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Rally in the Valley Focuses on ‘What Real Organic Is’

  • Jessica Eaton, of East Thetford, Vt., rides a friend's tractor in the parade of tractors at the Rally in the Valley event 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 permission@vnews.com.

  • 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 permission@vnews.com.

  • U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks about the importance of regulating organic certification at the Rally in the Valley 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 permission@vnews.com.

  • A handmade sign affixed to one of dozens of tractors parked at the Ralley in the Valley event to protest hydroponic growing methods being labelled as organic 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 permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Three years ago Dave Chapman, the owner of Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, was in a supermarket when he noticed perfect-looking tomatoes that had been grown in Mexico and were labeled “organic.”

After researching the issue, Chapman, who grows organic tomatoes, discovered that the supermarket tomatoes were hydroponic, grown in water with synthetic fertilizers rather than in soil with organic fertilizers.

Due to current U.S. agricultural regulations, hydroponically-grown tomatoes, peppers and lettuce coming into the U.S. from, respectively, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada can be labeled organic, for example, 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.

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

To protest that designation, which they said weakens American organic standards, Chapman and other Upper Valley farmers, in collaboration with NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont), organized a Rally in the Valley, which was held on a raw Sunday at Cedar Circle Farm in East Thetford.

After a procession of tractors from Long Wind Farm to Cedar Circle Farm, a distance of less than a mile, the 90-minute rally got underway.

The rally comes nearly three weeks in advance of a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in St. Louis where, among other issues to be discussed, a vote is supposed to be scheduled on whether hydroponics should be permitted to be certified organic.

In 2010, Chapman said, the NOP ignored a recommendation by the NOSB that hydroponics not be certified organic. The NOP acknowledged receiving the recommendation, said Chapman, and said they would look at it eventually. In 2014, the NOP issued another statement saying that hydroponics could still be certified “organic.”

Chapman said that the East Thetford rally was intended to send “a message to St. Louis.”

Because of the expense of traveling to St. Louis and their own busy schedules, which make it unlikely that many farmers would be able to attend, Chapman said, the Rally for the Valley organizers wanted a “forum where farmers’ voices could be heard.”

Speakers at the rally included U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine., the influential Maine organic farmer and writer Eliot Coleman, Upper Valley farmers and one organic farmer from Pennsylvania.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not attend but was represented by Jenny Nelson, who is both an agricultural policy adviser to the senator, and a former state representative from Ryegate.

Posted signs read “Don’t Water Down Organic with Hydroponics,” some farmers wore brown arm bands to signify the importance of healthy soil and others wore stickers saying “I Heart Soil.”

“We’re not anti-hydroponic, we just don’t want it to be called ‘organic,’ ” Enid Wonnacott, executive director of NOFA-VT, told a crowd of between 100 and 200.

“I want organic to mean organic to mean organic,” said Leahy, who, in 1990, led the drive for federal legislation which would create national organic standards. “It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s the right issue.”

Like other speakers, Welch reiterated that he has no quarrel with hydroponics per se, but said that it shouldn’t be labeled as “organic.” To permit hydroponic produce to come into the U.S. labeled as organic gave hydroponic producers a “free ride” not permitted organic farmers who cultivate the soil, Welch said.

In order to be certified as “organic” by the USDA, according to its website, farmers must adhere to strict standards on soil management and water use and quality, avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering, and conserve wetlands, woodlands and wildlife.

“Only the U.S. allows this definition of hydroponic to be called organic. It’s about reasserting the value of what real organic is,” Welch added.

Chapman spoke to the crowd, saying that, at present, this is a largely invisible issue to consumers.

“If you don’t want to buy hydroponics labeled as organic, there’s no way to know,” he said, because while such produce can be labeled “organic,” it doesn’t also have to be labeled “hydroponic.”

There are other issues in play, said Will Allen, one of two farm managers at Cedar Circle Farm who also serves on the policy and advisory board of the Organic Consumers Association, a non-profit organization based in Minnesota that advocates for food safety, universal health care and environmental sustainability, among other issues.

With the concern over climate change, and how to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases, Allen said, hydroponics does nothing to sequester carbon.

“Soils are our biggest single sink for carbon,” Allen said. “We have to fix our food system.”

Healthy, regenerative soil is the whole point of organic farming, said Jake Guest, of Killdeer Farm in Norwich. “It’s a perversion to take the soil out. ...We have a right to this term ‘organic’ and we all have a right to keep the purity of that label.”

Bob Gray, who owns and runs the diversified 4 Corners Farm in Newbury, Vt., is not an organic farmer. But he said he felt it was important to come to the rally.

“I couldn’t feel more strongly about the fact that hydroponic is not organic,” he said. “The fact that they’re calling hydroponic berries ‘organic’ — no way.”

Dean Bascom, who grows shiitake mushrooms at his farm, also in Newbury, criticized the misleading labeling that, he said, “undermines the validity and integrity of organic farming.”

Without soil, he said, not only are there are fewer nutrients in produce, but there is also a noticeable lack of flavor.

The task of reaching consumers, who have turned organic produce into a $40 billion annual business, is hard work, said Chapman in an interview after the rally. But it’s critical.

“I think the organic label is in serious trouble if people who care about it don’t speak out about it,” Chapman said. There is a danger that the organic standards, which were hard-won, will come to mean nothing, he said.

“And we don’t want to have to start all over again,” Chapman said.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.