In hydroponics, plants are fed in a greenhouse setting with fertilized irrigation water instead of soil. And when I was a commercial organic vegetable grower some thirty years ago, I would have been hard put to find any hydroponic lettuce growing in Vermont.
Today, the hydroponic method has become a dominant force in the production of certified "organic" greens and tomatoes in the US. What began as a minor trickle in 2010 has become a major flood, as the hydroponic greenhouse producers of the world have discovered that the USDA will allow them entry into the coveted organic market. By changing the fertilizer brew in their mixing tanks to "natural" though still highly processed soluble fertilizers, and switching to "approved" pesticides, the hydroponic producers can become "organic" virtually overnight.
But the idea of accepting soilless growing as an organic method has become very controversial in organic circles. Last fall, more than one hundred organic farmers from Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania marched through East Thetford to Cedar Circle Farm – accompanied by twenty six tractors festooned with signs like "Keep the Soil in Organic.”
Vermonter Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer who served on the USDA Hydroponic Task Force, calls the hydroponic incursion an “invasion,” as more and more hydroponic producers from around the world discover they can gain access to America’s coveted organic market. He says hydroponic lettuce and tomatoes from Mexico and Canada are now pouring into the US.
According to Chapman, the National Organic Standards Board – or NOSB - initially disapproved the certification of hydroponics as organic. But largely due to pressure from large scale agribusiness and well-funded lobbyists, they were overruled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Will Allen, owner of Cedar Circle Farm, sees the debate in a larger context. “Our soils are our single biggest sink for carbon ” he says. “We can actually fix climate change by taking all those greenhouse gasses and putting them back in our soils. We know we can do that with organic farming, but how are we going to sequester carbon in water?” He concludes, “Hydroponics is going backwards.”
And David Zuckerman, organic farmer and Vermont’s current Lieutenant Governor, has been quoted as saying that “Organics without soil is like democracy without people.”