Sat, Nov 19, 2016 - Page 14 News List

The dirt on dirt

What’s organic? A debate over dirt may boil down to turf

By Stephanie Storm  /  NY Times News Service

A certified organic heritage breed Narragansett turkey flies from a perch at the Windy N Ranch in Ellensburg last month in Washington.

Photo: Bloomberg/David Ryder

If a fruit or vegetable isn’t grown in dirt, can it be organic?

That is the question roiling the world of organic farming, and the answer could redefine what it means to farm organically.

At issue is whether produce that relies solely on irrigation to deliver nutrients to plants — through what is known as hydroponic and aquaponic systems — can be certified organic. And the National Organic Standards Board, an advisory group that makes recommendations to the US secretary of agriculture, will get an earful on the topic at its meeting in St Louis this week.

On one side are the growing number of big and small growers raising fruits and vegetables in these soil-free systems. They say their production methods are no different from those of farmers who grow plants in dirt — and, they add, they make organic farming more sustainable by, for instance, reducing water use.

“Soil to me as a farmer means a nutrient-rich medium that contains biological processes, and that doesn’t have to be dirt,” said Marianne Cufone, an aquaponic farmer and the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which lobbies for aquaculture.

Not so, say the farmers who have spent years tending their soil so that it produces the nutrients plants need. They argue that organic production is first and foremost about caring for the soil, which produces environmental benefits that go beyond growing plants.

“Soil has always been the basis of organic production,” said Steve Sprinkel, an organic farmer in Ojai, California. “The soil is alive and releasing micronutrients to plants that use their roots to scavenge and forage those things, and so taking care of the soil is the bedrock of organic farming.”

Sales of organic food in the US hit US$40 billion last year, sending grocers scrambling to find enough organic produce to fill their cases. Keeping up with the demand is difficult and expensive, and financiers and entrepreneurs, many of them from Silicon Valley, have started pouring money into these alternative systems.

Whether the soil-free systems help bring down the price of organic products remains to be seen. Equipment like lighting and organic nutrients are expensive — soil growers count on their dirt to deliver some of those nutrients at no cost — and hydroponically and aquaponically grown fruits and vegetables usually are sold for the same price as organic produce grown in dirt.

“It’s like using an intravenous needle to administer exactly what we think the plant needs instead of allowing the plant to get what it needs in the amount it needs out of the ground,” said Dan Barber, a chef in New York and author of “The Third Plate.”

In the end, the decision about whether these growing systems can continue to be certified falls to the US Department of Agriculture. In 2010, the Organic Standards Board recommended that hydroponic systems be ruled ineligible for organic certification because they excluded “the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems.” At that time, there were only 39 hydroponic growers with organic certification.

The USDA has not acted on the board’s recommendation, allowing organic certification of crops grown in hydroponic systems to continue. According to a survey this year, the number of hydroponic growers with organic certification dropped to 30, but there were 22 certified aquaponic growers and 69 certified operations growing plants in containers lined with things like peat moss and coconut husks that do not provide nutrients on their own.

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