Twin Oaks Garden blog, rainy day reading, more on hydroponics.

Y-Star Pattypan squash, one of the varieties for the Twin Oaks Garden this year.

Wren, one of the Twin Oaks Garden Managers, has started a blog about the Twin Oaks Garden. This is a great place to check what’s happening in our garden, especially if you also garden in Virginia or some other winter-hardiness zone 7 area.

The new post this week is about What’s New in Spring 2018. There are photos of people at work and also of the new varieties we’re growing this year: Southern Giant Curled Mustard, Purple Peacock broccoli/kale, Canary melon, Flavorburst yellow bell pepper, Y-Star pattypan squash, Royal Burgundy beans (not new to us, but back again), Granny Cantrell’s tomato and Persimmon tomato.

The March issue of Growing for Market is out. Nothing from me this time, but plenty of good stuff from other farmer-writers. Diane Szukovathy writes about starting a 12-member flower producer’s co-op in Seattle. They started with a part-time employee and a simple leased space, working on an indoor farmer’s market model where each farm conducted its own business under a shared roof. They were able to get some USDA funding, and increased their income immediately. Their shared setting was attractive to customers, and a good way to mentor newer growers.

Jesse Frost has written on Understanding Early Blight, with a lot of solid information from Meg McGrath at Cornell (home of the Vegetable MD Online site). Carolina Lees writes about Healthcare beyond hospitals: farm-hospital connections. Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms offers a Farmer to farmer profile of Richard Wiswall (author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook and designer of many labor-saving devices.) Morgan Houk writes about only collecting useful information when record-keeping, not piles of data you’ll never use. John Hendrickson brings us the latest news on the paper pot transplanter (still not certifiable for USDA Organic farms).

Paper pot transplanter,
Photo Small Farm Works

The Spring 2018 Heirloom Gardener magazine has an article from me about Intercropping (planting two crops side by side in the space normally reserved for just one. In early spring we often sow snap peas down the center of a spinach bed (either an overwinterred spinach bed, or a spring-planted one). The same piece of rowcover warms both (until we whisk away the rowcover to a later crop. The peas grow upwards, not competing with the spinach. When the spinach bolts, the next crop is in place with no further work.

In the summer we have sown peanuts down the center of a bed of lettuce, and transplanted okra into a bed of early cabbage. It’s all about timing and about choosing compatible crops. Okra grows tall, while cabbages stay close to the ground. peanuts grow slowly while lettuce grows quickly.

Overwintered spinach with spring-sown Sugar Ann snap peas.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Lastly I have more on hydroponics and Organic Certification.

Last week I wrote about the November 2017 vote at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on hydroponics. Since then I’ve read more information, and realized that the view I presented last time is not the whole picture. It is more complex. Audrey Alwell wrote in the Organic Broadcaster for Jan/Feb 2018, reminding us that the 8:7 vote at the NOSB is not a clear stamp of approval for “organic” hydroponics and aquaponics. The NOSB rules require a “decisive vote” (10:5) for a decision. They did not get a decisive vote to prohibit hydroponics from Organic Certification. This means the situation continues for now as it has been. That is, Organic certifiers can certify hydroponic operations of growers using only approved inputs for fertility and pest management, and if they are protecting natural resources and fostering biodiversity.

The Organic label does not cover all the important aspects of ethical and sustainable farming. Not all Organic practices are sustainable. (Think about removing and trashing plastic mulch!) Social justice and fair trade are not addressed. Some hydroponic  growers use renewable energy, some see hydroponics as more sustainable than Organic. In California, during the 6 year drought, hydroponics helped some farmers survive and produce food. Adaptability is important.

One USDA-accredited certifier, CCOF, says all producers should be pushed towards using renewable energy, in order to reduce impact on natural resources. CCOF submitted a 12-page comment.

You can see the USDA Hydroponics Package slideshow.

One possibility (other than prohibiting hydroponics from Organic certification) might be additional required labelling as hydroponic, for greater transparency and true consumer choice. Meanwhile some soil-organic growers are looking at creating a new category “Beyond Organic”.

The issue will be voted on in the fall 2018 NOSB meeting. The spring NOSB meeting will review the proposal from the Crops Subcommittee on field and greenhouse container production (both soil-based and hydroponic container production). They will consider the materials used, artificial lighting, synthetic mulches, disposal/recycling of crops, pots and substrates.

The public comment period opens in mid-March (next week!) Personally, I still think that food grown without soil cannot be organic. It is arrogant to believe that we can synthetically recreate all the nutrients and plant hormones that crops need, in the right proportions, and produce nutrient-dense healthy food.

Another article I read was in The Heirloom Gardener for spring 2018. The article “Up-to-date news on organic certification for plants grown without soil. . .” is by Lydia Noyes. She also makes clear that the November vote hasn’t changed the standards in place. It isn’t new that some hydroponic ventures are certified Organic. The matter has become a more important issue because hydroponic (and aquaponics, employing fish and water) systems have been proliferating, and can now feel like a more serious threat to those opposed to giving them Organic certification ever.

Lydia Noyes gives us some of the history of the Organic movement. She says:

“Conceptualized in the mid-20th century, the organic movement originally idealized a “closed loop” farm system, or a property that produced almost everything it needed on-site.”

Organic farming was fundamentally about maintaining and improving soil health.  Some of us do still see things the same way.  Along with USDA certification came an over-emphasis on some aspects of farming (the inputs) and a de-emphasis on others (the health of the soil). Increased demand for organic food perversely lead to some farmers becoming organic for the income, without much attention to soil health, or to a natural farming philosophy. There is too much emphasis on which products are allowed to be used and which are not.

How should we categorize a farm that uses sustainable techniques but doesn’t benefit the land it is on (even if it does not pollute the soil)?

There are also financial considerations. Hydroponic farming can be cheaper to operate than soil-based farms. Is it fair to include both in the same category? Hydroponics can drive down process. The stakes are high. The debate continues.

4 thoughts on “Twin Oaks Garden blog, rainy day reading, more on hydroponics.

  1. “…over-emphasis on some aspects of farming (the inputs) and a de-emphasis on others (the health of the soil)”. The original organic movement (Howard, Rodale, etc.) were convinced that man made chemicals were destroying the soil. We now know, with the hindsight of microbiology and minimum till advances in ‘big ag’, that the problem was tillage, not chemicals. So I do think it is time to ditch the endless lists of prohibited inputs and re-focus on managing tillage. We should get organic farmers/market gardeners to at least match the no-till farmers in soil quality, and prohibited input lists are not going to get us there. Do a web search with “Dave Brandt soil health” for a start on seeing the desirable goal.

    • Good points Jim. Avoiding prohibited inputs does not by itself lead to healthy soil. I’m still reeling from seeing photos of “organic” cattle feed lots. Mo prohibited inputs, but not a blade of grass either! Pam

  2. Such an informative and though-provoking post. Thank you!

    I think that implementing Regenerative Organic Certification (https://rodaleinstitute.org/regenerativeorganic/) may be a good step in restoring the organic brand. I feel like the current standards have been coopted by commercial agriculture and processed food producers to the point of being meaningless.

    Regarding hydroponics, I agree that they should be labeled distinctly at the very least. It would also be useful for research to be conducted regarding the measurable, significant, differences in nutritional elements contained in vegetables grown in the ground versus the same varieties of vegetables grown with only OMRI approved fertilizers in containers and hydroponically. While hydroponically grown food may be proven to be less nutritious than soil-grown food, there may still be a need to grow food this way in certain climates.

    • Thanks Carol, especially for the link to the Rodale Regenerative Organic Certification. I’ll read up on that next.

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