Business & Tech

Organic farmers fight USDA to defend their turf

A worker at FarmedHere, an organic hydroponic “vertical farm” near Chicago, carried arugula that is ready to be packaged.

Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

A worker at FarmedHere, an organic hydroponic “vertical farm” near Chicago, carried arugula that is ready to be packaged.

Dave Chapman is not afraid of getting a little dirty. For the past 36 years, he’s dug his hands into the soil to plant, then pick, organic tomatoes from his fields and greenhouses in rural Vermont. His love of organics is rooted in a simple motto: “Feed the soil, not the plant.”

So when he heard that hydroponic growers were starting to obtain USDA certification that declared their crops organic, Chapman was incensed. What is organic, he wondered, without the marvel of microbes inherent in dirt?

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“They try to pretend that they’re me,” he said. “They aren’t. It’s a lie.”

Now Chapman is digging in his heels against what he calls the invasive growth of organic hydroponics, grown by farmers who use extensive watering systems and chemical nutrients. He’s pushing the USDA to, as he puts it, “keep the soil in organic” and prevent hydroponic farmers from gaining a designation that’s become both on-trend and remarkably lucrative.

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Like many other organic farmers, Chapman believes that only things grown in the earth — with its melange of bacteria, earthworms, and animal scat — are connected to the ecosystem. Hydroponic growers, by contrast, are engineering their way to harvest, he said, planting seeds in soil-less trays, then pumping in nutrients via extensive watering systems.

To Chapman, it’s the equivalent of a patient who is fed intravenously while on life support.

The USDA has designated a task force to tackle the issue of whether hydroponics deserve organic certification, and the agency reports that only about 30 farms internationally have been certified, none of which operate in Massachusetts.

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But hydroponic growers are closely watching the debate and doing a bit of their own mud-slinging, countering that their systems are pesticide-free and more sustainable for the planet than conventional farming, and allow for crop production to happen anywhere, from an urban warehouse to an African desert.

“When we grow indoors, we control the environment completely,” said Justin Gallant, president of Boston Greens, a hydroponic greenhouse in West Kingston, R.I. While his farm is not certified, he is quick to note that it doesn’t use some of the chemicals that even organic farmers are allowed to use to control crops.

“We’re better than organic,” he argued.

That kind of thinking is anathema to farmers like Eliot Coleman, an author and organic advocate who runs Four Season farm in Brooksville, Maine. To the 77-year-old grower, organic is much more than a label. And he worries that “large hydroponic operations can make billions by just putting this word on their products.”

If this sounds like a bunch of pitchfork-wielding hippies pitting themselves against i-Phone-toting, hydroponic “crop specialists,” that’s not totally off. But organics are now a $43 billion industry and the label can command a premium for any farmer willing to do the work to meet the standards, which the USDA defines as “protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” Chapman’s Long Wind Farm now supplies Whole Foods, Shaw’s, and Wegmans with his organic produce, but he says he’s already being edged out on grocery store shelves by hydroponic growers encroaching on his turf.

The USDA’s task force has issued a preliminary advisory on the topic and will meet on Nov. 16 in St. Louis to review the issue further and hear public comments. Chapman sits on the task force, and late last month, he hosted the Rally in the Valley in Thetford, Vt., to rile up his base. The tractor parade and protest drew more than 300 supporters.

Michael Evans took part in a protest organized by organic farmers in Vermont.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Michael Evans took part in a protest organized by organic farmers in Vermont.

To these farmers, the very ethos of organics is at stake.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s the story of a movement that has far outgrown its own roots. In the ’70s and ’80s, before the USDA began to certify organics or customers were willing to pay more for them, New England farmers like Chapman and Coleman faced off against an industrial agricultural system that relied on fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals to produce food.

“The USDA saw the organic movement as undermining people’s trust in good old American agriculture,” Chapman said.

But the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 began to shift public perspective, and today that small green and white certified organic badge has become a signifier of purity in the eyes of many consumers. As written, the legislation allows for some hydroponic production, but in recent years, soil farmers have pushed back as they’ve watched the organic label crop up in places they never imagined.

They were wary when large industrial farms began to phase out harmful pesticides in the pursuit of USDA’s organic standards. They looked on quizzically as consumers began to seek out organic beauty products (“Shampoo? Come on, that’s not what organics is about,” Chapman said). But when industrial farmers (like California-based berry producer Driscoll’s) began to increasingly seek, and receive, organic certification for their hydroponic crops, Chapman and his colleagues were incredulous.

“There is nothing sustainable about plastic troughs and soluble fertilizers made in a factory,” said Coleman, the organic activist. “The idea that some soluble solution could be a substitute for all of the known and millions of unknown processes going on in the soil? That’s just utterly ridiculous.”

Farmers and the USDA have been vying over hydroponics for years, said Tim Griffin, an agriculture professor at Tufts University. And while organic farmers suggest that the nutrient content in hydroponically grown crops is less than in those grown in soil, he said, the research doesn’t show it.

“I’m not sure that the evidence base for that is very strong,” he said.

Founder Paul Sellew checked on some lettuce at Little Leaf Farms in Devens.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Founder Paul Sellew checked on some lettuce at Little Leaf Farms in Devens.

Organic hydroponic growers say because they can grow local food year round and much faster than traditional farmers, they can offer customers greater access to healthy produce. And they worry that the future of modern farming is at risk if restrictions are put in place.

“This is being led by very few people that have not considered the impact of a new generation of urban, largely minority farmers who are really excited about entering this industry,” said Megan Klein, president of FarmedHere, an organic hydroponic facility housed in an old box factory on the outskirts of Chicago. Inside the vertical farm, trays of basil and pea shoots stack up toward the 22-foot ceiling, all bathed in the pink glow of LED grow lights.

FarmedHere has been certified since 2012, and Klein believes hydroponic operations won’t encroach on the production of the 31,000 organic soil farms around the world. But losing an organic designation “would be devastating to us,” she said.

Other hydroponic growers are looking beyond organic, and say the locally grown label now carries the same weight, if not more, for their customers.

“I think local trumps organic,” said Paul Sellew, founder of Little Leaf Farms in Devens. His lettuces aren’t certified (“It would be nice,” he admitted), but they can be picked and placed on grocery store shelves in Greater Boston within hours. Among his selling points: “You know your farmer, it’s in the region, and you’re supporting your own economy.”

And in an era of climate change and drought, hydroponic growers say their methods are more sustainable. “By growing hydroponically, we conserve a lot more energy and we can control the water system a lot better than an average organic farmer,” said Gallant, president of Boston Greens.

Miles McEvoy, who leads the organic program for the USDA and will ultimately be responsible for enacting changes to the certification, has been watching as the fight plays out. For now, he’s saying little.

“I can see both sides on this particular issue,” he said. “Soil is the foundation of organic production, but also, organic embraces innovation.”

For Chapman, there is no room for nuance. He fears that as more large industrial organic operations begin using hydroponic methods, the original vision of what organics should be will be compromised.

In his own comment to the USDA, Chapman offered a prediction. “Every day hydroponic continues to infiltrate organic. Every day the organic label becomes less meaningful,” he warned. “Soon the hydroponic growers in organic will be too big to fail.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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