There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look, what’s going down?”

–  Buffalo Springfield: “For What Its Worth”

Dear Real Organic friends,

It’s time we “stop and look around.” Our world is changing at warp speed. We seem helpless to control it, or even to affect it. My question is how do we feel about it? What does it mean if our food comes from a “windowless warehouse”? Do we think it is a good idea? Do we have a choice?

Choice is something that we seem to be swimming in. If you go to any supermarket, you are practically assaulted by the many choices. Organic raspberries in January? No problem. Organic eggs at the lowest price in history? No problem. 

Organic blueberries, greens, and tomatoes grown in healthy soil from your local farmer?

Well, uh…Surely you are asking for too much.

Reinventing Farming
From this week’s New York Times article called “No Soil. No Growing Seasons. Just Add Water and Technology”:

The American farmer is already obsolete,” he [hydroponic producer Jonathon Webb] said, pointing out that the United States imports four billion pounds of tomatoes from Mexico every year. “Our hope is we can get farmers back on U.S. shelves.”

There is no question we are reinventing farming, but what we are doing is reinventing the fresh-food supply chain.”

– Irving Fain, the founder and chief executive of Bowery (a hydroponic production facility).

This New York Times article chronicles a human love affair with technology. Surely our inventions will set us free. We are hypnotized by control. It goes back to Descartes and the powerful metaphor of the world as a giant, complex clock. If we believe that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information” it changes what we see, what questions we ask, and thus what answers we will find. We are searching for correct answers, but we are clueless as to the right questions.

And beneath every shift in the food system, there is a single religiously held belief: Profit. The core tenet of capitalism is that the market will set us free. We have heard that refrain before. The “free market” has led us to Doritos, to McDonald’s, to Coke, to the destruction of rural communities, to the malnourishment of urban communities, to silent spring and global warming, to a dropping life expectancy and a soaring rate of diabetes. There is nothing free about it.

Cheap food isn’t.

We might start to wonder if Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is silently choking us. 

Just to say. If you are growing food on a space station, then hydroponic production does “use” less water. But on earth, we have evolved as part of a brilliant system of cycling water, carbon, and nutrients. Those cycles are the basis of organic farming.  Albert Howard called this “the law of return.”

“We’ve perfected mother nature indoors through that perfect combination of science and technology married with farming,” said Daniel Malechuk…

We can grow in the Antarctic,” he said. “We can be on an island. We can be on the moon or in the space station.”

– From the NY Times article

It is true that if you are farming on the moon or in the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona, then hydroponics might make sense (If you HAVE to grow in such a parched landscape.) But why would you be growing food in the desert where there is no water? There are many places in America that have ample supplies of water, soil, and sunshine for growing food. And as to “local” production, there aren’t many people close to where many of these mega-hydroponic facilities are located. These mega-producers are where most hydro production comes from, not from the rooftops of Brooklyn. 

One of the lies told about hydroponics is that it is small-scale and decentralized. The VAST majority of hydroponic production in America and Mexico takes place in huge greenhouses (or even outside), usually in the desert far from the eaters they serve. As for the vertical greens in “windowless warehouses,” most only survive economically by a Ponzi scheme of new investors.


“At the moment, I would say the bad guys are winning,” said Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer and the executive director of the Real Organic Project. “Hydroponic production is not growing because it produces healthier food. It’s growing because of the money. Anyone who frames this as food for the people or the environment is just lying.”

– From the July 6 New York Times article

I want to be clear that in this quotation I was talking about the claims of some hydroponic vendors that their products are organic. I was not saying that all hydroponics are fraudulent. I believe that real organic is a better way to grow food than hydro, but I don’t think that hydro production is unethical.

Some hydroponic producers casually claim to be energy efficient and beneficial to the environment, but these claims are false. Greenhouse production, whether in the soil or in hydroponic plastic, is energy intensive. Hydroponics takes on heavier burdens by relying on highly processed fertilizers produced far away. The manufacture of the coco coir they use as a substrate is an ecological disaster involving the heavy use of water for flushing the toxins out of the coconut husks. Hydro can compete and win based on economics as long as the true costs are ignored, but it can never compete environmentally and socially with local real organic production. As just one example, hydroponics eliminates the carbon sequestration that we all so avidly support in the soil health movement.

In making war on nature, there is a risk that we might “win.” That is a victory none of us can afford.

This week we are introducing one podcast:



A man in a white chef coat with brown hair speaks while looking off camera. Baskets for proofing bread are stacked behind him.

Dan Barber – Real Organic Advisory Board Member.

I am not buying any of it,” Dan Barber said of the hydroponic fever.

Trying to enhance water with nutrients to mimic what soil does is virtually impossible, he said, in part because no one really knows how the soil microbiome works.

We know more about the stars and the sky than we do about soil,” he said. “We don’t know a lot about nutrition, actually.”

There is a cultural cost, too. For centuries, cuisines have been developed based on what the land and the plants demanded, he said. Regional Mexican diets built on corn and beans came about because farmers realized that beans fixed nitrogen in soil, and corn used it to grow strong.

“The tech-farming revolution is turning this equation on its head,” Mr. Barber said. It aids efficiency in the name of feeding more people, but divorces food from nature. 

– Dan Barber in the NY Times

As famous for his vision of our struggling food system as for his extraordinary Blue Hill restaurants, Dan Barber has long been a powerful commentator on what we eat. To talk to Dan is to be swept away by his passion and enthusiasm. And by his profound knowledge of food. We can’t separate food from farming. Listen to this conversation we had with Dan last Fall.
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