Real Organic Project, Mother of a Hubbard, Twin Oaks Garden Calendar

The Real Organic Project is taking off where the Keep The Soil in Organic Project is stopping, after several USDA decisions that disregard what organic farmers have to say (allowing hydroponics, setting aside animal welfare, and reducing the role of the National Organic Standards Board.) The hard-working campaigners for genuine organic standards are  disappointed, but are not giving up. Dave Chapman, a leading light of Keep the Soil in Organic, has this report:

“The Past

It has not been a good year for the National Organic Program. Since the November NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) meeting in Jacksonville failed to prohibit HYDRO, the organic community has gone through a period of questioning and searching. We are wrestling with the basic question, “Can we trust the USDA to protect organic integrity?”

Following a series of devastating articles about the NOP (National Organic Program) in the Washington Post last year, all the news from the USDA has been bad. In September, the USDA exonerated the enormous Aurora Dairy CAFO (Confinement Animal Feeding Operation) of any wrongdoing at their Colorado “farm.” This dairy operation was described in detail in one WaPo article, along with compelling test results to prove the cattle weren’t on pasture. The government approval set the stage for Aurora to build several new CAFOs that will dwarf the current 15,000-cow operation.

Then the USDA abandoned the animal welfare reforms (called OLPP) which had finally been approved under Obama. This rejection by the USDA was the result of intense lobbying from such groups as the Coalition For Sustainable Organics (in their Senate testimony), American Farm Bureau, and the National Pork Producers Council. They were championed by the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, protecting enormous “organic” egg CAFOs in their home states. The USDA thus cleared the way for CAFOs to continue receiving “organic” certification.

Then in January, the USDA announced that “Certification of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic operations is allowed under the USDA organic regulations, and has been since the National Organic Program began.” This was an interesting rewriting of history, but who cares about the facts?

Finally, the USDA recently told the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that, going forward, they will be severely limited in the scope of their work. They will not address big questions about organic integrity. They will not set their own agenda. They will limit their focus to defining what substances will be permitted in organic certification.

These outcomes (allowing hydro, setting aside animal welfare, and reducing the role of the NOSB) are exactly what Theo Crisantes of the Coalition For Sustainable Organics called for when he testified before the Senate Ag Committee last year.

It would appear that the USDA is no longer even bothering to woo the organic community with sweet talk. They are bluntly speaking their truth, which is that “Certified Organic” means whatever they want it to mean, and to hell with the organic community. And apparently, to hell with OFPA as well. Organic is all about marketing, isn’t it?

For the many people who have spent years working hard to build the integrity of the NOP, this is a dismal moment. We have lost the helm, and the New Organic will not have much to do with the ideals of such pioneers as Albert Howard and Eve Balfour. It will have to do with money. Money will decide what is called “certified organic” and what isn’t.

And so, if we still care about those ideals, we must move on. The National Organic Program will continue to flourish. Many people will still turn to it to find safer food. Many good people will still work hard to make the NOP as honest and positive as possible. But the NOP will be controlled by politicians and lobbyists who have no belief in the mission of the organic farming movement.

What happens now?

This winter, a growing group of farmers and eaters have formed the Real Organic Project. The Real Organic Project will work to support real organic farming.

This will involve a number of efforts, starting with the creation of a new “Add-On” label to represent the organic farming that we have always cared about. It will use USDA certification as a base, but it will have a small number of critical additional requirements. These will differentiate it from the CAFOs, HYDROs, and import cheaters that are currently USDA certified.

This group grew out of several meetings of Vermont farmers who believed that the USDA label was no longer something that could represent us. Starting a new label is not a small task, but we can no longer find an alternative. That small group of Vermonters has grown quickly into a national group. This amazing group of organic advocates has gathered to build something new.

Standards Board // We now have a 15-member Standards Board, based on the model of the NOSB, but with much greater representation from the organic community. The 15 volunteers have a wealth of experience in both farming and regulation. There are 9 farmer members, as well as representatives from NGOs, stores, consumers, scientists, and certifiers.

The group includes 5 former NOSB members, as well as leading farmers and advocates from across the country. They will meet in March to set the first standards. They will continue to meet once a year after that to review and update. This first year there will be a pilot project with a small number of farms to test the certifying process and work out the details.

Advisory Board // There is also a distinguished Advisory Board that currently has 18 members, including 4 former NOSB members and 3 current NOSB members. It also includes many well known organic pioneers such as Eliot Coleman and Fred Kirschenmann.

Executive Board // And finally, there is an Executive Board of 5 people that includes one current NOSB member.

These boards will work together to reconnect and unite our community. Our intent is transformational. We will create a label that we can trust again.

We can only succeed with your support. Go to realorganicproject.org to become a member. Make a donation to help make this new label into a reality. We are only supported by our sweat and your generosity. We can reclaim the meaning of the organic label together.

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Mother of a Hubbard Cathy Rehmeyer ran a wonderful blog in 2012-2015, with great tips for serious food gardening. Her work Garden Under Cover: Winter Vegetable Production in Low Tunnels is on SlideShare. So far, I don’t think it has appeared as a book. (But it should!)


A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

And here’s a seasonal reminder about the Twin Oaks Garden Calendarour month-by-month task list for our 3.5 acre, central Virginia winter-hardiness zone 7a vegetable garden that feeds 100 people year round. At the link you will find a photo from each month, which you can click to get to the list for that month. A new season, a new opportunity, using lessons learned last year, along with fresh ideas, inspiration and plain old hard work!

Rhubarb is on its way! So far just clusters of leaves near the ground, but the promise is there! And next week I’ll tell you more about my upcoming book, The Year Round Hoophouse.

Rhubarb in early spring, not yet ready to harvest.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Growing and eating healthful produce

Organic crops need healthy soil.
Photo keep the Soil in Organic

I’ve written before about my queasiness about hydroponics  recently and also earlier this year here and here. Big hydroponic “organic” industries have lobbied and got included as certifiably Organic, when most of us realize that growing food without soil is the opposite of Organic, with or without a capital O.

The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (fondly known as SSAWG) has posted in their E-newsletter Seeds of Sustainability, about the Great Nutrient Collapse. This article written by for Politico. You can read it all here.

Irakli Loladze by Geoff Johnson for POLITICO

Irakli Loladze (a mathematician by training)  was in a biology lab in 1998, studying for his PhD at Arizona State University.

Biologists had discovered they could grow algae faster by shining more light onto them— which should have helped the zooplankton which lives on algae, by increasing their food supply. But although the algae grew faster, the zooplankton did not. They had plenty to eat—but more food did not lead to more growth.This was a paradox.

The increased light was causing the algae to grow faster, but they contained fewer nutrients. By growing faster, the algae had turned into junk food! The zooplankton had large quantities of food, but it was less nutritious, and they were starving. Irakli Loladze used his math training to help measure what was happening. He and the biologists devised a model of the relationship between a food source and a eater of that  food. They published their first paper in 2000.It didn’t make a huge splash because not so many people care deeply about zooplankton or algae.

Irakli Loladze was intrigued by a much bigger question that the experiment raised in his mind. “What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze explained in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

The real-life issue isn’t that plants are getting more light than they used to. It’s that  they’re  getting more carbon dioxide than they used to. Carbon dioxide is as vital as light for plants  to grow. If extra light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae, then it is reasonable to assume that increasing carbon dioxide could do the same. What could this mean for the  people eating those plants?

It is well-documented that CO2 levels have been rising, but little research had been done on how that affected the quality of the plant foods we eat. For 17 years, Loladze searched the scientific literature for studies and data. The information all seemed to acknowledge that the junk-food effect he had learned about with the zooplankton and algae was also occurring in farms and forests world-wide. Loladze reported: “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising. We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” To demonstrate, he tossed sugar over vegetables to represent how the sugar content of the plant crops we eat is rising due to rising carbon dioxide levels.

It has been accepted for years that many of our foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that the minerals, vitamin and protein content has dropped over the past 50-70 years. We thought we knew why – we’ve been breeding varieties for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and they have become less nutrient-dense. But this may not be the whole story.

In 2002 Loladze published a research paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, arguing that rising CO2 and human nutrition were inextricably linked through a global shift in the quality of plants as food.Very little research had been published, and Loladze’s paper was first to link the impact of CO2 on plants to human nutrition and health. He has continued working on this issue, which is starting to gain wider interest and attention.

USDA researchers recently took varieties of rice, wheat and soy they had stored from the 1950s and 1960s and planted them in various sites around the U.S. where they were grown decades ago, in order to better understand how today’s higher levels of CO2 affect them.

In 2014, a team of scientists published a large, data-rich study Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition, in the journal Nature that looked at several important crops grown at several research sites in Australia, Japan and the United States.  They found that rising CO2 led to a drop in protein, iron and zinc.

On that same day in 2014, Loladze published his own paper, (Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition), which was the result of more than 15 years of work, and was the largest study in the world on the impact on plant nutrients of rising CO2.  Across 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected over the past 30 years, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron has dropped by an average of 8% . The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals is going up. The crop plants are becoming junk food.


Fauxganic hydroponic tomatoes. Photo from Keep the Soil in Organic

Reading this article lead me to make a connection with hydroponics. It made me wonder again about the nutrient quality of hydroponically grown food. Have any studies have been done on the issue of nutrient density (or lack of) in hydroponically-grown vegetables?

Glenn Kern, the Organic Policy Coordinator for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said: “Off the top of my head, I don’t know of studies that have looked for and found the kinds of nutritional differences discussed in the article about CO2. I agree–this is an important question.” He reported that the National Organic Standards Board Crops Subcommittee’s current proposal on hydroponics includes some discussion of published academic studies evaluating observed biological differences between crops grown in soil and crops grown hydroponically. You can find the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal here. Under “Resources,” click on “Meeting Materials.” The Crops Subcommittee’s proposal starts on page 63 and the discussion of plant physiological differences begins on page 71.
I’m with the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Well-cared-for soil is at the heart of organic farming. It is extremely arrogant of people to imagine that any synthesized solution supplied to plants held in inert media or plastic pipes can provide all the benefits of soil. There is much we do not know about the soil, and the interactions of the soil food web. I doubt we even know everything about micro-nutrients, never mind enzymes that promote growth, inhibit diseases, promote recovery from diseases, strengthen resistance to physical stresses and all the rest of it.
Artificially grown crops are the opposite of organic. Organic farming encourages us to feed the soil, not the plant, to look at the long-term well-being of the planet, the wider effects of farming practices on all around, and the health of the people growing and eating the food.
NOFA Vermont has made a short film with Eliot Coleman and Dave Chapman talking about why soil matters.

Why is soil important to all of us? As global citizens, this is a very important question. This film was made to reach out and inform the NOSB. Please check it out.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op3J5GFmfzo&feature=youtu.be

The Keep The Soil in Organic website is keepthesoilinorganic.org.
Their Facebook Page is Keep The Soil In Organic
Their Twitter account is @keepsoilinorganic

What’s growing in the hoophouse; reading; planning for winter.

Tokyo Bekana in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

In the hoophouse we are perhaps half way through our bed preparations. The Tokyo Bekana was the first crop we transplanted from our outdoor nursery bed, and it’s looking very sturdy now.  We’ve also transplanted some Yukina Savoy and the first of the lettuces.

Cherry Belle radishes in the hoophouse, early October.
Photo Pam Dawling.

The crops we direct sowed in early September are growing well, and we are harvesting the radishes and some of the tatsoi and Bulls Blood beet greens (thinning to 6″ apart). The spinach is big enough to start harvesting but we haven’t needed to yet.

Hoophouse tatsoi in early October.
Photo Pam Dawling

The newer sowings (the second radishes and the first brassica baby salad mix (mustards) have emerged and are ready to thin to 1″. Sometimes we use thinned seedlings as a salad garnish, but it takes more time than simply pulling them out, and it takes attention to keep them clean.

This summer we grew more cover crops rather than seed crops, which we have been growing in summer for several years, because we were short of workers. In the photo below you can see some healthy cowpeas I’m going to be pulling up later today, as well as some pulled up and dried buckwheat. We don’t dig our cover crops under, just let them die on the surface for as long as possible, shedding bits of dead leaf, then haul them to the compost pile. With the cowpeas, we hope to leave the nitrogen nodules from the roots, by ripping the plants up roughly!

Iron and Clay cowpeas as cover crop in the hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

These cowpeas have been cut back two or three times over the summer, to keep them manageable. At one point, they were black with sooty mold growing on aphid honeydew. We wondered if it was going to be a bigger problem, but after we cut the plants back, most of the aphids seem to have died. We also got a healthy population of ladybugs.


December beds with row cover.
Photo Wren Vile

I gather readers are planning for winter, as many folks have been visiting my Winter-Kill Temperatures List of hardy crops. I update this list every spring, with the info from the previous winter. It’s useful for planning harvests based on forecast temperatures, and it’s useful for planning which winter crops will grow in your location, either inside or out.

On the same theme, I just discovered the WeatherSpark website which provides “The Typical Weather Anywhere on Earth”. Enter your nearest town or airport and you get clearly explained info with fascinating graphics of how the weather goes over the year in your locality. Note this is not a forecast site, it’s about average weather for each place. Useful to people who’ve recently moved and want to know what to expect this winter, or to new gardeners who haven’t paid so much attention previously. Or to those who want to check their assumptions (I really thought the wind was out of the west more of the time than records say). There are charts of high and low temperature, temperature by the hour each month, cloud cover, daily chance of precipitation (both rainfall and snowfall), hours of daylight, humidity, wind speed and direction and solar energy. A big help in making wise decisions. I know that climate change is going to cause havoc with averages, and we’ll need to learn to become better weather forecasters individually, and to use soil temperature and other metrics to decide when to plant. But this website explains things well.


Tomato seed strained in a sieve.
Photo Pam Dawling

I wrote a more concise description of saving tomato seed for the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. For the full length version, see my two posts here and here.

The October Growing for Market is out. Flower farmer Erin Benzakein writes about getting to grips with the marketing side of running a farm. She encourages farmers to get good photos, step out from behind the camera, and dust off their website. I could use some of this advice! (I’ve been very busy writing a hoophouse book, and have necessarily paid less attention to giving presentations and to rejuvenating this website!

Kai Hoffman-Krull writes about on-farm trials of bio-char. I’m looking forward to reading that. Jesse Frost writes about winter CSAs and profiles some he visited. Chris Bodnar covers Italy’s thriving agricultural co-ops and asks if this could be a model for the next phase of the locally-grown movement. Lastly Zach Loeks offers the first of a two-part series on Transitioning to a permaculture market garden.

The September/October issue of Organic Broadcaster is also out. Articles include attending to soil health to improve production; the top reasons customers buy organic foods (accountability, environment, health); interseeding cover crops in cash crops; an interview with farmers in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program; designing an efficient pack shed; and selecting the right meat processor.

Lastly, the campaign www.keepthesoilinorganic.org has posted a letter a letter recently sent out by farming mentor Eliot Coleman about the travesty of allowing hydroponics to be certified as Organic. Hydroponics is a system of growing plants anchored in holes in plastic tubes, or in blocks of inert material, and feeding them with a liquid solution of things that work to produce mature plants. The arrogance of imagining we know everything a plant needs is astounding! The idea that all the many complex ingredients of soil can be replaced with a synthetic concoction is staggering!

Eliot Coleman’s letter includes these quotes:

Organic farming is best defined by the benefits of growing crops on a biologically active fertile soil.

The importance of fertile soil as the cornerstone of organic farming is under threat. The USDA is allowing soil-less hydroponic vegetables to be sold as certified organic without saying a word about it.

The encouragement of “pseudo-organic” hydroponics is just the latest in a long line of USDA attempts to subvert the non-chemical promise that organic farming has always represented. Without soil, there is no organic farming.

 

Eliot Coleman will be a speaker, along with Fred Kirschenmann, Enid Wonnacott, Jim Riddle, Will Allen, Jeff Moyer, Dave Chapman, Anaise Beddard, Lisa Stokke, Tom Beddard and  Linley Dixon at the Jacksonville Rally of the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Oct 31, 2017 at 12:45 pm – 2:00pm EDT. Omni Jacksonville Hotel, 245 Water St, Jacksonville, FL 32202, USAThis Rally will be a gathering of organic farmers and eaters from all over the world. The march will begin at the Omni Jacksonville during the lunch break from 12:45 to 2 PM on Tuesday, the first day of the NOSB meeting. There will be a 5 minute march to The Landing from the Omni. Lunch will be available at the Rally. For more information, call Dave Chapman at 802-299-7737.

Transplanting into hay or straw mulch, organic myth-busting, keep soil in Organic

Hopefully the really cold nights are behind us. We had 20F last Wednesday night/Thursday morning 3/23. We are getting ready to transplant spring cabbage and broccoli. I wrote a bit about broccoli planting last spring (mostly about varieties and planting alyssum to attract beneficial insects) and in spring 2015. 

Flats of broccoli seedlings in our greenhouse in early March.
Photo Wren Vile

Here I’ll say more about transplanting into hay or straw mulch, which I have also written about for Mother Earth News. Transplanting into rolled out or pre-spread straw or hay from small square bales is quicker, easier and more effective than fitting the mulch around the transplants after you’ve planted them.

We bale hay into big round bales, and move them around with the tractor and forks or a rear bale spike (spear). We plan our beds to be 5′ apart on centers and our rows to be 5-5½’ apart (tomatoes, for example) . We prepare our beds and get the mulch dropped off at the uphill end (even a small slope is helpful!).

When we plant garlic in November, as soon as we’ve planted and covered the cloves with soil, we unroll the bales over the top of the beds.

Using mulch helps control weeds, and reduces the weed seed bank, which is the name for the store of weed seeds already in the soil, that will otherwise grow in the future. “One year’s seeding, seven years weeding,” is a wise and rueful gardener’s saying. Only perennial grasses and a few other “running” perennials will come up through a thick layer of hay. Plastic mulches, while they do deal with weeds, actually raise soil temperature. This is an advantage for warm weather crops, but not for brassicas! If using organic mulches for warm weather crops, it is often best to wait four weeks after transplanting, cultivate to remove one round of weeds, then roll out the mulch. This avoids cooling the soil which would slow growth down and delay harvests. If you’re waiting for watermelons, this is too sad! All kinds of mulch also reduce rain splash, helping prevent fungal leaf diseases.

Organic mulches have some advantages over plastic mulches. They keep the soil damper, which can mean higher yields and less need to water. They also keep temperatures lower in summer, an advantage for cool-weather crops, like broccoli and cabbage. Organic mulches improve the soil structure and increase the organic matter. The number of earthworms in the soil at the end of the season can be twice as high as under plastic mulch.

Rolling hay over newspaper for a new strawberry bed.
Photo Luke Stovall

There is a myth that organic mulches lock-up nitrogen from the soil. This could happen with soils which are very short on organic matter and micro-organisms. It does happen if fresh high-carbon sources, such as straw or hay, are incorporated into the soil. In my experience, surface mulches have not caused nitrogen shortages to the crops they mulch. Our soil is very fertile, and we do what we can to encourage soil micro-organisms to multiply, so that they can readily digest what we add to the soil. The longer-term effect of high-carbon mulches can be to increase the soil nitrogen. The micro-organisms feeding on the carbon die and decompose, and they are a high-N source!

If you are buying in straw or hay and need to watch costs, you could spread the organic mulch over a double layer of newspaper. You’ll only need half as much hay or straw compared to mulching with the straw or hay alone. The final result is only half as deep, which is an advantage when transplanting small plants, which could get lost in deep organic mulch. I believe the inks used on regular newsprint are not toxic. We avoid using glossy paper with colored inks, because of concerns about toxicity of the coating on the paper as well as the inks.

Spring cabbage planted in hay mulch, a few weeks after transplanting.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

We grow our own hay, so we know it is unsprayed – there is a danger from pyridine carboxylic acids, a class of broadleaf herbicides which persist through composting and even through the digestive systems of livestock, and can kill or seriously damage food crops and flowers. Grazon is one brand; picloram is the plant growth regulator it contains.

Our hay is not the perfect mulch, as it does have some weed seeds, and sometimes mold. (Our garden gets the hay which is not good enough for the cows to eat.) If you have the choice, unsprayed straw is better than hay, as it won’t have many weeds. We don’t live in a grain-growing area, so there is no local straw for sale.

We remove the twine (if it hasn’t already rotted and fallen off) and study the end of the bale to figure out which way it will unroll. This can be surprisingly unclear. If we have to turn the bale, or maneuver it to line up, we might have three people do that. Once it’s rolling, two people can manage to unroll a round bale of hay. We spend some time at the end using wheelbarrows to move hay from the thick places to the thinner spots.

For transplants we do what we call “making nests” in the hay. Two people work opposite each other, across a bed, as we plant two rows of broccoli or cabbage. One of the people has an 18″ stick to measure the  center-to-center plant spacing. The second person doesn’t measure, but staggers their row compared to the first person’s row, making a zig-zag to match the pattern. Both people aim to stay about 16″ from the edge of the bed, so the rows are evenly spaced across the bed. Using two hands, they pull open the hay, down to soil level. The “nest” needs a diameter of about 4″, for easy transplanting. We either make all the nests before we start planting, or we have two pairs of people, with the nesters moving faster than the planters. We want to get the plants in the ground quickly, and minimize the time they are out in the field wilting in the flat.

Each planter works along a row, transplanting into the exposed soil in the nests, firming the plants in and watering from a can every 10-20 plants (depending how hot or windy it is). Another crew member pulls the hose and wand along the aisles and gives all the plants a generous second watering. After the hose watering, someone pulls the hay around the stems at ground level.We call this ” tucking the plants in”. If plants are  “untucked”, this is the signal to the Hose Waterer that the plants need water.  When they are all tucked in along a section of a bed, it is the signal to those unrolling row cover to go ahead and cover. Our system is almost disaster-proof, as it includes indicators about the next task needed.

To have a long broccoli harvest period, we use several varieties with different days-to-maturity, and two sowing dates. This gives us the longest possible harvest period before it just gets too hot for pleasant-tasting broccoli.

A bed of early spring cabbage, planted into hay mulch.
Photo Kathryn Simmons


The Organic Trade Association has published a set of 33 little posters putting solid information out there, and busting some myths about organic agriculture . Here’s one with a photo on our cabbage theme.

The items are free to download, for any healthy food related events you might be organizing. Or just go and read them, so that next time someone asks you a question about organic farming, you’ll have the answers at your fingertips.


And talking about what’s allowed in Organic certification, one controversial practice is hydroponics, where plants grow without soil, in a liquid including nutrients (the nutrients people are aware the plants need). Another is aquaponics where plants grow without soil, in a liquid where farmed fish have been growing.

There is a “Keep the Soil in Organic” movement, which advocates for Organic certification requiring plants to be grown in soil, not water-plus-some-nutrients. Dave Chapman sent me this message asking for support for the National Organic Standards Board on 3/27/17:

“The NOSB needs our help.

The NOSB meets in Denver in three weeks to debate whether a healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming.

We have champions on the NOSB fighting for us, but they need to hear from you. They are facing tremendous pressure from professional lobbyists in this battle. Lee Frankel, one of the chief lobbyists for the hydroponic coalition, stated in an editorial last week that organic hydro is now a billion dollar a year industry. This explosive growth happened in just 7 years since the NOSB recommended that hydroponics has no place in organic certification. That recommendation was opposed by the USDA, and hydro has been welcomed into organic certification. The hydro industry sees organic as their economic gold rush. And they are only getting started.

Please submit a comment to the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) letting them know that organic must be based on the fertility of a healthy soil ecosystem. Don’t let organic be destroyed.

Comments are due by this Thursday 3/30 at midnight. Do it now.

Click Comment Now!  “

No time to lose on that one! Big hydroponic “organic” industries have lobbied and got included as certifiably Organic, when most of us realize that growing food without soil is the opposite of Organic, with or without a capital O.

Pennsylvania farmer Tom Beddard speaks out on the soil in organic at the Rally In The Valley. “You can tell it was grown in the soil because it tastes better!”

Keep the Soil in Organic, Mother Earth News, winter reading

Photo from Dave Chapman, Organic Soil Movement

Photo from Dave Chapman, Keep the Soil in Organic

Did you know that nearly all the supermarket “organic” tomatoes are not grown in soil drawing the nutrients they need from the complex array in the soil, but in an inert material (rockwool, coir or plastic pipes with holes in), receiving as nutrients only what the growers provide in a solution that passes by the roots?

Did you know that your understanding of “organic” might be different from USDA’s? Driscoll’s Berries has over a thousand acres of “organic” hydroponic production in hoophouses in California and Mexico. They are the biggest hydroponic “organic” producer in the world.

Did you know that hydroponics is large-scale? Melody Meyers of UNFI testified at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that her company’s hydroponic “organic” sales exceeded $50,000,000. (Wholesale value – double it to get the retail value.)

Dave Chapman said

One of the challenges of the USDA takeover of organic certification has been the loss of involvement on the part of the organic farmers. As we have all struggled to make a living in a tough arena, it has been easy to give into a sense of helplessness around maintaining strong standards. At the same time that organic farmers have retreated from the process, the USDA has been profoundly influenced by large corporate farming interests.

Three quarters of US hydroponics sales go to only three or four farms – this is a huge concentration of money, power, and influence in a very few hands. And the industry is engaging in heavy lobbying, not just at NOSB, but throughout the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

How did this happen? How did “organic farming” change so drastically in six years? My report is based on Dave Chapman’s in his blog Keep the Soil in Organic.

In 2010, the NOSB recommended saying no to hydroponics receiving Organic Certification by a 14:1 vote, in keeping with international standards, the federal law (the Organic Foods Production Act, OFPA) that created the National Organic Program (NOP), and the traditional practices of organic farmers.

At the NOSB meeting in fall 2016, despite hydroponics industry lobbying, there was not enough support to vote to overturn the 2010 recommendation and allow hydroponics, aquaponics and bioponics. (This would have needed a 2/3 majority). Also, the proposal (from the Crops Subcommittee) that would have eliminated hydroponics in organic was sent back for reconsideration. The stalemate means that the NOP will continue to certify “organic” hydroponic operations.

Dave Chapman reported that

Food Democracy Now! presented a petition with over 12,000 signatures to reject hydroponics. Cornucopia Institute presented 1400 proxy letters from farmers and eaters demanding that soil stewardship be a requirement for organic certification. Clearly, the people numbers were on the side of the soil.

National Organic Program (NOP)  director Miles McEvoy stated at the meeting that even if the recommendation allowing hydroponics was defeated, it would not affect NOP policy. The NOP continues to support certifying hydroponics as USDA Organic even though the OFPA law requires Organic farming be based on maintaining and improving soil fertility. The NOP support of hydroponics is also in direct opposition to the 2010 NOSB recommendation, as well as standards in most other countries. Across the world, hydroponic operations are being USDA Organic certified.

A resolution  passed 12 to 0 reading, “It is the consensus of the NOSB to prohibit hydroponic systems that have an entirely water-based substrate.” (This refers to “plastic pipe” hydroponics as opposed to rockwool and coir which are imagined to provide something more than physical support.) This resolution does show consensus in rejecting the idea that hydroponic growing can become organic simply by “adding biology” to plain water, and provides a small glimmer of sanity and common sense. NOSB refused to acknowledge that actual hydroponic farming is not limited to plants that grow in water, but includes those propped up by rockwool and coir. The current hydroponics industry move is to avoid the “H word” and talk about “containerized ” plants – ones held in a small amount of material, but still being fertilized by solutions flowing by.

What makes a system hydroponic is how the fertility is delivered to the plant, not the material that the roots sit in. In a hydroponic system, the fertility is supplied to the plant in the irrigation water. There are so-called “organic” fertilizers that are extremely processed organic materials. For example, the 16-0-0 hydrolyzed soy protein being used in hydroponics acts like a synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. It has little similarity to unprocessed soy meal. In a genuinely organic system, the fertility results from the  complex soil food web interacting with organic materials we growers supply.

The companies speaking in support of hydroponics to the NOSB include Miracle Gro (chemical fertilizer company), Nature Gro (major supplier of substrates for conventional growers), the Organic Trade Association (lobbyists for the big hydroponic “organic” growers), Nature Sweet tomatoes (1400 acres of conventional greenhouses), Houweling’s Tomatoes (250 acres of conventional greenhouse tomatoes), and Driscoll’s (already mentioned).

These companies all want  to get in on the “Organic” market without doing the honest hard work. The food industry spends more money lobbying Capitol Hill each year than the defense industry does!

Know your farmer! Buy local, from trusted growers. Do what you can to speak up for real food, grown in the soil.

Weeding overwintered spinach in March Wren

Weeding over-wintered spinach. Photo Wren Vile


I wrote about our winter lettuce (a summary of blog posts here) for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog. You can read it here.

peerj-04-1582-g005Margaret Roach at A Way to Garden has had some interesting blog posts recently. One is about a recent study called “Arthropods of the Great Indoors: Characterizing Diversity Inside Urban and Suburban Homes,” and its lead author is Dr. Matthew Bertone. We are hosting an average of over 90 different arthropod types per home! I’ve noticed that we’ve accidentally brought camel crickets from our root cellar into our bathroom! I’ve been reducing their numbers. . .  They don’t appear to be in top 12 found in most people’s homes according to this article.

This post on Do Home Remedies for Weeds or Garden Pests Work? is a careful look at the options often recommended by others, with cautions about pouring lots of Epsom salts, vinegar, clove oil on your plants and soil.

Her Special Weed Issue has links to a lot of useful weed topics, as well as info on a  Baby Birds book with delightful-looking watercolors.

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Local foodie blog, Organic Broadcaster, Climate Hub winter forecast

Radish Quick Pickles Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Radish Quick Pickles
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

For foodies who want recipes and a food blog centered in our part of the country, using seasonal produce, see sustainexistence sustainable sustenance for our existence. This blog is written by one of my fellow Twin Oakers, so you can be sure that you’ll find dishes you can make if you are growing in our bio-region. The latest post is a Pretty Salads gallery and includes Apple Rhubarb Flower Salad; Cucumber, Apple, & Pear salad; the famous Massaged Kale; Mixed Greens & Purples with Feta; Wild-Harvested Salads and more. Other posts include recipes for the under-appreciated rutabagas and turnips, what to do with eggplant, and a series on delicious soups. I can especially vouch for the soups!

This blog makes a nice companion to my blog, as you’ll never find recipes on mine! (Joys of community living #305: I never have to cook!). While I was looking for the link to Sustainexistence, I found another interesting blog with a post from Louisa, A Ride Across America | An Unlikely Hotbed of Food Activism in Small-Town Virginia. Over the course of eight weeks, Ben Towill, the co-owner of the Fat Radish, and the photographer Patrick Dougherty are biking 4,500 miles across the U.S. to talk to strangers about food. Each week, they’ll file a post about their discoveries. While in our area, they visited the Louisa County Community Cupboard, which is worth knowing about if you grow food nearby and have extra. You can take it there and help those less well-off.


Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

My latest post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog is

How to Put New Plastic on a Hoophouse (High Tunnel): A Step-by-Step Guide.  This is based on our recent experience of replacing just the outer layer, as well as our previous replacements of both layers on the same day.


broadcaster-picture-e1443112899347For more winter reading see the Organic Broadcaster November/December issue. There are articles on silvopasture, the benefits of organic, how to do cost assessments of various crops and markets, collective marketing, organic no-till, a review of Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture, the MOSES Conference, and the controversial practice of aquaponics. Well, it’s not the practice of aquaponics that’s controversial, but rather whether a system without soil can ever be truly organic.

Take Back Organic by Dave Chapman, is a report from the National Organic Coalition (NOC) meeting. Many hydroponic operations are gaining organic certification, even though most organic farmers disagree with the USDA decision to allow hydroponics.”Keep the Soil in Organic” has become a rallying cry. Others include “Take Back Organic,” “Soil Matters,” “Keep Organic Real For Me,” “Dirt Matters,” and “Soil Grown.”.

“On the first day of the meeting, a group of Vermont farmers gathered outside at lunchtime for a protest against the weakened organic standards. It started with a procession of marchers and tractors (and one beautiful delivery truck!). . . . As the standards get watered down to become “Certified Sort Of Organic,” we see something  precious that we have worked at for a long time being diluted.”

Eliot Coleman, one of the mentors of organic farming, addressed the meeting and read the following parts of the 1980 USDA report called “Report  and Recommendations on Organic Farming”. That report listed some of the “basic tenets” of organic agriculture:
“Feed the Soil, Not the Plant — Healthy plants, animals, and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”  “Soil is the Source of Life — Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements, and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”

There is now a USDA Task Force on Hydroponics and Aquaponics in Organic. Unfairly, two thirds of the task force members were selected for their support of including hydroponics and aquaponics in organic certification.

Barbara Damrosch wrote about the farmers demonstration in the Washington Post
www.keepthesoilinorganic.org is a blog on the topic of keeping aquaculture and hydroponics separate from organic certification.


And lastly, for today, here’s a link to the Southeast Regional Climate Hub (SERCH).  SERCH connects the public, academic, and private sector organizations, researchers, and outreach specialists and provides technical support, tools and strategies for responding to climate change. Their goal is to help producers cope with challenges associated with drought, heat stress, excessive moisture, longer growing seasons, and changes in pest pressures.

The current El Niño is on track to be one of the largest on record (since 1950, and. has the potential to surpass the 1997/1998 event, which has been the strongest El Niño so far. Most climate models are in agreement that this episode will peak during the winter and subside to neutral conditions in the spring or summer of 2016. Above average precipitation is expected across the Southeast (see the map below).

off01_prcp

off01_tempTemperature is harder to predict. Sometimes an El Niño can cause above average temperature, sometimes below normal. Currently, December looks like being above average for both temperature and precipitation. In winter, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) plays a strong role in our temperatures. The past two winters have demonstrated this. The AO switches phases fairly unpredictably over weeks or sometimes just days. If it weakens, we can expect nasty cold temperatures again, as Arctic air zooms south to greet us.

El Niño can also cause storms to track along the southern states, if the right temperatures are in place. The SERCH Winter Season Outlook concludes: “However, I do not expect this winter to receive above normal snowfall. For most of the winter, I believe it will be above normal for temperature and precipitation.”