Theo Crisantes, vice president of operations for Wholesum Harvest, expressed support for containerized and hydroponic growing methods and questioned the composition of the National Organic Standards Board during a Senate committee hearing.

The July 13 hearing was designed to get input from producers leading up to the 2018 Farm Bill.

A polarizing topic lately has been the classification of containerized and hydroponic growing methods as organic. The National Organic Standards Board, which makes recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, is considering whether those methods should not be allowed to be sold as organic.

Crisantes gave examples of why Wholesum uses the methods being debated.

“For peppers, given the presence of the pepper weevil in our main production zones and the lack of beneficial predatory insects, Wholesum has found that it can minimize the impact on the environment by growing in shade houses,” Crisantes said. “For tomatoes, the disease, pest and environmental pressures are extremely high in our open field production areas. Rather than using a heavy load of chemicals and other scarce resources to address the problem, Wholesum invested in glass greenhouses where tomatoes are grown in containers.”

Speaking on behalf of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which supports containerized and hydroponic growing, Crisantes said greenhouses reduce water use and provide year-round employment rather than seasonal jobs.

He cited Nielsen data that show 23% of tomatoes, 44% of peppers and 37% of cucumbers sold at retail are produced in greenhouses, primarily in containers.

“These methods are also endorsed by consumers,” Crisantes said. “Last fall, the Coalition conducted a survey to assess consumer attitudes toward container growing. Ninety-one percent of consumers surveyed supported current USDA policies that allow organic farmers to grow organic produce in containers.”

Along with those methods, Crisantes suggested that changes to the National Organic Standards Board are in order.

“Of those 15 seats on the NOSB, four of them are filled by small operators who grow on a combined acreage of less than 120 acres,” Crisantes said. “Likewise, the only seat allocated to retailers is currently occupied by a 17-store chain.

“Stated another way, NOSB’s current composition fails to reflect the breadth and diversity of the industry,” Crisantes said.

The Coalition for Sustainable Organics is encouraging a more active role for USDA and National Organic Program staff.

“We believe that allowing USDA to take more initiative to direct outstanding regulatory issues that have dragged on for years within the NOSB will give organics the necessary business certainty we as farm owners need to invest in the expansion of our businesses.”

Crisantes said Wholesum has been hesitant to further expand its operations because of the current uncertainty.

According to a news release, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) criticized the NOSB, describing an “unreliable regulatory environment” preventing growers from using “advancements in technology and operating their businesses in an efficient and effective manner.”