve been certified organic by MOFGA for 35 years. OSGATA’s definition of genetic engineering is that if there’s manipulation at a subcellular level, that is genetic engineering. Organic seed should be 100% free of GE.” “Soil,” adds Gerritsen, “is the foundation of organic farming and it [hydroponics] doesn’t meet the requirements of OFPA.”

Cornucopia’s Mark Kastel testifies. Our focus is on protecting the foundational ethical precepts in organics, he says.

Kastel adds: I remember, back in the 70s and 80s, one of the mantras in the organic movement was “feed the soil not the plants.”

The focus was on building organic material, biological activity, and nutrients for more nutritious, flavorful food while protecting the earth. Now corporate lobbyists in this room are telling you that feeding plants, continually, with a liquid fertilizer solution, in pure water or sprayed through the air or in containers filled with mostly inert ingredients is …. “organic.” This is a gross betrayal of the organic movement.

Abby YoungbloodAbby Youngblood with the National Organic Coalition comments that the process of peer review is part of what gives us the confidence in the organic seal. She praised the NOSB for the passing of the organic excluded methods document and noted that we need to be vigilant to keep that updated and enforced. Hydroponics advocates, she says, have “muddied the waters” by distinguishing between container and hydroponic production, but they both rely on outside inputs.  Organic is much more than the inputs.

Max Goldberg of the publication Organic Insider: “OFPA requires maintaining soil fertility. Why are we even discussing hydroponics in organics?”

Alan Lewis of Natural Grocers says that they label organic produce in their grocery stores that is hydroponic so their consumers can choose. “Welcome to the organic minus label. If that doesn’t break your heart, what will?” He also testifies that organic is competing with other labels and organic is losing its gold standard status.

Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer, testifies:  The hydroponic lobby has called us the “circular firing squad,” but the organic community is largely united with the law that organic is based on soil.

Dave ChapmanIf we do not follow the law, he says, we will lose our place as the healthy soil movement, and we need that association now more than ever. The NOP was created to serve and protect, not to reinvent. You will either tear apart the organic movement or restore it. He recommends that the hydroponic/container lobby follow a similar process verified system with the USDA so that consumers can be informed of the growing practices.

Lee Frankel, Coalition for Sustainable Organics, (formed of 40 hydroponic growers a year ago when the NOSB started to question whether growing in containers should be considered organic) says there is biology in their systems; therefore they are organic. When asked whether their growers’ container systems could include standards that require soil, Frankel responded that growers could throw a pinch of soil in the system, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate whether that would be a best practice.

Farming with Natural Complexity

(previously published in the spring 2017 issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter)

You can grow beautiful tomatoes hydroponically, but are they organic?

You can grow beautiful tomatoes hydroponically, but are they organic?

Growing up, I told a skeptical family member that I wanted to be an organic farmer. He replied, “Why make life difficult for yourself by choosing a career that goes against convention?”

The long answer to his question would have included everything from the benefits of farm biodiversity, nutrient cycling, environmental stewardship, animal welfare, reduction of farmworker and consumer chemical exposure, production of healthier food, and, in short, a desire to leave a piece of land better than I found it! In-stead, I simply replied, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Last November esteemed Vermont organic greenhouse grower Dave Chapman testified before the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, if profits were his sole motivation as an organic farmer, he would become a hydroponic grower.

Rather than putting so much effort into caring for the soil by building organic matter and fertility, he would see an immediate boost in yield and profits with a hy-droponic container system.

Chapman testified, “Do you have any idea how profitable hydroponics would be for me if I called it ‘organic?’ Why wouldn’t I do that? Because I believe it would be fraud. ‘Organic’ must be based in the soil.”

The organic community’s reverence for the complexity of natural soil ecosystems comes from the knowledge that thousands of species are interacting in diverse ways with one another and with the naturally occurring minerals in soil.

Soil, plants, and animal species have been coevolving for millions of years. Soil contains fungi, micro-algae, protozoa, nematodes, invertebrates, actinomycetes (bacteria that grow in filaments), nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and even the healthy bacteria that reside in our guts!

This respect for, and desire to work with, natural complexity is rooted in the organic community’s embrace of a systems approach to farming. Organic agriculture rejects the reductionism of conventional systems that has led to monoculture, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification to the detriment of our land, water, ecosystems, and health.

This same reductionism has driven hydroponics. Most industrial ‘organic’ hydroponic operations reduce their nutrient requirements to those which can be obtained from hydrolyzed, conventional soybeans.

Hydrolyzed soy, fed continuously through an irrigation system into containers filled with coconut husk (coir), is the primary source of fertility used to produce crops of ‘organic’ hydroponic tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.

With their vast greenhouses full of plastic containers and tubing, industrial hydroponic systems do nothing to improve the land.

How can a system completely removed from land stewardship, gleaning fertility primarily from conventional, likely GMO, soy production, be considered ‘organic?’

The USDA Organic Seal was developed so that a market premium could go to farmers who incurred additional production costs for adhering to higher standards.

The organic standards incorporate environmental and human health, animal welfare, and sustainability. The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) includes a firm requirement for soil in organic systems because the founders recognized soil’s central role in nutrient cycling and sustainable land management.

The law states, “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil.” OFPA continues, “An organic plan shall not include any production or handling practices that are inconsistent with this chapter.”

Clearly hydroponic container systems are not compliant with the law, and they are contrary to the spirit of organic as well. These systems do not increase organic matter in the soil, nor do they foster soil fertility, cycle nutrients, or capture carbon.

However, some organic certifiers and the National Organic Program (NOP) are allowing these hydroponic container systems to be labeled ‘organic,’ pushing true organic producers who adhere to the law out of business, because caring for our land is more costly than simply producing food without it.

Meanwhile, certifiers adhering to the letter of the law and upholding the spirit of organics, such as OneCert, Vermont Organic Farmers, and Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, are losing business as a result.

Why would a certifier choose to lose revenue by refusing to certify a hydroponic container operation if the NOP would let them get away with it? The short answer: Because it’s the right thing to do!

There will always be people who make decisions based on profit, while others reject this temptation because of their commitment to operate ethically.

The good food movement has continued to experience the co-opting of its language by inauthentic use of the words “local,” “family farm,” “farmstead,” “arti-san,” and even “CSA.”

The original organic stakeholders lobbied to create the National Organic Program to prevent misuse of the word “organic” by designing a mechanism to enforce the OFPA. In the case of hydroponics, the NOP has ignored the law altogether because of pressure from corporate agribusiness.

More and more, the organic label has become an avenue for industrial-scale producers to make higher profits by incorporating conventional inputs, methods, and systems into the organic label, all with the intent of “growing the organic market.”

But this is progress for the sake of progress. Organic enforcement must be strong on the requirements for biodiversity, land stewardship, nutrient cycling, and in-creasing organic matter in the soil if it is to continue to distinguish itself from conventional farming.

While other production systems certainly have their merits, not all of them should be called ‘organic.’

Hydroponics and the Soul of Organic

Max GoldbergI just got back from the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Denver, and echoing the words of esteemed organic advocate and farmer Michael Sligh, “the soul of organic is at stake.”

Currently, hydroponics (growing plants in water) or other container growing systems (growing plants in a nutrient free substrate like peat moss or coconut coir and then adding micronized fish or hydrolyzed soy for nutrition for the plants) are being allowed under the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Why is this a problem?

Organic was founded on the basis of growing plants in the soil. Period.

People buy organic because it tastes better, has superior nutrition and is optimal for the environment. And this is all the result of the rich soil in organic farms.

Despite the fact that it does have tremendous value to society, growing plants in water or container systems are just not organic. The language in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990, which was ratified by Congress, affirms this stance.

The USDA defines soil as:

The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.

(ii)The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.

Section 6513 b-1 of OFPA says that:

An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation, and manuring.

Because of this language, hydroponics or other container growing systems cannot be legally justified under the OFPA. Yet, they are being allowed, and neither the USDA nor the NOSB, which advises the USDA about organic rules and regulations, are taking the necessary steps to prohibit these growing methods under organic.

Why is this?

Money, of course.

Big corporate organic interests have pressured the USDA and NOSB to allow hydroponics and other container growing systems, and at each NOSB meeting they do nothing but try to confuse members as a stall tactic.

They push for more discussion, present more research, roll out more scientific papers, fly in more experts from around the world about what constitutes a container growing system and whether it is nutritionally equivalent to a soil-based system. This has gone on for 10 years with absolutely no end and no clarity in sight.

Meanwhile, the organic hydroponics industry is estimated now to be worth $1 billion, and experts scare NOSB members into thinking that eliminating hydroponics and other container-based growing systems would have disastrous economic consequences for the industry and consumers. Like master tacticians, these industry experts and lobbyists are now playing the “Too Big to Fail” card.

As confusion and disagreement abound among NOSB members, the can inevitably gets kicked down the road every single meeting, year after year, including this most recent one in Denver.

The only questions that the NOSB should be asking itself, which I put forth in my public testimony, are the following:

Under OFPA, is a soil-based growing system mandatory?

If the answer is ‘yes’, which the language in OFPA clearly affirms, why are we having any discussion about any type of container system?

There is no doubt that hydroponics and container-based systems benefit society. No one is debating that.

However, they are not organic, and I believe that these systems are in complete violation of the true meaning, spirit and intent of the Organic Foods Production Act.

Unless something is done, organic hydroponics will continue to flourish and an increasing number of soil-based, family farms will disappear. More and more of our fruits and vegetables will be grown in water, robbing us of the essence and life force that we so desperately need and desire from organic food.

Big corporate interests are changing the very nature of organic production right before our eyes. And in the process, they are also robbing from us the soul of organic.

Are we going to let this happen?

Coalition for Sustainable Profits declares war on National Organic Program at US Senate

Theo Crisantes says it is time to limit the power of the NOSB.

Another blow against Real Organic came last week with the Senate testimony of the misnamed Coalition For Sustainable Organics, which I will henceforth refer to as the Coalition for Sustainable Profits. Only through the extraordinary success of their latest and most expensive lobbyist, Anne MacMillan, was the Coalition able to testify before Congress twice in the last month.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Roberts said at the hearing that the federal National Organic Standards Board and organic regulations were rife with “uncertainty and dysfunction,” and asked “producers” for recommendations on how to improve the advisory board.

“These problems create an unreliable regulatory environment and prevent farmers that choose organics from utilizing advancements in technology and operat-ing their businesses in an efficient and effective manner,” Roberts said in his opening statement during a hearing on local and international markets for organic foods and specialty crops. “Simply put, this hurts producers and economies in rural America.”

The Coalition’s message was clear. Organic standards should be molded to enhance the profitability of the large corporate farms that are quickly coming to dominate “certified organic”. Going far beyond defending hydroponics, the Coalition attacked the NOSB. They also dismissed the proposed rules eliminating CAFO (Contained Animal Feeding Operation) chicken operations as being a minor “outlier issue.” It seems that Roberts, the large CAFO operators, and the Coalition are birds of a feather. The Big Boys have had enough. We are witnessing an attempted hostile takeover of the National Organic Program.

Melody Meyer, a spokesperson for United Natural Foods and one of the leading hydro lobbyists, has described the hydro battle as a conflict between two parts of the organic community: the Trade and the Movement. This is not an accurate description because the Coalition For Sustainable Profits has never been a part of the organic community. And how will the Trade thrive without the community? Who will they peddle their new “organic” products to? How long will peo-ple flock to buy “organic” in Walmart when they hear it is only “sort of organic.”

There has been talk of creating a new label within the USDA for “Certified Hydroponic Organic”. I would suggest a better label: “USDA Certified Fauxganic”. The new Fauxganic label could also include the CAFO dairies, the CAFO eggs, CAFO meat, and the magically transformed conventional grain that has flooded the organic market in recent years. At last, there will be a proper label to clarify so much of what is currently confusing and dismaying the eaters of America. Fauxganic producers can be recognized by their common belief that healthy soil is irrelevant.

Ranking Senator Debbie Stabenow (D. Michigan) and chair Pat Roberts (R. Kansas)  listen to Crisantes’ testimony at hearing of Senate Agriculture Committee.

Ranking Senator Debbie Stabenow (D. Michigan) and chair Pat Roberts (R. Kansas)
listen to Crisantes’ testimony at hearing of Senate Agriculture Committee.

In his Senate testimony, Coalition for Sustainable Profits spokesperson Theo Crisantes didn’t speak much about hydroponics. Moreover what he said about hy-dro was misleading. But what he did speak more about was the need to reform the NOP so the NOSB has much less influence. He claimed there was too much public debate. Decisions need to be made behind closed doors by a few power brokers. It was perfect symbolism that his first Congressional testimony to a House subcommittee was also behind closed doors.

Crisantes also called for change in the makeup of the NOSB so that it better represented the Trade. Right now the members of the NOSB are all selected by the Secretary of Agriculture, and those choices sometimes seem quite distant from the intentions of Senator Leahy and the organic supporters who championed the creation of the NOP.

Clearly, some “farmer representatives” such as recent NOSB member Carmela Beck (a mid-level administrator from Driscoll’s) would not be called “farmers” by most reasonable people. Nonetheless, there are some wonderful people who care deeply about the organic movement currently serving on the NOSB. The de-bates and votes are public. All decisions are open to input from all who are interested.

The Coalition’s comments are in keeping with the written testimony submitted to the NOSB from such corporate farms as Driscoll’s Berries (over 1000 acres of hydroponic “organic “ berries), Nature Sweet (over 1200 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), Houweling Greenhouses (over 250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), Pura Natura (the umbrella organization for the Dutch greenhouse growers who export their EU conventional hydro produce to the US where it is welcomed as organic), and Scott’s Miracle Gro (what can I say? Welcome to Fauxganics).

Perhaps all these corporations are members of the Coalition, but no one knows for sure, as the Coalition’s membership, like the way they grow their produce and the way they spend their money, is a secret. When I served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, we were unable to get a single hydroponic member of the task force to share exactly what they used to fertilize their crop. We were told it was a secret.

These are efficiently run organizations that do what they do well, but they have no business selling their products as organic unless they are willing to pro-foundly change how they farm. And so far they are not willing to do that. They are only interested in using the USDA label for the price premium.

Nate Lewis is one of the chief lobbyists for the OTA, which has worked aggressively to approve hydroponic certification for their clients Driscoll’s Berries and Wholesum Harvest. They also worked closely with Senators Roberts and Stabenow on the Congressional action that destroyed States’ right to label GMOs.

So why would the Coalition publicly call for war on the NOSB? Because they fear losing in the NOSB. They have the lobbying power to get things done their way in Congress. In the spirit of Trump, they are ready to “Just Take It” because they can. The (relatively weak) animal welfare reforms that were worked on for so many years before passage by the USDA were exiled to the oblivion of “further study” by the Trump administration, with the active support of Roberts and Stabenow. So too, the dark forces are not likely to allow us children to deny them their hydroponic profits.

The very fact that Congress was listening to a fringe group like the Coalition for guidance on organics is a clear sign that the organic community is in deep trouble. Senators Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow have led the recent Congressional attack on the NOP’s proposed animal welfare standards. Roberts, infamous for his disdain of organic, has become a strong champion for the Fauxganic egg producers in his home state of Kansas.

Roberts called the reform standards (which took years to gain passage in the NOP) “absolutely ridiculous.” He is on record saying, “What is chicken enrichment anyway? It could be yoga, that might be difficult. Video games? They do that for various animals. Sports? A gourmet meal? I think probably music is the best thing we can do to entice the chickens to come out and be happier, you know free range, roaming around. I think probably Ray Price would be the best person. Certainly not Prince. At any rate, something soothing.” Roberts’ contempt for the very concept of animal welfare is profoundly disturbing, as he is the powerful Chair of the Senate Ag Committee.

Roberts seems to be the new best friend of the Coalition, supporting their inclusion in the organic program that he despises. The Coalition testimony included references to the debate on CAFO (feedlot) “organic” chickens as being “a distraction” from important issues. At last Roberts has found a champion in the “or-ganic community” for his appalling vision of irresponsible agriculture. It appears that Roberts and Stabenow have a plan for a new kind of National Organic Program in the upcoming Farm Bill.

OTA said that Roberts’ “recognition of the importance of organic as a choice for farmers that provides economic stability and increased net profits” was posi-tive. Without public engagement and “strict, clear and enforceable industry-designed standards — you risk losing the opportunity for farmers that organic pro-vides. Transparency and accountability — cornerstones of organic — remain the foundation upon which to improve the organic system.”

Wonderful words. For all their calls for transparency, OTA works very hard to keep the issue of hydroponic production as confusing as possible for the NOSB and the consumers. They continually insist that their clients Driscoll’s and Wholesum Harvest are not hydroponic. They claim they are “container growers”. OTA knows perfectly well that ALL of the conventional hydroponic tomato, pepper, cucumber and most of the berry growers are “container growers” as well. While it is possible to grow without hydroponics in a container, Driscoll’s and Wholesum cannot make such a claim. They are hydroponic by any sane defini-tion.

So if you aren’t upset, you aren’t paying attention. The Senate testimony was an amazing coming out for the hydroponic lobby. Why would they attack the NOSB before a crucial vote, even if they believed what they said? Because they are afraid they are going to lose. Again. And they will lose if we keep speaking out.

There are protest rallies coming soon. Contact me (www.longwindfarm.com) if you are interested in organizing a local rally in your area this Fall. People are waking up and coming together. The Fauxganic Takeover is out in the open now. It is the same dreary land grab that has happened over and over. If we believe in real organic, our work is far from finished. Real organic is more important than ever.

One thing is for sure. Even if the Fauxganic forces triumph in the regulatory world, they can never win in the end, because Fauxganic is not Organic. It is not what people are looking for, although it might take people a while to figure that out. It will never be organic, no matter what it is called. And there are way too many of us for it to go unnoticed. People are seeking real food. We are seeking an agriculture that will support the planet and nourish us. As we learn about the Fauxganic Takeover, we must not be silent.