STOWE, Vt. (AP) — Some organic crop farmers don't want crops raised sans soil in hydroponic greenhouses to carry the "organic" label, and to make their point, they dumped a pile of compost in a parking lot Monday where a federal advisory board dedicated to the organic community was meeting.
A handful of tractors circled the lot and about 50 protesters carried signs that oppose federal rules that allow some produce grown without soil to be labeled as organic.
But others said the designation as organic shouldn't have anything to do with where the crops are grown.
The National Organic Standards Board is meeting in Stowe this week.
"Organic farming of terrestrial plants needs to happen in the soil," said Dave Chapman, of Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, who helped organize the protest. "It's a basic principle of organic farming that you feed the soil, not the plant, that you cultivate the life in the soil."
Chapman said he believes hydroponic agriculture has its place, but not with the label organic.
Proponents of the practice say the label "organic" is something that should refer to the nutrients that are used to grow the crops, not where they are grown. To grow something hydroponically, sand, gravel or water is used, instead of soil. Nutrients are added in.
"The science and the processes are exactly the same. There are a lot of people who have a religious belief, almost, around soil," said Colin Archipley who, with his wife Karen, runs an organic farm outside San Diego with some of their crops being grown hydroponically.
Philip LaRocca, an organic winemaker from Forest Ranch, California, said hydroponic farmers work as hard and as diligently as farmers who farm in soil.
"As long as they follow organic systems, organic plans, not using any synthetic materials," he said, "why not certify them organic?"
There's a competition to it all, too, said Chapman. Crops can be grown more efficiently and cheaper in hydroponic systems.
Archipley said it helps make organic food available to more people. He said many who advocate for dropping the organic label from hydroponically grown crops are really worried about losing market share.
The National Organic Standards Board is a volunteer group that makes recommendations on organic agriculture policy issues to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A new federal hydroponics task force is scheduled to have its first meeting in early November. It will study current hydroponic production methods and report back to the board a year from now.
This story has been corrected to show that the correct name for the federal advisory board is the National Organic Standards Board, not the National Organics Standards Board, and to show that some hydroponic crops carry the organic label, not that the crops could be approved to carry the label.