Home » Hydroponic Tour In California

EcoFarm is a compelling conference, especially for a sheltered East Coast boy. I have never toured California agriculture before this conference. We drove around the Coastal Valley in buses to visit three farms.

The first one was a certified “organic” hydroponic operation.

Hydroponic marijuana plants on the Ecofarm tour.
Hydroponic marijuana plants on the Ecofarm tour.

The tour organizers made clear to me that this trip was not intended as a celebration of “hydroponics in organic,” but rather as an exploration of what is actually happening in organic certification now. No judgment. “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

And so some 150 people on the three large buses got to see plants grown hydroponically in pots filled with shredded coconut husks, redwood bark, and a little peat. It was a very efficient, well run hydroponic operation. Most of the production was marijuana. Marijuana cannot be certified as organic, but the rest of the operation was hydro blueberries grown in the same way, certified by CCOF.

Certified "organic" hydroponic blueberries.
Certified “organic” hydroponic blueberries.

The growers took great pride in their way of farming. They are skilled hydro producers, and they run a very well organized operation. The crop is VERY valuable (hoo boy), so a lot of money is spent on testing for nutrients and heavy metals in an effort to optimize their processes. Because they are entirely dependant on outside inputs for fertility, any impurities can have very bad consequences. They reported that many of the bagged “organic” fertilizers they have tested are not good, containing toxic impurities. I took this as proof that good farming should rely as little as possible on imported fertilizers. And of course, we should remove such toxic fertilizers from the approved lists. The hydroponic growers took it as proof that “organic in the soil” is flawed, and they are excited to be “going beyond organic” while still claiming the label.

It was very confusing.

Removed from the soil, these hydroponic "organic" blueberries are entirely dependent on outside inputs for fertility. The substrate in the pots is inert.
Removed from the soil, these hydroponic “organic” blueberries are entirely dependent on outside inputs for fertility. The substrate in the pots is inert.

Some of the people from the hydro facility joined the discussion group two days later at the conference, and the huge chasm between the traditional organic and the new hydroponic perspective became clear. These are not two schools in the same system. These are two very different systems. We saw two paradigms colliding. The conversation became animated as different belief systems faced each other. Both sides believed that they had science on their side. I would suggest that the hydro folks are confusing technology with biology. They probably think we are Luddites, closing our eyes to the promise of the future.

The fertilizer rack. "Hydroponic compost"?
The fertilizer rack. “Hydroponic compost”?

They presented an amazing cascade of words. These terms taken from other contexts suggest they believe that hydroponic really is actually better than soil growing. They talked about “nutrient density,” “paradigm shift,” “microbiome,” and “bioremediation.” We were told that their system was based on “the principles of agroecology”!

The liquid sulfur tanks at the hydroponic operation.
The liquid sulfur tanks at the hydroponic operation.

A newspaper article, written by someone on the tour, quoted the growers.

“It’s all about the soil. We are trying to maximize the nutritional value in the plants themselves.”

“…We aim to build a system based on science.”

“It’s about honing cultivation methods that work with nature.”

“We admire everyone who’s been involved with the organic food movement—especially groups like EcoFarm. But I do see some manipulation of the organic concept.”

“I believe passionately that we can change the world. Within our lifetimes, we could disrupt a multi-trillion dollar food economy, these huge conglomerates that manage the majority of our resources. We can once again be in touch with the things we are dependent on.”

I think that these statements are extremely confusing in the context of hydroponic production. Let’s just say that we have very different understandings of “organic,” “soil,” “science,” and “nature.” And I think that the “huge conglomerates” are already welcoming these hydro techniques with open arms.

Hydroponic is so attractive to large corporations because it simplifies the diversity of a living soil system and replaces it with the much simpler ecosystem of coco coir-filled pots or tubes of water. Manufacturing replaces art. The small cafe becomes McDonald’s. The producer gains in terms of “efficiency” and short term profit. On the other hand, no one knows what is lost in terms of real nutrient density and health. No one is certain what the impact will be on climate, but it looks bad.

A fullscale house for hydroponic marijuana production.
A fullscale house for hydroponic marijuana production.

I have no desire to trash these young people. I appreciate their courage in inviting us to visit their greenhouses. I have no reason to doubt their integrity, their honesty, or their good intentions. But I completely disagree with them about the meaning of “organic,” which they claim for their products. This hydro production is not what the world means when it says “Organic Farming.” Not what the organic movement means, not what the law means, not what the world organic standards mean.

Hydro growers are adherents of a system of crop production that is TOTALLY dependent on inputs. If the power goes off, the plants will quickly die. If the fertilizer runs out, they will soon starve. When hydro growers are very good at their craft, using beneficial insects and careful climate control, they can sometimes do it without adding biocides. Often they do not. But when they do, it is a wonderful departure from the prevailing “conventional pesticide-intensive” agriculture. It should be celebrated. Nonetheless, it is still a far cry from an organic system.

There are those who believe that “organic” simply means unsprayed with synthetic pesticides. Being unsprayed is a tremendous achievement in America’s highly chemical agriculture. But is “unsprayed” what “organic” means? This is actually a very important discussion. I appreciate that the hydroponic growers we toured were honest about their practices. This was a long way from the convoluted and misleading misinformation we were forced to deal with in the NOSB debates.

Hydroponic marijuana plants on the Ecofarm tour.
Hydroponic marijuana plants on the Ecofarm tour.

If all that consumers care about is that their food is unsprayed, why don’t we change:

  • the “National Organic Program” to the “National Unsprayed Program,”
  • the “Organic Trade Association” to the “Unsprayed Trade Association,”
  • “California Certified Organic Farmers” to the “California Certified Unsprayed Farmers,”
  • and “Oregon Tilth” To “Oregon Substrate”?

By that definition, CAFOs are fine to be called organic. By that definition, HYDROs are fine to be called organic.

Of course, this is wrong. Real organic is so much more than unsprayed.

We have never wanted to suppress competing labels that are honest. We welcome them.

I got the impression that the young growers themselves didn’t believe in the historical meaning of “organic.” Rather they want to find a label that can work in the marketplace to distinguish themselves from “conventional chemical.” And they should. It just shouldn’t be “organic,” which means so much more.

I would suggest:

“Bioponic, Using Only Organically Approved Inputs.”

That is completely transparent and honest. They are right that, for many consumers, that is all that they are interested in.

Bioponic sounds cool. Go for it!

Hydroponic "organic" blueberries receive the nutrients required for growth from liquid fertilizer.
Hydroponic “organic” blueberries receive the nutrients required for growth from liquid fertilizer.

Some people at the conference complained that the California farm landscape is being transformed by the proliferation of vast acreage of hydroponic operations popping up quickly. Driving around we can see swaths of black pots under greenhouse hoops. Some landlords are now refusing to rent their land to so-called “organic” growers using hydroponic methods. For one thing, they don’t want the mess. For another, they are experiencing massive soil erosion at the edges of the overhead plastic hoops. When it rains, all the water collected on the plastic runs off onto the land between the hoops, carrying the bare soil away with it. Hydro does NOT protect the soil. It certainly doesn’t enrich it. It doesn’t enhance a living ecosystem that includes mineral soils, organic matter, billions of microbes fed by the roots of plants, soil animals, and the plants themselves.

Hydroponic operations are multiplying across the California landscape. A failed system for soil health.
Hydroponic operations are multiplying across the California landscape. A failed system for soil health.

Finally, I am sharing the link to a Webinar that I gave for the Organic Farmers Association a few weeks ago. It is titled The Debate on Hydroponics In Organic. I discuss everything you ever wanted to know (and some that you didn’t want to know) about the hydro invasion. Questions follow.

I’m sorry I don’t have room to include details about the EcoFarm visits to JSM Organics and Lakeside Organic Gardens. Those were two extremely interesting farms for a hick from Vermont. Plus they weren’t covered in snow! Amazing. Javier’s farm was relaxed, informal, and deeply personal. It reflected Javier’s personal warmth.

Lakeside was expansive and remarkably well run. A very mature operation started by Dickie Peixoto, an early pioneer. Javier’s farm is large by Vermont standards at over 100 acres of organic berries and vegetables. Lakeside is large even by California standards at 3000 acres of mixed vegetables. At both places, the owners work endless hours to grow the best food they can.

EcoFarm Tour organizer Sam Earnshaw introduces Dickie Peixoto at Lakeside Organic Gardens.
EcoFarm Tour organizer Sam Earnshaw introduces Dickie Peixoto at Lakeside Organic Gardens.
A view of the ocean from a Lakeside Organics field.
A view of the ocean from a Lakeside Organics field.
Javier Zamora giving a tour of JSM Organics.
Javier Zamora giving a tour of JSM Organics.

Javier Zamora will be one of the speakers at the Real Organic Project Symposium at Dartmouth.

The Real Organic Project Symposium will be held on April 3 & 4 at Dartmouth College. Please join us there for an important conversation. Attendance is free for ROP certified farmers and farm crews, and travel and housing scholarships are available. Please email linley@realorganicproject.org for information.