STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Since the term “organic farming” was coined, its supporters have been trying to clarify what exactly it means.
Some of the fundamental concepts, such as the avoidance of most pesticides, are universally acknowledged, but questions were bound to emerge as “organic” mushroomed into a $7.6 billion ag sector in the U.S.
“This is serious money now, so that means people that like money are looking at us even more than they ever did before,” said Tom Beddard, owner of Lady Moon Farms.
His company grows organic produce in Pennsylvania, Florida and Georgia.
The question that’s bugging Beddard these days is why hydroponic growing — where plants are grown in nutrient-enriched water, not soil — is still an accepted organic practice.
“We were called humus farmers before we were called organic farmers, and for me, it’s always been the soil. It always must be the soil,” Beddard said during a panel discussion at the Farming for the Future Conference Feb. 9 at The Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center.
The event is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.
After simmering for a few years, the debate about hydroponic and other soil-free growing systems came to a head during the National Organic Standards Board’s meeting last October in Jacksonville, Florida.
The advisory board voted 8-7 to keep hydroponics and aquaponics in the organic fold, and 14-0 to prohibit aeroponics.
“Aquaponics and hydroponics grow produce without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers,” Brian Filipowich, a representative of hydroponic and aquaponic industry groups, said at the board meeting.
“They are also very good at cycling resources and being very efficient with resource use, so they’re very sustainable.”
The vote was a disappointment for Dave Mortensen, who seconded the motion to boot hydroponics.
Mortensen, a Penn State weed ecologist who was appointed to the standards board in Jan. 2017, said he and several students did extensive research to prepare for the hydroponic vote.
In addition to taking that defeat, Mortensen was frustrated by USDA’s recent decision to back away from proposed organic livestock rules that were popular with organic farmers.
“I am an optimist. This board is tough on an optimist,” he said.