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Farmers Disagree On Whether Soil-Free Growing Can Be Organic

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- If you are an organic shopper this might come as a surprise: a growing number of organic fruits and vegetables are grown hydroponically, aquaponically or in containers, all techniques that do not use soil.

So are they really organic? It's a loaded question that has polarized the $50 billion a year industry.

Soil. That's what Dru Rivers says organic farming is all about.

"It's just really the foundation of what it means to be an organic farmer, is healthy soil makes healthy food," said Rivers.

She co-owns Full Belly Farm, a certified organic farm northeast of Sacramento. Eighty varieties of organic vegetables, fruits and nuts grow there, along with a cover crop, whose only purpose is to put nitrogen back into the earth.

"This is oats, that have this incredible fibrous root system. And then we grow vetch, and the peas," said Rivers. "It's really not the crop that we're certifying, it's the farm, it's the soil that we're certifying, and that's what we really believe so strongly in."

But not all organic farmers agree.

"We grow in a system that we call hydro-organics," said Colin Archipley.

Colin and Karen Archipley own Archi's Acres near San Diego, where organic crops like this basil grow in nutrient enriched water, never touching any soil.

"Everything we have in these systems that you see behind us is exactly the same thing that you are going to find in soils, minus a soil particle which is inert, so its just another media," said Colin Archipley.

They say hydroponic techniques allow them to be more efficient and sustainable. "We use up to 90% less water and we have 3 to 5 times the crop. So what that means is we can feed our community at a price they can afford. And that means a lot to us," said Karen Archipley.

Very few growers actually label their produce as hydroponically grown. Most of the time there's no way to know whether an organic tomato or red pepper or berries, were grown in the ground, or in a high tech soil alternative.

"This is undermining the very foundation of what organic food is supposed to be about," said Mark Kastel, with the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group. "The letter of the law that was passed by congress basically mandates maintaining or improving the soil fertility, before you qualify for organic certification. The operative question is how can you maintain or improve soil fertility without soil? You can't do it."

He has asked the Office of the Inspector General to investigate the USDA's decision earlier this year to allow hydroponic farming to be certified organic.

The decision came after the National Organic Standards Board, a government advisory panel, voted down a move to ban hydroponics.

"They had already approved hydroponics in secret and they wanted the NOSB to rubber stamp it," said Kastel.

He believes the USDA's decision is illegal, influenced by corporate giants such as Wholesum Harvest and Driscolls that use non-traditional systems.

Kelly Damewood with California Certified Organic Farmers disagrees: "I think it's a false representation of the diversity of hydroponic and container growers that are out there," said Damewood.

The CCOF's certifying arm supports hydroponic production.

"We can be inclusive, we can welcome these kind of systems as long as we have consistency and clarity in how we certify them, and make sure that they are maintaining integrity," said Damewood.

Colin and Karen Archipley suspect all the griping from traditional organic farmers is just sour grapes about market share.

"We are sustainable, we are truly organic, we believe in it, we live it," said Karen Archipley .

Back at Full Belly Farm, Rivers is just happy to get the word out.

"In some ways it's been a really positive thing because it's been really focusing again, letting consumers again know, what are the real basic ideas behind certified organic, and bringing soil to the forefront again," said Rivers.

There's been a lot of talk about new kinds of certified organic labels in this debate. For instance, produce could be labeled "real organic", or "hydroponically grown".

But so far it's just that: talk. At its meeting last week the NOSB did not take up the labeling issue.

Meanwhile, the European Union, Mexico, Japan and Canada all do not allow hydroponic crops to be certified organic. Instead they export them to the U.S. where the label "is" allowed and where the produce can garner a much higher price.

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