Some organic growers are dishing dirt on others who have abandoned soil in favor of hydroponics and aquaponics.

The dirt fans, led by several organic producers including Dave Chapman, founder of the certified organic vegetable operation Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, Vt., made their point with a load of compost at the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board.

Protestors drove several tractors to the rally, which attracted about 50 people, said Nate Lewis, senior crop and livestock specialist for the Organic Trade Association.

Lewis said the OTA has been on record since 2010 with its pro-dirt view, but he said the issue is a complicated one. Gray areas for OTA include container growing such as that used for sprouts and greenhouse operations.

Chapman and other dirt advocates don"t see gray areas. It"s black and white for them.

"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 told the Associated Press following the protest.

However, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 does not specifically address the issue and other growers contend the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal is appropriate for their soil-less operations.

About 50 people gathered at a protest outside the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board. Protestors oppose USDA organic certification for soil-less operations. (Photo courtesy of Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance)

One of those growers is Colin Archipley, CEO and founder of Archi"s Acres Inc. a certified organic hydroponic greenhouse operation in Escondido, Calif.

"The science and the processes are exactly the same. There are a lot of people who have a religious belief, almost, around soil," Archipley told the AP.

Archipley and Chapman will have the chance to debate the issue as members of the USDA"s hydroponic task force. The 16-member group, selected from more than 60 nominees, are scheduled to meet for the first time via conference call on Nov. 5.

When the USDA"s published a notice in the Federal Register seeking nominations for the task force earlier this year, it indicated government officials expect the group to have completed its work by spring 2016.

"There are two main objectives of the task force: (i) To describe current hydroponic and aquaponic production methods used in organic production, and (ii) to assess whether these practices align with Organic Foods Production Act 1990 and the USDA organic regulations," according to the Federal Register notice.

The task force is charged with developing recommendations for the National Organic Standards Board, which makes recommendations to the USDA"s National Organic Program administrators and staff about how to regulate organic food and other products.

The National Organic Standards Board recommended in 2010 that organic certification not be available to non-soil operations.

The hydroponic task force members are:

  • Will Allen, CEO and founder of Growing Power Inc. and owner of Will Allen Farms, Milwaukee
  • Colin Archipley, CEO and founder of Archi"s Acres Inc. a certified organic hydroponic greenhouse in Escondido, Calif.
  • John Biernbaum, professor of horticulture at Michigan State University
  • Angela Caporelli, aquaculture marketing specialist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture
  • Dave Chapman, founder of Long Wind Farm, a certified organic produce operation in East Thetford, Vt.
  • Marianne Cufone, executive director and founder of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, New Orleans
  • Amy Lamendella, inspection and food safety program manager for California Certified Organic Farmers
  • Richard Shultz, aquaponics researcher at Lethbridge College in Alberta, Canada
  • Eric Sideman, crop specialist for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
  • Pierre Sleiman, founder of Go Green Agriculture, Encinitas, Calif.
  • Stacy Tollefson, adjunct lecturer and greenhouse technician for the Controlled Environment Center at the University of Arizona
  • Jose Edgardo Torres, head grower for Wholesum Family Farms, Sahuarita, Ariz.
  • Jessica Vaughan, hydroponic grower and seed researcher for Jacobs Farm Del Cabo Inc., Freedom, Calif.
  • Jeffry Evard, certification manager for Ecocert ICO LLC, Plainfield, Ind.
  • Sam Welsch, president and CEO of OneCert Inc., Lincoln, Neb. and
  • Theresa Lam, board member and policy committee chairwoman for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey.