I’m going to make my opinion heard. I think you folks ought to make your opinion heard too.

– Senator Jon Tester on the certification of hydro as organic

Jon Tester working on his farm in Big Sandy, Montana

Hi Friend,

Jon Tester joined the Senate in 2006. But he has been a grain farmer in Big Sandy, Montana all his life. With his wife, Sharla, he took over the 1800 acre farm his parents had run. The farm became organic in the 1980s after they got tired of getting sick every time they had to spray for weeds or handle treated seed. The discovery of a market for organic grain became the motivation to change their lives.

Jon is a plain-spoken man, unusual in Congress.

Jon spoke to the annual meeting of the Organic Farmers Association last week. Linley and I both serve in leadership committees of the OFA. It is another wonderful group of organic farmers from all over the country. The focus of the Real Organic Project is to build an organic label that helps connect organic farmers and eaters who care. We are building a label that reflects the traditional meaning of organic. The mission of the OFA is to represent organic farmers in Washington, working on reform. Both organizations are closely aligned in beliefs about what “organic” should mean.

At the end of his short talk, Senator Tester answered questions from the farmers. His reply to one question from Director Kate Mendenhall really struck me.

Kate Mendenhall: “Do you have any tips for us to really focus our message on keeping hydroponic production out of certified organic? We have so many certified organic farmers who continually rate this issue really high on our priority list, knowing that soil has always been the cornerstone of what makes “organic” organic. Do you have any perspectives you could share?”

Sharla and Jon on their farm in Big Sandy, Montana

Senator Tester: “Well, it’s interesting that you brought that up today because I just read a news story. We have a thing in Montana called “Growth through Ag,” and I just read a news story that they gave a $40,000 grant to an organic soil person who is converting to hydroponics. And I didn’t even think that that was organically certifiable.
“And I’m going to look! I get certified through the State of Montana. If, in fact, they’re certifying hydroponics, I’m going to find a certifier that doesn’t, because that’s bull…. I’ll just tell ya that. I don’t agree with that at all.
“I’m going to make my opinion heard. I think you folks ought to make your opinion heard too.
“And, by the way, we’ve got Nate (Powell-Palm, NOSB member) on the phone. Nate, can you tell me, has the NOSB authorized hydroponic organics?”
Nate Powell-Palm: “Unfortunately, yes. And so, hopefully, it will be coming up again. But, as of now, it is allowed.”
Senator Tester: “Well, hopefully you can use your clout to stop it. It’s crazy. I mean it’s just baloney. That’s nuts! That’s all I’m going to say. I don’t know what to say. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all, to be honest with you. It’s as artificial an environment as there is. It’s one of the problems I have quite frankly with chemical agriculture is that they are using the soil as just a holder for the chemicals. And this’s not healthy and is certainly not sustainable. And hydroponics just takes that to another level.”

Jon Tester in the Senate

Thank you, Senator Tester.

I have to correct one thing that Nate said. While it is true that the USDA’s National Organic Program permits the certification of hydroponic and aeroponic as organic, the standing recommendation from the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) is still that hydroponics should be prohibited. That recommendation passed by a twelve-to-one vote in 2010. It was the first of twenty recommendations that have since been set aside or ignored by the USDA. Other recommendations include animal welfare for poultry (requiring outside access) and the “Origin of Livestock”. These failures to act have led to terrible erosion of public trust in the organic label.

“Systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, can not be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices.

– from 2010 NOSB Recommendation

The issue of certification of hydroponics WAS revisited by the NOSB in 2017. Unfortunately, the board failed to gain the required two-thirds vote to pass the proposal, so the 2010 recommendation still stands. At that a recommendation to prohibit “aeroponics” passed with 14 yea votes and 1 abstention.

Certification of ALL forms of hydroponics, including aeroponics, are permitted by the USDA. And such hydro operations are now flooding the “organic” market.

For any who want to revisit the very significant 2017 Jacksonville meeting, I wrote an article entitled “The Night They Drove Organic Down” that was posted on Patagonia’s blog. Jacksonville was a turning point in the National Organic Program. It is when we moved from “failure to enforce the standards” to “failure to have meaningful standards”.

Click here to read “The Night They Drove Organic Down” on Patagonia.com

Jon Tester on his farm

Click here to view Jon Tester’s speech at the OFA 2021 Annual Meeting:

We really appreciate Jon’s simple honesty. It is amazing to have such a strong advocate for organic farming in the Senate. I would point out that Jon is not just a supporter of organic farming. He is a strong supporter of all family-scale farming that cares for the land, the people on the land, and the people eating that food. He just decided a long time ago that organic is the best way to do all that.

I loved his presentation, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to him. He starts talking around minute 27.

“I watched neighbor after neighbor sell out, and a fair number of them were bigger than we were. In the eighties, we realized we had to do something to add value to our product, to make it more marketable, to get a better price for it. That’s when we made the conversion to organic. It’s been a blessing for us. Before we converted, when we sprayed weeds, I just planned on being sick for about a week.”

– Jon Tester in Esquire Magazine in 2010

Our community continues to build. Real organic farming is the alternative to industrial agriculture. Please join 1000 Real Fans and help to build the wave. Together.

Dave and Linley

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You can still watch recordings from our January symposium by clicking here.