CCOF Board Meeting Takes On (Pet Tiger) Hydroponics

Our “Know Your Farmer” video this week comes from Park Farming Organics. I got to hear co-owner Scott Park speak at EcoFarm last month. He gave an inspiring keynote about their soil health practices on their innovative farm. We all left inspired about the possibilities for real organic farming. Please take a few minutes to watch this short video. You won’t be sorry.

Park Farming Organic Thumbnail Image

“Hydroponics is a settled issue.”

Jenny Tucker, director of the National Organic Program

No, hydroponics in organic is not a settled issue. Many people have asked me for an update on the hydroponics discussion last week at the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) board meeting. I can only give a second-hand account. I was not there. The meeting was limited to CCOF members, and the CCOF leadership asked not to be recorded when they spoke. Their request sums up a big problem that the organic community faces. Trust is in short supply. Can we speak openly as a worldwide movement about our mistakes and challenges? Some CCOF members are now working to change the huge misstep on certifying hydroponics as organic. CCOF’s advocacy of these hydro systems was instrumental in their becoming approved by the NOP. CCOF’s actions have affected all of us.

fauxganic hydroponic blueberries in plastic pots  grow in California

Hydroponic operations are multiplying across the California landscape. A failed system for soil health.

Some of the most prominent farmers in the California organic movement spoke in defense of soil at the meeting. Katrina Frey, Paul Muller, Dru Rivers, Jim Durst, and Steve Sprinkel all spoke in support of soil-based organic. They spoke for Frey Vineyards, Full Belly, Durst Organics, and Farmer & Cook. These four farms are certified with the Real Organic Project.

Gerry Davis also spoke in favor of keeping the soil in organic certification. Gerry is a former NOSB member who was speaking for Grimmway Farms, the largest organic vegetable producer in CCOF (and in the world). Gerry gave an eloquent defense of soil as the required foundation for organic farming. CCOF board members Esteban Macias and Karen Archipely gave rebuttals in support of certified organic hydro. CCOF staff said they had little choice in certifying hydroponics, as it was a matter of NOP policy.

Certified "organic" hydroponic blueberries.

Certified “organic” hydroponic blueberries in California.

But that ignores CCOF’s role in creating that very policy in the first place. And it ignores the fact that there are still no actual standards for certifying hydroponics. And it ignores the fact that seven other certifiers in the US are refusing to certify hydroponic as organic. Yes, those certifiers feel vulnerable facing the wrath of the USDA. But it is impossible for the National Organic Program to decertify the most respected certifiers in America.

In the end, the strongest justification given for continuing to certify hydro was not that hydroponic meets the beliefs and expectations of organic agriculture. It was that CCOF will get sued by its hydro members if they don’t keep certifying them. It is like having a pet tiger. Don’t forget to feed him.

prowling tiger crosses stream

I experienced the same rationale when we met with Miles McEvoy (former director of the NOP), and his boss, Elanor Starmer (Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service). Elanor told us that she supported our call for a moratorium on the certification of hydro, but the USDA lawyers told her that if she signed the moratorium letter they would be sued. Another pet tiger.

The same thing happened when Baystate Organic Certifiers refused to certify a CAFO called The Country Hen which had no outdoor access for their chickens. Baystate lost, and now chicken CAFOs produce over 80% of certified organic eggs in America. Another pet tiger.

How many tigers can we afford?

close-up tiger eyes

So the reason for the failure of integrity in the National Organic Program is….. we will get sued into oblivion if we don’t Obey. Will we get sued if we insist on real organic standards and enforcement? That implies that the NOP is being colonized by a few bad corporations seeking to redefine “Organic.”

This creates an amazing cognitive dissonance.

CCOF recently issued this statement:

“To address the climate crisis today, we must build on what we know works,” says Kelly Damewood, CCOF’s CEO. “Organic farming, with its tremendous capacity to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in soils, is a known solution.”

This is completely true, and I celebrate CCOF saying it with their large microphone. But it is hard to balance this with CCOF statements given just two years earlier at the National Organic Standards Board. From Kelly Damewood’s testimony at Jacksonville in 2017:

“Given that we work with thousands of organic producers, it’s quite challenging to take a hard and fast position on tough issues but our position on hydroponics is clear. CCOF does support strong standards for hydroponic in container systems.

Perhaps CCOF thought that the hydro production would have such a small impact on organic that it was not important. But hydro is already producing the large majority of “certified organic” tomatoes, and soon will do the same for berries, peppers, and greens. Soil-grown tomato and berry producers are going out of business. The California landscape is becoming littered with hydroponic “organic” pots of hydro berries. Instead of putting the carbon back into the ground, we are seeing the organic farmers themselves getting plowed under. Who will feed us the real food we want to eat when the real farmers are gone?

In their justification to the NOSB for certifying hydro, the CCOF leadership often cited the economic unfairness of taking certification away from some of its members. Apparently, they care less about the economic damage done to its members who grow in the soil. Why are some members more important than others?

CCOF still calls for the decertification of over 75% of the certified organic eggs by supporting the OLPP (the animal welfare reform). That will also negatively impact CAFO producers. Some producers will lose.

But a return to integrity on animal welfare would create tremendous growth in the production of real organic eggs and real organic farms.

chickens sunbathing in the pasture at Misty Meadows farm

Pasture raised chickens basking in the evening sunlight at Misty Meadows, a Real Organic certified farm.

Discussions at the Sacramento meeting of a separate label for Bioponics were not well received by the hydro producers, who felt that the differentiation would be a sign of inferiority. Perhaps this is why most of the hydro “organic” production denies being hydroponic? Do they fear that customers will discover how they are growing? They know hydro isn’t what people want when they buy organic.

Board member Esteban Macias said they had an alternative Bio label in Mexico because of national prohibitions on organic labeling of hydro. That seems like a fair way to go for all.

How much longer will we allow these fundamental questions about the organic movement to be discussed behind closed doors? This is not just an issue of concern to the few people in the room in Sacramento. It is an issue of concern to millions of people buying organic, and to thousands of organic farmers around the world. They are trusting us to get it right. Many of the eaters don’t know what “organic” means, but they trust us to get it right. We need to keep earning that trust.

Six leading California farmers got up and spoke in support of an organic farming system based on soil health and fertility. They said that hydroponic cannot be included in the organic label. They are pioneers who worked hard to build CCOF from the ground up. Their statements are at odds with the current stated policy of CCOF. They are trying to save CCOF.

What happens next? Those farmers are not going away. As CCOF’s 4000 farmer members discover what is being done in their name, they aren’t going away either (although some are already starting to leave CCOF to work with other certifiers). CCOF has a terrible conflict between their policies and their members’ beliefs. This conversation is only just beginning. NOP’s director Jenny Tucker’s statement that “hydroponics is a settled issue” couldn’t be less true. Nothing is settled. Nothing will ever be settled as long as this cynical redefinition of organic is being forced upon us.

Since the meeting in Sacramento, I have gotten unsolicited letters from two famous pioneering farmer members of Oregon Tilth, saying that the farmers of Tilth need to get organized as well. They cannot accept the current pro-hydro policies of their organization.

So I say it is time to stop turning off the recorders when we speak. We followed that strategy for the last ten years. We were told to share our disagreements behind closed doors. That has led to the wide-scale certification of hydroponics and CAFOs.

This is a failed strategy. It did not work. Real organic farmers have gone out of business because of that failed strategy. It is time to have public conversations. It is time to accept that we, as a movement, have made mistakes and made grievous compromises that we now regret. Let us have the courage to admit our mistakes and correct our direction. Let us not say that we can’t have real organic anymore because we fear lawsuits. Let us find a way forward. Together.

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. Paul Muller will talk about “California Rising.”

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.