Certified Organic in an Age of Synthetics

For many years my family practiced an intense form of conventional agriculture. At the beginning of each season we would cover the growing beds with plastic mulch and fumigate with methyl bromide to sterilize the soil. Young plants in trays of 200 cavities each would be taken from the nursery and transplanted into the sterile ground. The plants were then raised primarily on synthetic Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) through a drip irrigation system. Various pesticides, herbicides and fungicides were used to control the spread of pathogens. At the end of each season, there would typically be pest issues so plants would be removed and buried with a backhoe in another part of the farm.

After years of these highly extractive, conventional growing practices our soils were depleted and compacted. Lack of organic matter in the soil led to heavy mud after the summer monsoons, inhibiting the tractors and workers from entering the fields, prolonging transplant dates, shortening the growing season. The quality of our product, which had been renowned across North America with billboards announcing the arrival of our melons in San Francisco, for instance, was in steady decline. And things like soft-tip on the peppers, typically related to nutrient deficiency, kept appearing on the quality control (QC) reports. The same pest issues would return each season, growing in severity, requiring more external inputs and investment. Debts were owed and our entire approach to agriculture was in desperate need of revision.

Many farms that have found themselves in a similar situation have given up on the soil. They sheet the ground with plastic, house their fields under insect netting, plastic or glass. Plastic sacks of sterile substrates, typically derived of coconut fiber, are used to support the roots of the plants as they are fed a liquid diet of synthetic NPK. But there is a growing amount of evidence connecting the health of the soil to human nutrition, most famously beginning with the work of William Albrecht in the 1930s. And there has been more evidence showing a decline, since around the 1950s, in the nutrients of the food we eat.

We didn’t immediately set out to be USDA certified Organic farmers. With our soil in such a poor state, we needed a broad range of tools to address the recurring pest issues, we had a business to run, employees that depended on us, and a single application of a prohibited substance would set the required three-year transition period back to zero. Slowly, however, after seven years, our soils have improved and we are now in our third and final year of the transition to Certified Organic.

The transition period has been especially difficult. On the production side, yields are typically 20-30% less than under conventional growing practices. And on the market side, without the Organic certification, there’s no premium on the sale. As of this year, there is now a certification for farms in transition, Certified Transitional. Unfortunately, Certified Transitional has not really caught on yet despite the support of powerful companies like Kashi and Patagonia Provisions. However, certified Organic has continued to grow in market share year-after-year and there is pressure to fill market demand.

The soil vs. –ponic debate

For nearly 20 years there has been debate in the US over what growing methods should be included in organic certification of the food we eat. One side of the debate includes those in favor of foods grown in soil. The other side of the debate includes those in favor of -ponic (i.e. hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic) and containerized systems. There are merits to both approaches to food production and they each play a critical role in addressing needs related to hunger and nutrition in a world with an estimated population of 9 billion by 2050.

Just last week, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted 8-7 in favor of including hydroponic systems in the National Organic Plan (NOP). The recommendation of the Board will now go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a formal ruling-making process and will most likely go into effect.

To be clear, this debate primarily addresses specialty crops (i.e. fruits and vegetables), not row crops (i.e. grains, corn, soy, etc.). Furthermore, the debate currently pertains to certain high-value specialty crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, berries, but a lesser extent to lower-value crops such as squash, eggplant, melons, etc., which are not typically grown commercially in -ponic systems.

As a fourth-generation farmer of soil-based specialty crops that has spent the last seven years focused on transitioning all production to certified organic, when I heard the news that the NOSB voted in favor of including hydroponics, I felt like a part of me died.

Most, I think, use the terms “soil” and “dirt” interchangeably. To me, the distinguishing factor between “soil” and “dirt” is the presence or absence of organic matter, respectively. In reflecting on the debate, I find it interesting that the highly organized and well-funded –ponics & containerized side of the debate began to refer to the opposing side as, not soil-based farmers but rather those in favor of growing methods using only the “outer crust of the earth” or “outer-crustacean farmers.” This terminology seemed to shift the conversation away from “soil,” beyond “dirt” and in the direction of sterile, synthetic substrates of which coco peat would be included. In hindsight, I think the soil side of the debate should have made more effort to shift the conversation in the opposite direction toward soil “tilth,” related to the quality of the soil, or perhaps “humus,” related to the organic matter decomposed by soil microorganisms. After all, there is no tilth, humus or three-year transition period for hydroponic systems.

I have read about the importance of ecosystem services, but what about the value of micro-ecosystem services? In the past, I used to cringe at the thought of nematodes in the soil, as I think many farmers do. Little did I know at the time that nematodes are everywhere, and there are many different types of them—including some that feed on other nematodes! There are endo-mycorrhizae fungi that penetrate the plant roots, acting as an extension of the root system while protecting it from certain pathogens at the same time. Bacteria play an equal if not more important role in all of this. How do we support these micro-ecosystems and their services? I don’t think hydroponic organic systems have that answer, but as an Organic soil-farmer I can assure you that we’re working on it.

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5 thoughts on “Certified Organic in an Age of Synthetics”

  1. Congratulation on making what I assume would be one of the bravest business decisions you had to make. I wonder how many more farmers, specialty or in row, know they need to change but the system has them handcuffed to the status quo? How do other farmers react to your bold move to transform? Do they feel/see the need to change? Apart from certification, how do we get more more farmers to adopt practices that protect the tilth of our soils?

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    1. Thanks, Rob. Good questions, some that I’ve been wondering myself. I think there are certainly benefits that farmers can realize in diversifying their growing practices while not committing necessarily to becoming Certified Organic. Some examples might include building organic matter in the soil though the use of compost, constant cover, no till/low till to reduce the amount of water needed to grow crops, improve infiltration, reduce run-off, etc.

      I think there is growing farmer interest in transitional/organic agriculture, primarily market-driven. Though, with the recent NOSB decision to officially include hydroponics in the NOP, I think a lot of the new growth in the organic specialty crops area will be from farms with greater investment in external inputs (i.e. artificial light, heating, physical structures, fertilizers, etc.) and less investment in regenerative inputs associated with the cycling of organic matter and those micro-ecosystem services I mentioned.

      Those that don’t feel/see the need to change go out of business all the time. Despite how strongly I feel about the importance of healthy soil, now that the NOSB has made a decision to formally include hydroponics in the NOP, this year we will use hydroponics in parts of the farm with extreme root-knot nematode pressure. So, even we change depending on the different directions available to us. Hopefully those areas will recover and we will move back into the soil, into a system less dependent on external inputs and higher costs but still both productive and resilient.

      I think seed companies with breeding programs, but with less interest in the agrochemical industry, can play an important roll in developing varieties more suitable to different regions and growing practices. Investigation of how shelf-life of products may be improved or nutrient density enhanced could also help farmers adopt different practices. What do you think?

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  2. Very engaging blog CocoOps, and very well supported.

    Soils are indeed a living matter whose balance is necessary to keep playing some of its vital roles such as long-term carbon fixation or recharge of aquifers. A soil devoid of organic matter loses some of its most essential properties unable to support life and defenseless against erosion. As you, I would consider myself as a fierce advocate of healthy soils as a great way to maintain some of the most important ecosystem services that the earth is giving us.

    However, as far as I know, while organic farming methods seem ideal in this regard, it has never really been considered as a serious option to feed the whole planet, especially considering the expected population growth you have highlighted in your post. Organic production yields being significantly lower comparatively to conventional production, a worldwide transition to organic agriculture would require more land and therefore would not necessarily achieve its goal to feed the planet sustainably.

    Nonetheless, a team of researchers released a paper recently studying this specific issue with a very interesting approach, you might have heard of it (Muller et al., 2017). This paper is supporting the idea that 100% conversion to organic agriculture is possible combined with various strategies such as the reduction of food wastage and, of course, a decline of production and consumption of animal products. Some challenges remain, but the idea that a world of organic farming might actually be possible made me reconsider my ethical behaviour as a consumer to encourage its expansion.

    If such strategies were put in force, I am wondering whether the -ponic trend would still receive as much interest. While technology and knowledge has always been a mean of great progress for our societies, I believe that taking away food production for the soil will only push humanity further away from the natural world its very survival relies on.

    Muller, A. et al. (2017) ‘Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture 1’, Nature Communications. Springer US, pp. 1–13. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-01410-w.

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  3. Thank you, Nicolas. I think -ponics are here to stay and expand. Go to Google Earth and look at the entirety of Spain. On the southern coast, notice what looks like an unlikely glacier. The areas of Almeria and Ejido are completely covered in ‘medium-tech’ plastic structure, most of which is either hydroponic or dirt that is treated in a similar way. Culiacan, Mexico and Agadir, Morocco are similar examples of the extent of mostly hydroponic, protected structure for specialty crops. I do certainly believe that these areas play an important role in addressing the nutrition of a planet with 9 billion humans by 2050. But there’s a growing amount of evidence, becoming quite mainstream, that questions the linkage between volume and quality (nutrients) of the food we eat. I think these linkages need to be better understood. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to a recent Politico article about this subject–
    https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/food-nutrients-carbon-dioxide-000511

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  4. Great post – the question I have is how can you market this difference (and opportunity) to consumers and hence influence their purchasing decisions ? I don’t want to see it get lost amongst all the ‘green’ marketing already out there but from an education perspective this would be important to share with others.

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