Organic Farmers Plan to Rally for New Rules on Hydroponics

  • Farmers and community members against labelling hydroponic crops as organic erect a sign at the Rally in the Valley at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford, Vt., on Oct. 30, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Sarah Priestap

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/10/2017 11:46:39 PM
Modified: 10/12/2017 2:30:34 PM

Organic farmers from New Hampshire and Vermont plan a rally on Sunday in Hanover to protest what they see as the potential weakening of the national organic labeling standard. At issue is the labeling of produce grown hydroponically or aquaponically, in soil-free environments.

The National Organic Program (NOP), overseen by the USDA, develops organic standards. But it does not presently prohibit hydroponic or aquaponic produce from being labeled “certified organic.”

The Hanover rally, one of 16 across the country and in England, Canada and Costa Rica, is in advance of a national meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on Oct. 31 in Jacksonville, Fla., where it will once again consider whether to stipulate that hydroponically grown produce is not organic, said Cat Buxton, one of the rally organizers in a phone interview from Strafford. Previous NOSB meetings have punted the question.

Because the issue of water-based vs. soil-based agriculture is so complex, Buxton said, “the speeches (at the Hanover rally) are designed to educate people about the issue. It’s hard to get the whole message across because most people aren’t familiar with how the food system actually works.”

The hope of rally organizers is that the NOSB will find that hydroponics and aquaponics should not be permitted to use the certified organic label.

Fruits and vegetables grown in water with synthetic fertilizers, rather than in soil amended with organic fertilizers, are considered hydroponic; aquaponics combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics in one system, recirculating the water from aquaculture to irrigate the produce.

Currently, hydroponically-grown tomatoes, peppers and lettuce coming into the U.S. from, respectively, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada can be labeled organic, even though the same produce would not be labeled “organic” in its country of origin. This also applies to produce grown hydroponically in the U.S.

This weekend’s march follows a large rally held last Sunday in Burlington that was organized by NOFA-VT and Keep the Soil in Organic.

Last fall, NOFA-VT also organized a Rally in the Valley in Thetford to draw attention to the same issue. The 2016 rally drew farmers from throughout the Upper Valley, as well as such politicans as U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. and the influential Maine organic farmer and writer Eliot Coleman, whom many regard as the dean of the organic movement.

This year, said Buxton, organizers wanted to have a rally in New Hampshire, both because the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA)-New Hampshire has been a significant supporter, but also because Hanover is central to the Upper Valley, with its broad range of smaller, independently-owned farms.

The Hanover rally will march from Hanover High School to the Dartmouth College green. More than 50 Vermont and New Hampshire farms will be represented. Speakers will include the executive director of NOFA-VT, Enid Wonnacott, Jake Guest, co-founder of Killdeer Farm in Norwich, Lisa McCrory, of Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel. Organizers hope that Welch will attend.

In response to the upcoming NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Coleman sent out a public letter in which he wrote “organic farming is best defined by the benefits of growing crops on a biologically active fertile soil. Crop resistance to pests and diseases is an outcome of farming a soil that fully nourishes the crops. ...Without soil, there is no organic farming.”

The Organic Trade Association estimated that total organic food sales in the U.S. in 2015 totaled more than $43 billion. There are more than 14,000 certified organic farms and ranches in the U.S., according to the USDA’s 2016 Certified Organic Survey.

Organic farmers are not trying to stop the multi-billion dollar hydroponic industry, said Dave Chapman, owner of Long Wind Farm in East Thetford and a member of the NOSB’s task force on hydroponics and aquaponics.

“We have no intention or thought to stopping hydroponics from happening,” Chapman said. But organic farmers do object to them being called organic, he added.

Most European Union (EU) countries, Chapman said, already prohibit hydroponically grown produce from being certified and labeled organic. So do Japan, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada, according to a 2016 New York Times report.

But in this country, Chapman said, the debate over which method of production, soil or water-based, is truly organic can lead to consumer confusion.

Hydroponic producers “want the (organic) label, but they don’t want to change how they farm,” Chapman said. “We’re fighting something that is bigger than ‘hydroponic or not.’ It’s the corporate takeover of the national organic program that we’re trying to bring attention to, and to stop.”

“I think there’s a tremendous need for more public discourse around this, because organic food sales are growing so much and people really care about the quality of their food and if hydroponics were allowed to go under that label, which I guess currently some are, most consumers can’t tell the difference because it’s subsumed under (the organic label),” said Sara Laeng-Gilliatt, a board member of NOFA-NH who lives in Hancock, where she makes goat cheese under the name Main Street Cheese. She plans to attend Sunday’s rally.

“It’s essential for consumers to be able to discern what they’re buying so they have choice and can use their consumer dollars to support the outcomes that matter to them,” Laeng-Gilliatt said.

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Nicola Smith can be reached at 


Organic farmers plan a "Keep the Soil in Organic" parade and rally on Sunday, Oct. 15, in Hanover from 2 to 5 p.m. An earlier version of this story at one point referred to an incorrect date for the event.

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