Years ago, I had heated discussions with some hydroponic growers in Vermont who grew so-called “perfect” looking lettuce and tomatoes in sand, gravel, or liquid, with added nutrients, but without soil. This is how hydroponics is defined. Unfortunately, a recent federal ruling allows soil-less produce operations to remain certified organic under the law. As a result, hydroponic and container-based operations can continue carrying the USDA organic seal of approval. So, when you shop at your local grocer for certified organic blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, many of them will be grown in hydroponic greenhouses. Ironically, by law, organic crop producers must steward the soil, yet hydroponic enterprises neither use nor build soil. They are given a free pass in the organic marketplace, unjustly competing with authentic organic farmers who thoughtfully tend the subterranean life in their fields.

The Cornucopia Institute of Wisconsin and other organic groups have been embroiled in a heated debate with the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) over this issue. Many hydroponic and container-grown products—primarily berries, cucumbers, and tomatoes—continue to carry the USDA organic seal. The Cornucopia Institute does not believe that a hydroponic operation is capable of reproducing the nutrient value of food grown in healthful soil. Hydroponics uses miles of plastic tubing and trays under greenhouse roofs. Nutrients and water are mixed and delivered directly to plants’ roots. Biology takes a backseat to efficiency.

The living soil

In authentic organic systems, the soil plays a crucial role in the carbon and water cycles. Cover crops, compost, minerals, and grazing animals can improve organic matter and biodiversity in the soil. Soil-less systems cannot measure up to the ecological complexity of authentic organic agriculture. Additionally, emerging science suggests that we do not fully comprehend the complex processes and relationships in the soil that produce the nutrient value of our food, nor are we assured that current nutrition research can account for all of the enzymes, metabolites, and other constituents our bodies require for health.

An alternative

The Real Organic Project was formed in January of 2018 in Vermont to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming. It was intended to fill the void left by failures of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). As NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, it is clear that a catalyst was needed to reinvigorate the organic farming movement. So, a new movement was formed starting with the creation of a new “Add-On” label to represent real organic farmers.

The Real Organic Project grew out of several meetings of Vermont farmers who believed that the USDA label was no longer something they could represent. Starting a new label was not a small task. That small group of Vermonters has grown quickly into a national group of farmers and academics from around the country. Their planned projects are intended to raise the public awareness and participation in the movement to sustain an agriculture based on improving soil health. They support the traditional model of small family organic farms, but also welcome larger farms that seriously follow the principle of “feed the soil, not the plant.” They advocate for farming based on pastured livestock and soil-based cropping.

Dave Chapman, a longtime organic farmer who runs Long Wind Farm in Vermont and is one of the original founders of the Real Organic Project, said, “I got involved when I started seeing a lot of hydroponic tomatoes certified as organic showing up in the market, about five years ago.” He went on to say, “We made a really good faith effort to reform the organic program, but we realized [certification of hydroponics] was not the only egregious failure – the National Organic Program was very weak on animal welfare, too.” According to Chapman, the Real Organic label would have more transparency and integrity in terms of honoring the traditional values of organic farming.” Philosophically, organic agriculture has always been premised on the health of the soil.

• Read Cornucopia’s report, “Troubling Waters,” to learn how soilless production came to be certified organic.

To support the Real Organic Project, visit

Ron Krupp is the author of The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening, The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening and will be coming out with his latest gardening book in the fall of 2021.

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