( USDA )

For some growers, organic certification alone just isn’t good enough anymore.

The East Thetford, Vt.-based Real Organic Project wants an “add-on” label to the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic certification.

The project, a coalition of organic farmers and advocates, objects to USDA’s National Organic Program rules that permit hydroponics and concentrated animal feeding operations to be certified as organic, according to a news release.

The group said its proposed add-on label, which requires adherence to standards above and beyond USDA organic certification, would only be available to agricultural products that have already been certified organic by the USDA.

The Real Organic Project in July announced the launch of its pilot farm inspection program.

The release said the program aims to implement new standards that will provide consumer transparency by “distinguishing organic farms that grow their crops in the ground, foster soil fertility and adequately pasture livestock according to foundational organic standards and principles.”

The Real Organic Project add-on label to USDA organic certification, expected by spring 2019, will increase transparency under the organic seal by allowing consumers to trace retail products back to the farm, according to the release.

The inspection process includes a video interview of the farmers on their land explaining their organic production practices, the group said.

Real Organic Project associate director and Colorado farmer Linley Dixon is leading the pilot project effort, according to the release. For the past five years, she has been the senior scientist at the Cornucopia Institute.

Taking control

Controversy on the question of whether soil is essential to grow organic produce has been bubbling for years.

By a vote of 8 to 7, the USDA National Organic Standards Board on Nov. 1 rejected proposals to make hydroponic and aquaponic production methods prohibited under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

“Clearly the industrial egg operations became so powerful that they had significant political influence,” Dixon said in the release.

“We tried to keep the same thing from happening in other sectors of organic, especially tomato and berry production, but we lost that battle at the USDA last fall,” she said.

“Now we are taking matters into our own hands because we know it is what the consumer wants and expects when they choose organic.”

The add-on label will give farmers a way of communicating practices to “consumers who care,” the group said.

Sharing information with consumers and the trade in a positive manner is fair, said Lee Frankel, executive director for the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, a group that has defended USDA certification of hydroponic operations.

“The fear is that people resort to disparaging their competition and claiming that somehow they don’t meet the USDA organic standard,” he said.

“At this point it looks like the Real Organic Project is trying to tell what they perceive as positive aspects about how they how they grow and how they operate.”

The release said the Real Organic Project will be managing a pilot program this year certifying a limited number of farms.

Real Organic board member Lisa Stokke, executive director of Next7.org, said July 16 that 41 farms from California to the Northeast have signed up for the pilot project so far this year.

The group said the “vast majority” of certified organic farms in the U.S. will easily meet these new “standards,” and the release said the provisional standards will be open for public comment this fall.

Stokke said that the movement is farmer-led, and there hasn’t been a lot of interaction with retailers yet. However, she believes the add-on label will appeal to retailers if consumers want it.

“I think it’s going to be about consumer demand,” she said. “As consumers begin to request this I would imagine retailers would also be on board.”

The pilot program will test the certification process in preparation for the label going public in 2019, according to the release.

In May, the group released what they called their provisional standards for the add-on label.

The standards are available at the group’s website.