This Tuesday, Feb 18th will be the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) annual board meeting. Concerned farmers are invited to express their hopes for reform. The hydroponic discussion at the board meeting is the result of an invitation from CCOF’s CEO, Kelly Damewood.

Organic pioneer Dru Rivers stood up last month at the end of our EcoFarm session entitled “Can You Mend A Broken Organic Program?” She called for a protest at the upcoming CCOF board meeting. The protest was to oppose the ongoing CCOF certification of hydroponic producers as organic. Kelly Damewood got up in response and asked people to attend the board meeting as participants instead. Dru later accepted her invitation.

This is taken from Kelly Damewood ‘s comments at the EcoFarm session. She first addressed the issue of grain fraud. Then she said the following:

“Hydroponics. So I just want to first say that this has been an incredibly challenging conversation for me personally, for our board members personally, for our staff members. We do have 4000 certified CCOF members who have a range of opinions on the issue. And I obviously don’t have time or the opportunity to give a full picture perspective of how we made decisions, of how we got to the place we are now. 

“But I also want to acknowledge; I don’t think I have ever acknowledged publicly to you, Dave, of how much I appreciate your passion and commitment to protecting organic integrity and the farmers and activists that you are working with. I have a lot of appreciation and admiration for the work that you have put into the Real Organic Project and your efforts at the NOSB.”

Dave Chapman: “Thank you.

Kelly: “Yeah, I do. 

“CCOF. You know, I also want to say that I agree with you that putting another label on the marketplace is a potential solution. I think there is a proliferation of labels in the marketplace, and consumers, for better or worse, HAVE to be more educated than ever before. We’re being approached at CCOF whether to offer Regenerative Organic Certification. We just started offering Grass-Fed Organic Certification. That is one avenue that people are pursuing. 

“I think on our end as a certifier we are also doing everything we can to make sure we’re upholding the standards, processes in place, upholding the integrity. 

“We’ve also been a strong proponent of requiring hydroponic labeling. We believe in transparency. I just want to make sure that I acknowledge that we would support having transparency by acknowledging hydroponic systems.

“I welcome you to our event on the 18th. I think it would be wonderful to have a strong showing of CCOF members. I think it would be interesting if you attended the board meeting on Feb 18 and I know I could make space for a conversation. That might be more impactful.

“And if you DO rally I would suggest the 19th because that is when we have an advocacy day in Sacramento where we are trying to get California to actually invest in funds to help organic farmers to develop organic system plans and to help schools purchase more organic food. So that’s actually generating some publicity and media at the State Capital. 

But the 18th is our board meeting. I will make space if you want to come and have a conversation.”

Gerry Davis from CCOF member Grimmway Farms.

A number of organic farmers are planning to attend the CCOF board meeting: Dru Rivers, Paul Muller, Jim Durst, Katrina Frey, and Gerry Davis are all intending to speak to the board.

Gerry Davis is an agronomist at Grimmway Farms. He served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). He was a co-author with Jeff Moyer of the 2010 NOSB recommendation to prohibit hydroponics.

I first met Gerry in San Diego in 2016. Gerry was attending the in-person meeting of the USDA Hydroponic Task Force as an expert advising us on past NOSB efforts. I also saw him testify twice to the NOSB on the hydroponic issue. The last time was in Jacksonville. He was speaking as the representative of Grimmway at that meeting. His very important testimony to the NOSB is below:

These are excerpts from Gerry Davis’ testimony to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) at Jacksonville in 2017:

MR. DAVIS:  “Gerald Davis, Grimmway Farms. I represent Grimmway Farms; I’m also an ex-NOSB member. I actually worked on the 2010 greenhouse and container-growing hydroponic recommendation, and my comments today are on that subject.”
“Grimmway Cal-Organic is the largest organic vegetable grower in the U.S., topping $500 million in sales in organic vegetables.”
“This land did not magically turn around through simple input substitution of organically-approved materials, but took years of compost applications, green manure, cover cropping, and proper crop rotation to be nurtured to healthy soils.

“It takes time and commitment to organic principles, which includes financial commitment to not take shortcuts.  Outdoor container production is one such shortcut that bypasses land stewardship and soil ecology development altogether.

“This production system does not follow many sections of the organic regulations, and virtually ignores the intent of organic principles of land stewardship.”

 “Such outdoor operations that have sprung up in California have been wrongly certified since no statutory standards exist to exempt them from adhering to land sections of the law.”

 “It is our opinion that containerized production is merely a shortcut to bypass the expensive and time-consuming process of organic certification. We say, let the hydroponics production method develop its own marketing label, based on the merits of their system; not ride the coattails of a successful label that doesn’t match their methods or goals.”

“You can’t feed a crop in a container on only 20 percent of the total nitrogen need of the crop.  It becomes a hydroponic system after a few months, even if it’s super well-constructed; lots more compost. Eventually, in a nine-month tomato crop, it runs out, and for at least the second half of the crop, you have a 100 percent hydroponic system.”

“And the reason I say that is sort of like what Dave Chapman just said in a simpler way.  If you withhold the nutrient feed, the crop stops, and it will not harvest anymore within just a week or two.

“When I helped craft that recommendation, I had no clue that seven years down the road, there would be vast acreages of containerized blueberries and raspberries and so on and so forth, proliferating through California, basically doing what I was suggesting we should allow for greenhouses; to construct a good soil and make it as much like real soil as possible, biodynamically and everything.

“So the unintended consequences of what I helped craft, I’m sad to say, I’m sad to see it come to what it has.”

Katrina and Jonathan Frey.

“I was so fired up after hearing you at EcoFarm, that I plan to go to Sacramento to the CCOF board meeting and speak during the hour that they have given to this topic.”
          – Katrina Frey, CCOF member from Frey Vineyards.

Sandra Ward and Ken Kimes at EcoFarm,
long time California organic farmers.

“CCOF should uphold and represent the full intent of the OFPA by suspending certification of hydroponic farming operations. Hydroponic growing is not consistent with the intent or the actual letter of the OFPA enabling legislation. The practice of instant organic certification for hydroponic farms cuts the legs out from under the long term committed organic farmers, and shifts the advantage to those highly capitalized operations.”
– Ken Kimes.  CCOF member from New Natives Farm.

Jesse Buie and Dave Chapman attending the Pittsburgh NOSB. Jesse owns CCOF certified Ole Brooks Organic Farm and is a current NOSB member.

Jesse Buie speaking at the Jacksonville NOSB meeting:

“You know, I feel the same way I did about protecting that organic seal as I did when I was a soldier protecting the American flag.

“We live in a competitive — we live in a capitalistic society where competition is good. The market will determine the continued success of hydro, aero, and aquaponics, and certified organic, if the consumer has full disclosure as to how these different operations work.

“And I want to say it again. Notice I  mention each one of them separate, and certified organic, and not attaching organic to a different method for survival reasons, which is what I constantly hear.

“I believe that soil is the foundation of organic, and this subcommittee has really worked tirelessly to come up with a compromise.
“Good or bad, I have seen much work done in trying to get some consensus. And as everybody has mentioned, we don’t have it yet.  But fellow board members, I kind of want to ask you something, and correct me if need be. The elephant in this room is the fact that we are trying to solve a problem that kind of was created above us — above the chain of command, and I hope I don’t get in trouble. And I’m honest about that because I do want to serve on the board.

“But the ultimate solution to the problem that we are talking about, the ultimate solution is for the NOP to enforce the regulations. It’s just that simple. But that hasn’t happened.”

CCOF member Jim Durst from Durst Organic Growers.

“When I joined California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1984, I became Certification Chair for our chapter – this meant that I was automatically on the state certification board. At that time, we were writing a lot of the rules and the regulations for organic agriculture in California. Every week, we just hammered on one point, and wrote, and rewrote, and finally came up with things that we thought had to do with the integrity of working with the soil and creating healthy soil.
“Agriculture, wherever you are, should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life. We have a responsibility to return, enhance, and build up the life in the soil. It’s a living creature. The soil is not dead. It’s a living thing. When we learn this, as a culture, we will have a different outlook on how we fit into this planet.”

– Jim Durst.

This is a “Know Your Farmer” video from Durst Organic Growers. Jim Durst is one of the farmers speaking at the CCOF board meeting. This excellent video shows some of the details of a thriving California farm.

If you are a California farmer who cares about the future of CCOF and the National Organic Program, you are invited to attend this board meeting on Feb 18. The location is:

Sheraton Grand Sacramento Hotel
1230 J Street
Sacramento, California
Beavis Room 

Please speak up and let the board know that you care. The hydroponic discussion is scheduled from 1 to 1:45 pm. If you can’t make it to the meeting, let your board representative know how you feel beforehand.

It is time to show up.
Many thanks,


P.S. PLEASE share this letter. It is the only way people will learn about this.

To further this conversation join us at the Dartmouth Symposium.

The Real Organic Project Symposium will be held on April 3 & 4
at Dartmouth College. Please join us there for an important dialogue. Attendance is free for ROP certified farmers and farm crews. Travel and housing scholarships are available. Please email us for information.

Click here for tickets to the symposium

Correction #1. I got a letter from California confused about whether the CCOF board meeting is open to the entire organic community, or only to CCOF members. My understanding is that the meeting is intended only for members of CCOF. I am not going to attend, nor is anyone else from “out of town” that I know of.

Nonetheless, this effort to reform CCOF is of international significance. Vermont, the Brave Little State, has the highest percentage of organic farmers in the US. But California has the highest number of organic farmers.  CCOF certifies approximately 4000 farms. As of 2018, they certified in 46 states and 4 countries. They are the big dog in the room.

I like to think of Vermont as the Jack Russell terrier in the room.  California is more like the St. Bernard.

So this meeting on the 18th will be CCOF members talking to CCOF members. But indeed, the whole world will be listening. It is so important to all of us what happens in California.

Correction #3. In my letter a few weeks ago on the EcoFarm tour, I mistakenly said that the hydroponic producer was certified by CCOF. They are, in fact, certified by Organic Certifiers, Inc. I apologize for the mistake. CCOF does certify many such operations, but not that one.