Food from the 2017 Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Pumpkin Bisque

Pumpkin Bisque

Reviews from this year’s conference were unified in praising the work of conference Food Coordinator, chef Isaiah Allen. As both a chef at The Eddy Pub and a farmer at Rocky Run Farm, Isaiah is able to provide a specialized perspective of growing and cooking local, seasonal ingredients. He has graciously provided us with the recipes of some of the most talked about dishes from this year’s conference: the Pumpkin Bisque and Sea Island Peas with Moroccan Tomatoes. Good news for those looking for a vegan dish that shines on their Thanksgiving table, the pumpkin bisque received raves from all eaters at our conference. Chef Allen encourages everyone to try the pumpkin bisque, but cautions us that the Sea Island Peas recipe is for more advanced home cooks.

Pumpkin Bisque

  • 5 lbs pumpkin, roasted
  • 2 lbs, yellow onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 lbs carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 oz. canola oil
  • 3 oz. garlic, minced
  • 2 oz. ginger, minced
  • 1 quart coconut milk
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 Tbsp. cinnamon
  • ½ cup sorghum syrup
  • 2 Tbsp. sage, chopped
  • kosher salt


Cut the pumpkin in half and roast in a convection oven until soft.  Let pumpkin cool and scoop out the flesh.  Sautee the onions and carrots in the canola oil until browned.  Add the garlic, ginger, and cinnamon and saute for another minute.  Add the water, coconut milk, sorghum, and sage.  Bring to a simmer.  Puree and add salt to taste.

Recipe by Isaiah Allen

Chef at The Eddy Pub

Owner of Rocky Run Farm

Sea Island Peas with Moroccan tomatoes

  • 2 lbs. peas soaked and boiled
  • 1 Jalapeno thin sliced
  • 1 yellow onion thin sliced
  • 4 tomatoes cut into wedges
  • 1 bunch green onions cut on a bias
  • 1 oz. fresh ginger grated
  • 2 oz. minced garlic
  • 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
  • 1 Tbsp. Paprika
  • ½ tsp. cayenne powder
  • 2 Tbsp. Chili powder
  • 1 tsp mustard seed
  • 2 oz. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 tsp. onion powder
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ cups canola oil
  • ½ apple cider vinegar


Method: Soak the peas in water for at least 6 hours to hydrate.  Strain the water.  Add the peas to a pot and cover with clean water.  Simmer until soft.  Drain and chill.

Put the green onions, yellow onions, jalapenos, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes in a large metal bowl. Add the vinegar to the bowl.  Blend all the dry spices together.  Heat the oil on the stove.

NOTE:  The next few steps need to be done quickly.  Make sure you ready the process and have everything ready.  DO NOT overheat the oil.

Wet your fingers and sprinkle a few drops of water into the pot of oil.  Wait for the oil to pop.  After the popping stops add all the mixed spices.  The mixture should sizzle as the spices cook.  Quickly cut the heat and pour the oil over the vegetable mixture.  Let cool before placing in a cooler.  Mix the tomato mixture with the peas and serve.

Recipe by Isaiah Allen

Chef at The Eddy Pub

Owner of Rocky Run Farm



Hydroponics and the Organic Label (Part Three)

By Glenn Kern, CFSA Organic Policy Coordinator

The Debate

Once again—neither the Organic Foods Production Act nor the USDA Organic Regulations expressly prohibit or allow certification of hydroponics. Without a legislative amendment or a federal court specifying otherwise, it is the job of the National Organic Program (NOP) to make a determination about how the existing law should be interpreted with respect to hydroponic production systems. Unless and until new regulations are finalized, the NOP and its accredited certifiers can continue to stand on the OFPA provision permitting “other production and handling practices…not prohibited or otherwise restricted…unless it is determined that such practice[s] would be inconsistent with the applicable organic certification program.” Since the beginning of the Organic program, the NOP’s interpretation of the law has been to allow hydroponic systems as long as an accredited certifier determines that the system complies with OFPA and all applicable Organic regulations. The result has been undesirable regulatory inconsistency.

One option available to the NOP is to issue “administrative guidance”—non-binding advice from an agency about how best to comply with a federal law. Such guidance could be written to assist certifiers in deciding whether a hydroponic system is in compliance. However, the NOP has on multiple occasions indicated to the NOSB that a formal rulemaking is likely required in order to adequately address the regulatory inconsistency of hydroponics certification. To that end, the NOP has asked the NOSB to provide a comprehensive recommendation on hydroponics that could be used as the basis for new regulations. What this recommendation should be is the subject of much debate among Organic stakeholders and the members of the NOSB.

In a nutshell, opponents of allowing hydroponics argue that several provisions of OFPA and the Organic regulations already impliedly prohibit hydroponics or, at the least, counsel against its inclusion under the Organic label. In particular, opponents point to those provisions pertaining to the management of soil and nutrients, arguing that hydroponic and other “soil-less” systems are inherently incapable of complying with these requirements and should therefore be prohibited. Many opponents also argue that allowing “soil-less” systems would be contrary to the spirit and intention of the Organic Foods Production Act, which was itself the product of an agricultural movement that stressed improving the ecological health of soil as a means of producing environmentally sustainable, healthy food.

NOP’s interpretation of the law has been to allow hydroponic systems as long as an accredited certifier determines that the system complies with OFPA and all applicable Organic regulations. The result has been undesirable regulatory inconsistency.

In response, advocates of including hydroponics under the Organic label often argue that there are multiple possible interpretations of the relevant provisions of OFPA and the USDA Organic regulations, and that depending on which interpretation one chooses, the requirements pertaining to soil and nutrient management could be viewed as either inapplicable to “soil-less” systems or as capable of being achieved by at least some hydroponic models. Some advocates argue that in certain hydroponic systems, the functional equivalency of “soil ecology” is created through the cycling of resources and interactions between crops and microorganisms. Proponents of hydroponics also assert that properly designed hydroponic operations conserve natural resources and minimize negative environmental impacts in a way that is consistent with the spirit and intention of OFPA.

It must be stressed that neither of these brief synopses adequately expresses the full range or nuance of opinions about whether hydroponics should be eligible for Organic certification. To learn more about the various positions taken by stakeholders on this issue, I recommend starting with the 2016 Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force Report, mentioned in Part 2 and available here.

Just in case you’re interested, what follows is a list of key provisions of the USDA Organic regulations and OFPA that underpin the debate about whether the NOP should prohibit hydroponics. If you want to read the text, just click on the statute citation.

(a) USDA Organic Regulations

(i) 7 CFR §205.200, General

(ii) 7 CFR §205.203, Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard

(iii) 7 CFR §205.205, Crop rotation practice standard

(b) Organic Food and Production Act (7 U.S.C. Chapter 94)

(i) 7 U.S.C. §6513, Organic Plan

From a legal standpoint, the National Organic Program has the first say about whether hydroponics should be prohibited from obtaining Organic certification. From a practical standpoint, the NOP’s decision is probably also the last say, at least for a while. Theoretically, Congress could amend OFPA to expressly allow or prohibit hydroponics under the Organic program. As of right now, Congress does not appear ready to weigh in on this issue.

A Chronology of Previous Treatment by the NOSB and NOP

The discussion of whether and how to expressly regulate hydroponics under the Organic label has been ongoing since at least 1995. What follows is a rough historical outline of the hydroponics issue as dealt with by the NOSB and NOP.

(a) 1990 – Organic Foods Production Act

Through OFPA, Congress gave the USDA authority to create and administer a federal Organic marketing label. As noted previously, OFPA does not expressly prohibit hydroponics from certification.

(b) 1995 – NOSB Recommendation for Specialized Standards for Hydroponic       Production in Soil-less Media 

In the years preceding the NOP’s publication of the USDA Organic Regulations (in 2000), the NOSB carried out its advisory role by making recommendations to the NOP about what the impending regulations should say. In a 1995 recommendation, the NOSB stated that “[h]ydroponic production in soilless media to be labeled organically produced shall be allowed if all provisions of the OFPA have been met.” However, this recommendation was not included in the final USDA Organic regulations. The written transcript of the NOSB members discussing this 1995 recommendation indicates that some members of the Board were concerned about whether hydroponic production was consistent with the “philosophy” of organic agriculture.

(c) 2000 – USDA Organic Regulations

In 2000, the NOP published the first USDA Organic Regulations. Again, neither these regulations nor any subsequent additions or amendments to them expressly prohibit hydroponics from being certified Organic.

(d) 2003 – NOSB Crops Subcommittee Recommendation for a Guidance Document Relative to Hydroponics and Other Soil-less Growing Systems  

In 2003, the NOSB voted to publish a discussion document produced by the Crops Subcommittee on the subject of whether hydroponics could be certified Organic. The NOSB also recommended that the NOP not proceed with any rulemaking for hydroponics until a formal rulemaking recommendation was offered by the NOSB.       

(e) 2008-2009 – Crops Subcommittee discussion documents

At the NOSB meetings in 2008 and 2009, the Crops Subcommittee presented additional discussion documents related to “soil-less” growing systems in preparation for a final NOSB recommendation.

(f) 2010 – NOSB Recommendation: Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures

In 2010, the NOSB made a formal rulemaking recommendation to the NOP that included language about hydroponics. In its recommendation, the NOSB concluded that hydroponic production systems, as defined by the Board, could not be certified. The Board stated:

“Observing the framework of organic farming based on its foundation of sound management of soil biology and ecology, it becomes clear that systems of crop production that eliminate soil from the system, such as hydroponics or aeroponics, cannot be considered as examples of acceptable organic farming practices. Hydroponics…certainly cannot be classified as certified organic growing methods due to their exclusion of the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems and USDA/NOP regulations governing them.”

(g) 2010 – 2015 – No rulemaking from the NOP 

In the wake of the 2010 Recommendation from the NOSB, the NOP declined to issue new regulations that would prohibit hydroponic operations from obtaining Organic certification.

(h) 2015 – Hydroponics and Aquaponics Task Force

In 2015, the NOP established the Hydroponics and Aquaponics Task Force to conduct additional research and analysis of “soil-less” production systems. As described in the resulting report, “the task force was comprised of sixteen diversely qualified individuals that represented both the soil-based organic and hydroponic communities.” The NOP’s goal was to obtain more information about the types of hydroponic production systems being used commercially and about how these systems might fit—or not—within the regulatory framework of OFPA and the USDA Organic Regulations.

(g) July 2016 – Publication of Task Force Report 

The Hydroponics and Aquaponics Task Force Report was published in July. The report is split into three parts, each written by a separate subcommittee.

One subcommittee sought to clarify the 2010 Recommendation from the NOSB. The resulting report concluded, like the 2010 Recommendation, that hydroponic production systems could not be certified Organic under existing law and USDA regulations.

A second subcommittee wrote in support of allowing at least some models of hydroponic production to be eligible for Organic certification. This report includes analyses of various hydroponic production models and presents arguments for how these different models should be regulated by the NOP.

The third subcommittee reported on possible “alternative labeling options” that could be employed by the USDA in the event that hydroponic production is ultimately allowed by the NOP.

(h) Fall 2016 – NOSB meeting

At the Fall 2016 NOSB meeting, the Crops Subcommittee presented a proposal to allow hydroponics. This proposal, had it been voted on by the full Board, would have required a two-thirds vote of all NOSB members in order to overturn the previous 2010 NOSB recommendation that soil-less production should not be eligible for certification.

However, the Subcommittee itself voted 5 to 2 against the proposal and the full Board did not vote on it at all. Instead, the Board raised questions about the wording of the proposed recommendation. As described in the Crops Subcommittee’s Spring 2017 discussion document, “it was noted [by the Board at the Fall 2016 meeting] that if the vote were to result in a failed motion, there would be no recommendation going forward from the NOSB to the NOP. Therefore, the NOSB did not vote on the proposal, but voted to send it back to the Crops Subcommittee for further work.”

At the Fall 2016 meeting the NOSB did pass a resolution—not to be confused with a formal recommendation—stating that a consensus of the Board was of the opinion that purely water-based hydroponic systems could not be certified organic under existing regulations.

(i) Spring 2017 – Crops Subcommittee discussion document.

At the Spring 2017 NOSB meeting, the Crops Subcommittee presented a discussion document originally formatted as a proposal for recommended rulemaking. This document was not ultimately offered as proposal to be voted on by the NOSB because it was determined that new NOSB members needed additional time to study the issue.

The Spring 2017 discussion document offered new definitions for hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. The text of the document also proposed that these production models be prohibited from Organic certification.

(j) August 2017 – NOSB public webinar discussion on hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics and container-based production.

On August 14, the NOSB held a public webinar for the purpose of discussing possible rulemaking recommendations for hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and container-based systems. During this webinar, the Crops Subcommittee presented draft proposals prohibiting “soil-less” systems based on definitions used in the 2010 NOSB Recommendation. The Crops Subcommittee also presented a draft proposal for regulating soil-based container systems.

Both the Crops Subcommittee and the Board as a whole were divided on the issues of (1) whether enough information about various container-based growing systems is presently available to warrant a rulemaking recommendation to the NOP, and (2) if so, whether such recommendation should be to prohibit or to allow certification of hydroponics.

(k) Fall 2017 Meeting – Crops subcommittee proposals

In preparation for the Fall 2017 NOSB Meeting in Jacksonville, the Crops Subcommittee voted (by simple majority) to submit the proposals listed below for a vote by the full Board. Again, the NOSB has multiple options: it can pass a proposal as written (and issue a formal recommendation to the NOP), make non-substantive changes and then pass a proposal, reject a proposal, or refer a proposal back to Subcommittee.


(i) Aeroponics – proposal is to prohibit from Organic certification.

(ii) Aquaponics – proposal is to prohibit from Organic certification. Recall that the definition of “aquaponics” used in this proposal incorporates the definition of “hydroponics,” below. 

(iii) Container-based production – proposal is to prohibit from Organic certification all container production of plants which does not meet the following criteria: “a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement can be supplied by liquid feeding and a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement can be added to the container after the crop has been planted. For perennials, the nitrogen feeding limit is calculated on an annual basis. Transplants, ornamentals, herbs, sprouts, fodder, and aquatic plants are exempted from these requirements.”

(iv) Hydroponics – proposal is to prohibit from Organic certification. Recall that the term “hydroponics” as used in this proposal is defined as a production system which does not fall within the percentage limits on liquid and after-planting nutrition found above.


Coming up next week :

The Fall 2017 NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, October 31 – November 2.

The issue of hydroponics in Organic agriculture is complicated. Stakeholders who believe hydroponics should be prohibited and those who believe it should be allowed each make valid points, and almost everyone agrees that hydroponic crop production has a place within our current food production system. Ultimately the question is one of administrative law and discretion: how should the NOP interpret the Organic Foods Production Act in creating regulations that deal expressly with hydroponics? The NOSB may provide its answer next week.

Look for Part 4 of this blog series to be published in mid-November with an analysis of the Board’s decision in Jacksonville.

Thanks for reading, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at  with your questions and comments!

Hydroponics and the Organic Label (Part Two)

By Glenn Kern, CFSA Organic Policy Coordinator

(A) What exactly are hydroponic production systems?

As noted above, hydroponic production is one of multiple different methods of commercial crop production that are distinct from the traditional practice of growing plants to maturity in the open ground. The NOSB and NOP have long recognized the need to define and distinguish between these less traditional growing methods in order to determine whether some should be prohibited under the Organic label.

Though less prevalent on a commercial scale than they are today, hydroponic production systems were in use in the United States when the USDA Organic regulations were being drafted in the late 1990s, and both the NOSB and the NOP discussed them in the context of the Organic label. The final regulations, published by the NOP in December 2000, did not explicitly regulate hydroponics, and supplemental information published by the NOP during the rulemaking process indicated that allowing for the possibility of rule-compliant hydroponic systems was an intentional choice.

At present, a deepening problem of regulatory inconsistency demands the urgent need for additional clarification from the NOP. Without USDA rules that expressly address hydroponic and other container-based production methods, some USDA-accredited Organic certifying agencies have been willing to approve these non-traditional methods, while other certifying agencies have not.

What follows is a basic typological framework for the production systems that the NOSB and NOP are currently attempting to define and classify. Keep in mind that the definitions listed here are not found in existing law or USDA regulations—rather, they are proposed definitions from the NOSB and are by no means set in stone. It should also be stressed that within each category listed below there are in fact multiple distinct production models in use by commercial growers. An analysis of these many individual models is beyond the scope of this blog post. For readers who want to learn more about the range of container-based production systems being used today, I recommend starting with the 2016 Organic Hydroponic and Aquaponic Task Force report, which will be mentioned again in Part Three and is available here.

Without USDA rules that expressly address hydroponic and other container-based production methods, some USDA-accredited Organic certifying agencies have been willing to approve these non-traditional methods, while other certifying agencies have not.

(i) Container-based growing systems

In 2010, the NOSB made a formal recommendation to the NOP regarding the use of container-based production systems. As defined in that recommendation, a “container” is “any vessel and associated equipment used to house growing media and the complete root structure of terrestrial plants and to prevent the roots from contacting the soil or surface beneath the vessel, such as, but not limited to, pots, troughs, plastic bags, floor mats. etc.” The Crops Subcommittee’s pending proposals on container-based systems for the Fall 2017 meeting in Jacksonville use the same definition.

In other words, container-based growing systems involve growing plants somewhere other than in the ground. However, the “growing media” used in container-based commercial systems can vary significantly. For example, the containers could be filled with soil or a soil-and-compost mix. Alternatively, the containers could be filled with a completely liquid growing media. As will be made clear below, in the latter case, the production system would be considered both “container-based” and, by necessity, “hydroponic.”

For the purposes of this typological framework, the category of “container-based growing systems” encompasses each of the following sub-categories, all of which involve the production of crops in “vessels” used to prevent plant roots “from contacting the soil or surface beneath….” However, it’s important to note that there are container-based growing systems which do not fit into any of the categories listed below.

(ii) Hydroponic growing systems

At the Spring 2017 NOSB meeting, the Crops Subcommittee presented to the full Board a discussion document that included a proposed definition of “hydroponics.” The full Board did not vote on the proposed definition, and therefore no formal recommendation was made to the NOP regarding how such systems should be defined in the USDA Organic regulations.

Consequently, there is no current NOP definition of hydroponics. The NOSB has produced three slightly different definitions of hydroponics in recent years:

(a) In 2010, the NOSB made a formal rulemaking recommendation to the NOP in which “hydroponics” was defined as “[t]he production of normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient rich solutions or in an inert, porous, solid matrix bathed in nutrient rich solutions.”

(b) In a Fall 2016 proposal, which neither accepted nor rejected by the full Board, the Crops Subcommittee defined “hydroponics” as “the growing of normally terrestrial vascular plants in mineral nutrient solutions with or without an inert growing media to provide mechanical support.”

(c) The definition of “hydroponics” presented by the Crops Subcommittee at the Spring 2017 meeting is “[t]he production of normally terrestrial, vascular plants in nutrient-rich solutions, or in a medium of inert or biologically recalcitrant solid materials to which a nutrient solution is added.” This definition encompasses both pure liquid hydroponic systems, in which plant roots are actually suspended in liquid, and “aggregate” hydroponic systems, in which plant roots are suspended in some sort of inert or recalcitrant substrate and are “bathed” in a liquid nutrient solution.

The Crops Subcommittee’s Fall 2017 proposal on hydroponics uses a definition that is notably different from the previous three. Rather than focusing on the type of growing media being used or the plants being cultivated, for the first time in a formal proposal, the Subcommittee has defined a hydroponic system according to the percentage of a crop’s total nitrogen requirement that is supplied using liquid and other outside fertilizer sources, as follows:

(d) “Hydroponics (for the purposes of this proposal)…[is defined as] any container production system that does not meet the standard of a limit of 20% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being supplied by liquid feeding, and a limit of 50% of the plants’ nitrogen requirement being added to the container after the crop has been planted.”

Many production systems that allow plant roots to float freely in liquid nutrient solutions, which by design depend solely on this method for delivery of fertilization, would clearly fall within this definition. However, even systems that use some amount of soil or compost as growing media but which exceed the percentages listed above would be considered hydroponic.

(iii) Aquaponic growing systems

As with “hydroponics,” the NOSB has produced multiple definitions of “aquaponics” in recent years:

(a) The 2010 rulemaking recommendation from the NOSB described aquaponics as “systems [that] combine the features of both hydroponics and aquaculture. This is done by recirculating the effluent from fish tanks and using it as a source of nutrients for vegetables grown hydroponically, using sand or gravel as media. Nitrifying bacteria convert the fish effluent, primarily ammonia, to nitrite and then nitrate, which the plants can use.”

(b) In its Fall 2016 proposal to the full Board, the Crops Subcommittee defined “aquaponics” as “[a] system in which plants are grown in waste water from aquatic organisms, which in turn purify the water.”

(c) In its Spring 2017 discussion document and Fall 2017 proposal, the Crops Subcommittee has defined “aquaponics” as “a recirculating hydroponic system in which plants are grown in nutrients originating from aquatic animal waste water, which may include the use of bacteria to improve availability of these nutrients to the plants.  The plants improve the water quality by using the nutrients, and the water is then recirculated back to the aquatic animals.” The Fall 2017 Proposal thus incorporates the new percentage-based definition of hydroponics.

Although the use of aquatic animals—usually fish—to produce available nutrients distinguishes aquaponic systems from other hydroponic systems, aquaponics is typically thought of as a subtype of hydroponics.

(iv) Aeroponic growing systems    

“Aeroponics” is defined the same way in the Fall 2017 Crops Subcommittee proposal, Spring 2017 Subcommittee discussion document, the 2016 Subcommittee proposal, and the 2010 NOSB rulemaking recommendation: “a variation of hydroponic [production] in which plant roots are suspended in air and misted with nutrient solution.”

(B) The current regulatory situation 

According to §6512 of the Organic Foods Production Act (“Other production and handling practices”), “if a production or handling practice is not prohibited or otherwise restricted under [OFPA], such practice shall be permitted unless it is determined that such practice would be inconsistent with the applicable organic certification program.” Any such determination would be in the form of rulemaking by the National Organic Program.

As noted by the NOSB Crops Subcommittee in its Spring 2017 discussion document, “[t]he National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has taken up the issue of hydroponics several times in the past and has made several recommendations to the National Organic Program. To date, the NOP has not undertaken rulemaking based on any of the NOSB recommendations.”

Consequently, the current regulatory position of the NOP is that hydroponic production systems are eligible for Organic certification if production is accomplished in full compliance with OFPA and the USDA Organic regulations. However, without additional regulations or guidance from the NOP spelling out what exactly “full compliance” means in the context of hydroponic or other container-based production systems, certifying agencies have been left to make the determination themselves. As noted above, some certifying agencies have concluded that hydroponics can be Organic, while others have concluded that it cannot.

According to a 2016 survey of Organic certifiers conducted by the NOP, a total of 17 agencies responded that they were willing to certify hydroponic and aquaponic operations (out of a total of 80 certifiers accredited by the USDA). At that time, there were 30 certified hydroponic operations, 22 certified aquaponic operations, and 69 “other” certified container-based operations (some of which might be classified as hydroponic under the Fall 2017 definitions).

Though opinions about hydroponics vary among members of the NOSB and the wider community of Organic producers, handlers, and consumers, everyone seems to be in agreement that the regulatory uncertainty surrounding certification of hydroponics is confusing and risks undermining the public’s trust in the Organic label. Yet, counterbalancing the need for the NOP to develop additional regulations quickly is the need for such regulations to be comprehensive, well-researched, and consistent with the spirit and text of OFPA.

Coming up next week

Please don’t hesitate to email me at with comments or questions, and thanks very much to those of you who have already gotten in touch to voice your opinion. If you want to know more about hydroponics and the Organic label, make sure to stay tuned for next week’s post, listed below.

Part Three : October 24  

  • What arguments are being made in opposition to and in support of allowing hydroponics to be certified Organic? 
  • What have the NOSB and the NOP done in the past to address this issue?

Hydroponics and the Organic Label (Part One)

hydroponic lettuce

By Glenn Kern, CFSA Organic Policy Coordinator

On October 31 through November 2, 2017, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will hold its fall meeting in Jacksonville, Florida. Among the many issues that will be discussed by the Board is the question of whether crops grown in hydroponic production systems should be eligible for Organic certification under the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the related USDA Organic Regulations. The NOSB, in its capacity as a federal advisory committee, may soon issue a new recommendation on hydroponics to the National Organic Program (NOP), the office of the USDA responsible for overseeing the Organic label.

The National Organic Standards Board and the National Organic Program have been grappling with the question of hydroponics for years without a clear resolution.

At its core, the difficulty of the hydroponics issue arises from statutory and regulatory ambiguity: neither OFPA nor any USDA Organic regulation expressly prohibits or even defines “hydroponics,” thus leaving open for debate the question of whether this production practice should be eligible for Organic certification. Compounding the problem is the fact that hydroponic production systems are conceptualized as existing on a continuum of different growing methods—along with other container-based growing systems, greenhouse production, and of course traditional crop farms where plants are grown in the open ground. Defining and distinguishing between the less traditional growing methods on this continuum has proven to be a thorny task for the NOSB and the NOP.

I’m writing today because we at CFSA would like to know what our members think about hydroponics and whether this production practice should be eligible for Organic certification. CFSA staff will be in attendance at the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, along with many other stakeholders in the Organic industry. We won’t be submitting comments about hydroponics to the Board in October, but we may take a position at a future meeting if we learn that our members will be affected by any proposed regulations either prohibiting or allowing hydroponics.

What follows is the first of four installments in a series of blog posts about hydroponics and the Organic label. The second and third installments will be published on October 17 and 24, respectively. The fourth installment will be published after the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville and will provide a synopsis of any decision the Board makes about hydroponics.

For those of you who are already familiar with the debate and are ready to put in your two cents, please feel free to email me with your comments at All replies are confidential and we’d be grateful to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about what hydroponic growing systems are, what the law and regulations say, and what arguments are being made by those in favor of and opposed to allowing hydroponics, read on!

Part One

(A) The Regulatory Roles of the NOSB and the NOP           

Before diving into the specifics of the debate about whether hydroponics and other container-based production systems should be “certifiable,” it may be helpful to review the relative roles of the NOSB and the NOP in creating USDA Organic regulations like those being contemplated for hydroponics.

The National Organic Program (NOP) is an office of the USDA located within the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). As a part of a federal administrative agency, the NOP is responsible for implementing legislation passed by Congress—in this case, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA), which is the same law that authorized the USDA to create the NOP. The NOP, like all other administrative entities, must implement legislation in accordance with the Administrative Procedures Act (APA), another law passed by Congress that governs the functioning of administrative agencies, including the process of “rulemaking.” Rulemaking—i.e. the creation of regulations—is one of the means by which administrative agencies carry out the obligations imposed on them by Congress. A “rule,” as defined by the APA, is the “whole or part of an agency statement of general or particular applicability and future effect designed to implement, interpret, or prescribe law or policy or describing the organization, procedure, or practice requirements of an agency….” Put another way, regulations are legally binding statements (“rules”) made by a federal agency to its staff, to citizens, to industry, and to other parts of government about how a law will be implemented. 

Although writing the USDA Organic regulations is the sole responsibility of the NOP, Congress included a provision in the Organic Foods Production Act designed to ensure that the NOP would receive input from private citizens and stakeholders throughout various sectors of the Organic industry. OFPA directed the Secretary of the USDA to establish the National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory committee whose purpose is to assist in the development of standards for substances to be used in Organic production and to advise the Secretary (through the NOP) on any other aspects of the implementation of OFPA. The specific composition of the NOSB is dictated by OFPA. The 15-member Board must include:

(a) four individuals who own or operate an organic farming operation;
(b) two individuals who own or operate an organic handling operation;
(c) one individual who owns or operates a retail establishment with significant trade in organic products;
(d) three individuals with expertise in areas of environmental protection and resource conservation;
(e) three individuals who represent public interest or consumer interest groups;
(f) one individual with expertise in the fields of toxicology, ecology, or biochemistry; and
(g) one individual who is an Organic certifying agent.

The NOSB is further divided into seven Subcommittees, which are responsible for conducting research and analyses and drafting proposals for consideration by the full Board:

(a) Executive;
(b) Certification, Accreditation, and Compliance;
(c) Crops;
(d) Handling;
(e) Livestock (including Aquaculture);
(f) Materials (including GMOs); and
(g) Policy Development.

Key activities of the Board include:

(a)  Assisting in the development and maintenance of organic standards and regulations;
(b)  Reviewing petitioned materials for inclusion on or removal from the National List of approved and Prohibited Substances;
(c)  Recommending changes to the National List;
(d)  Communicating with the organic community, including conducting public meetings, soliciting and reviewing public comments ; and
(e)  Communicating, supporting and coordinating with the NOP staff.

The NOSB typically meets twice per year, once in the spring and once in the fall. These meetings are open to the public and are the means by which the Board formally carries out the advisory role for which Congress intended it to serve.

At each NOSB meeting, subcommittees present to the full Board their discussion documents and policy proposals related to specific regulatory issues. For each issue, the NOSB hears live and written testimony from the public before deliberating and voting on whether to adopt a discussion document or proposal. An adopted discussion document creates a record of research and analysis conducted by a subcommittee; generally speaking, a subcommittee will provide the full Board with one or more discussion documents on a particular regulatory issue, sometimes over the course of several years, before it provides the Board with a policy proposal. Once a policy proposal is offered to the full Board by a subcommittee, the Board may respond in a variety of ways, including but not limited to (1) adopting the proposal as presented by the subcommittee, (2) amending the proposal in a “non-substantive” manner before adopting it, (3) rejecting the proposal, and (4) referring the proposal back to subcommittee for further development. Any proposal that is adopted by the Board is conveyed to the NOP as a “recommendation” to be used as guidance in its enforcement and rulemaking efforts.

Importantly, the NOSB’s recommendations are not binding on the NOP. As stated in the NOSB Policy and Procedures Manual,

“The USDA cannot delegate its authority as a regulatory body to private citizens, even when those private citizens are appointed by the Secretary to provide advice. Therefore, the NOSB cannot direct USDA or bind the Secretary through its actions; for example, it cannot obligate funds, contract, make NOP staffing decisions, or initiate policies of its own accord.”


“[T]he unique nature of the NOSB and its relationship with the NOP, as established through OFPA, requires that the volunteer Board, which regularly receives stakeholder input through public comment, must work collaboratively with the NOP. Similarly the NOP, as required through OFPA, must consult and collaborate with the NOSB.”

When the NOSB Board meets in Jacksonville, Florida at the end of October, its members will consider proposals presented by the Crops Subcommittee that address various “non-traditional” growing systems, including hydroponics. Specifically, one of the Subcommittee’s proposals is to expressly prohibit hydroponic growing systems from obtaining Organic certification. A more detailed discussion of the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal, including how it has chosen to define “hydroponics” and other non-traditional growing systems, will be included in the second and third installments of this blog series.

There is no guarantee the Board will actually vote to pass or reject the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal as written; rather, the Board may refer the proposal back to the Subcommittee for more development. Some members of the Crops Subcommittee are opposed to the current proposal and have submitted a written analysis of their “minority view” for consideration by the larger Board. Furthermore, based on a public webinar discussion held by the NOSB in August, the Board as a whole appears split on the issue of whether a rulemaking recommendation for hydroponics is appropriate at this time, and if so, what the recommendation should be.

Coming up next: 

That’s all for now, folks! Please don’t hesitate to email me at if you have comments or questions. If you want to know more about hydroponics and the Organic label, make sure to stay tuned for the remaining installments, with release dates and discussion topics listed below.

Part Two : October 17 

  • What exactly are hydroponic systems and how are they different from growing food in the ground?
  • What is the current regulatory treatment of hydroponic agriculture within the Organic program?

Part Three : October 24    

  • What arguments are being made in opposition to and in support of allowing hydroponics to be certified Organic? 
  • What have the NOSB and the NOP done in the past to address this issue? 

Part Four : TBD (mid-November)    

  • What happened at the NOSB meeting in Jacksonville, Florida?          

NC FarmLink and WNC FarmLink Merge Databases to Further Develop Partnership

By Suzanna Denison, Director of WNC FarmLink

NC FarmLink and WNC FarmLink have recently merged their databases in an effort to form a stronger and more unified partnership of farm linking organizations in North Carolina. Both organizations were formed within the last five years to serve different regions of North Carolina. Now, their combined efforts not only aid farmland access for both beginning and expanding farmers but also with farmland preservation. Farmland loss is an increasing risk across the state due to retiring farmers and development pressure. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, between 2007 and 2012, North Carolina lost 2,695 farms and approximately 60,000 acres of farmland.

“We are thrilled with this merger and strong partnership,” says Suzanna Denison, Director of WNC FarmLink. “We are excited to move forward together as a more unified team for both farmland access and preservation in North Carolina.”

FarmLink services provide opportunities for farmers and landowners to connect in order to make farmland matches possible.

Now there is a single database in North Carolina for those seeking land and those looking to find a farmer in order to keep their land in agriculture. Further information can be found on the NC FarmLink website: While on this website, farmers can look for available farmland with searchable terms such as acreage, county and current farm production. Landowners can search the farmer profiles for someone to farm their land and farmers can search these same profiles for aspiring farmers to continue farming their land when they retire. Both of these options provide a web tool that can help make farmland matches possible and ultimately assist in the preservation of North Carolina’s farms. WNC FarmLink provides land matching support services to the western region of the state, including one-on-one consultations, workshops, and technical and legal land access support. The NC and WNC FarmLink services are free.

The goals of NC and WNC FarmLink include:

  • Providing a web-based farmland matching service, where users can search and pursue matches on their own.
  • Providing resources and service provider information, which can help support the farmland access or transition process.
  • Creating farmland access opportunities that support local agriculture and economies.
  • Ensuring farmland preservation in North Carolina through these farmland matching services.

“At NC and WNC FarmLink, we want to help ease the challenges in either finding land to farm or someone to farm your land,” Denison says. “Not only do we provide farmland matching tools, we also offer on the ground support to determine if it is a viable land match, as well as one-on-one consultations and technical support in lease arrangements, farm financing and other factors key to successful farmland access or transition.”

WNC FarmLink will be presenting on FarmLink services in North Carolina at this year’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference, on Saturday November 4th, during first morning session from 8:20-9:20am. We hope to see you there!

About NC FarmLink:

NC FarmLink connects farmers, landowners and service providers in North Carolina as a free land access web tool co-managed by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and WNC FarmLink. It is collaboratively managed and supported by a network of partners across the state. For more information, visit: 

About WNC FarmLink:

WNC FarmLink matches farm and forest landowners with new and experienced farmers eager to find land to farm in WNC. The program is a free service to WNC residents. WNCFL offers personalized one-on-one consultation, provides group workshops to help beginning farmers negotiate equitable leases and prepare logistically and financially for long-term land tenure and purchase, which is a major obstacle for beginning farmers. For more information, visit:

Suzanna Denison is the director of WNC FarmLink. For more information, please contact us at: (828) 785-4284, or

Find your pasture-raised Thanksgiving Turkey from a CFSA member farm!

Turkeys at Up On Cedar Knoll Farm

By Marianna Spence, CFSA Membership Coordinator

A local, pasture-raised Thanksgiving turkey is a wonderful way to honor the tradition of the season – celebrating bounty, harvest, friends and family. In addition to being given lives on pasture, the turkeys you’ll find from CFSA Member Farms in this list are also nutritionally better for you. Pastured birds eat grasses and legumes that contain Vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that are known to reduce cholesterol. Pastured birds also have more access to adequate space, fresh air, sunshine, and exercise, and thus maintain better physical health than confined birds. With more exercise, birds maintain a lower fat content, which is healthier for the bird and the consumer (Source:

What good things – time outdoors, good feed and pasture, sunshine, or humane processing – could possibly have been given to a turkey sold at a big box grocery store for as low as $0.47/pound? Not much, unfortunately. So use your Thanksgiving feast as an affirmation of your commitment to sustainable agriculture or as a good excuse to start a new tradition!

Check out this list we’ve put together of CFSA Member farms raising turkeys for the holidays. You’ll find contact information, details on how to order, and a description of their turkey production practices. If you don’t see a farm close to you, you can expand your search by talking to farmers at your local market or asking your favorite farm-to-table restaurant where they source poultry. A quick chat with the farmer or perusal of their website should inform you that their production practices align with your values.

Gobble, gobble! (Tip: Our regions are large! If you don’t see anything in your region, check an adjacent region.)

Jump to: Western NC, Charlotte Metro NC, Triangle NC, Eastern NC, Midlands SC, Pee Dee SC, Lowcountry SC

Western NC

Against the Grain, Holly Whitesides
Location:  Zionville, NC
How to order: Sign up through home page of website or through facebook page link. We take reservations with a $25 deposit, while availability lasts.
Farming practices: We raise our turkeys on pasture and with GMO-free feed. We move them to fresh pasture every 2 days, ensuring fresh forage and humane living conditions for the birds. We offer both contemporary and heritage breeds, for pick up either at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market or at the farm.

Cloud 9 Farm, Janet Peterson
Location:  Fletcher, NC
Preferred contact: or 828-628-1758
How to order: Call or PM on facebook to reserve  a white, broad breasted turkey with a phone # and email. No payment required until pick-up. We do commissioned raising of turkeys in small numbers. For 2017 we have 15 extras to sell to the public so get your order in today! $5/lb
Farming practices: We are grateful that turkeys fertilize out pastures by free ranging and eat non-gmo grains, with fresh air, sunshine and well water. We harvest on farm with our meat handlers license and are doing small batches now (first week of Nov.) They are coming to weight early (15-20 lbs) so we prefer that you take them when you get the phone call and freeze yourself. We have limited freezer space but can freeze for you.

Charlotte Metro NC

Lazy Heron Farm, Holt Akers-Campbell and Hailey Sowden
Location: Norwood, NC
Preferred contact: or (615) 727-3640
How to order: Email and place your order!
Farming practices: Pasture-raised broad-breasted white turkey moved 3X daily. Non GMO-feed.

Triangle NC

Fern Creek Farm, Jon Meader
Location: Creedmoor, NC
Preferred contact: (secondary contact by phone, Rosie Pyle is our customer care contact at 919-741-8973)
How to order:  Email us with your name and contact number to reserve your whole, fresh Thanksgiving turkey. We require a $25 non-refundable deposit within 7 days of making your reservation. The deposit can be paid by credit card over the phone, or mail a check to the farm address above. We will take reservations until Nov. 10, 2017, if space is available. Turkeys will be processed the weekend before Thanksgiving and we will arrange delivery or pick-up with our customers before Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017.
Farming practices: Our turkeys are free-range and raised in a large, wooded area on our farm where they can forage on wild plant material and insects. They are also fed high-quality, all-grain feed that does not contain medications or animal by-products. We do not give any antibiotics or any type of medication to our poultry.

Cypress Hall Farms, Robert Elliott
Location: Louisburg, NC
Preferred contact:
How to order:
Farming practices: Cypress Hall Farms raises free-range heritage turkeys in our pastures. These turkeys are hatched, grown, and processed here on the farm and are available for pick-up only during the week of Thanksgiving. Sizes are first come first served so reserve early!

Dawnbreaker Farms, Ben Grimes
Location: Hurdle Mills, NC
Preferred contact:
How to order: Reservations can be made online here ( or in person at the farmer’s market, on farm, by email ( or phone (919-903-0200).
Farming practices: Dawnbreaker Farms raises pasture-raised, GMO Free Thanksgiving Turkeys. Our flock of non-GMO Broad Breasted White turkeys are rotated to fresh pasture weekly where they graze, hunt grasshoppers and bask in the glorious fall sun. A Dawnbreaker Farms turkey is a centerpiece with a story to tell and a flavor that will be remembered well after the guests return home.

ChickCharney Farm, Julie Gauthier
Location: Wake Forest, NC
Preferred contact: Email to or by text to 919-830-7940
How to order: Taking orders at Wake Forest Farmer’s market, online at, email to or by text to 919-830-7940
Farming practices: We raise turkeys a very old-fashioned way. All stages of the cycle occur here at the farm – from the day our turkey hens lay eggs to the bird on our holiday table. Our rare heritage breed Beltsville small white turkeys and Narragansett turkeys are raised full-time on pasture, and they are fed a locally grown diet containing heirloom (non-GMO) varieties of grain. We process the turkeys at the farm, and customers can pick their bird up fresh at the farm by appointment in time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or other special occasion.

Homestead Harvest Farm, Jan Campbell
Location: Wake Forest, NC
Preferred contact: email or call/text 919-608-2502
How to order: Email, call or sign up at the Midtown Farmer’s Market on Saturdays 8-Noon or at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays 3-6pm. We take a $20 deposit to hold the reservation with the balance due upon delivery. We have 8-16 pound birds and usually sell out by mid October
Farming practices: Homestead Harvest Farm raises free-range Bourbon Red turkeys. We use Non-GMO grains for extra protein and harvest on site the day before delivery. Our delivery dates are Nov. 18th in Raleigh and Nov. 21st in Carrboro with pickup from the farm available on Nov. 22nd.

Ninja Cow Farm, Dan Moore
Location: Garner, NC
Preferred contact: Email or text to or 919-810-2530
How to order:  We take deposits in store only. Here is a link to our turkey announcement.
Farming practices: The turkeys are pasture-raised, no-GMO feed. They come from Brittany Ridge Farm, who provides rabbit and chicken to Vivian Howard of A Chef’s Life. We are a retail outlet for Brittany Ridge, one of our partner farms.

CATHIS Farm, David Pflugfelder
Location: Lillington, NC
How to order: Send an email asking to order a turkey and we will reply with an invoice for the deposit
Farming practices: We raise broad-breasted whites from day old poults for 15 weeks. They are all rotated weekly on pastures of millet and buckwheat and are fed a certified organic feed grown locally in North Carolina.

Fickle Creek Farm, Ben Rickard, Bryan Horton, and Noah Ranells
Location: Efland, NC
Preferred contact: Order form
How to order: Kindly use online order form at Turkeys are sold on a first come, first served basis using our online order form. A $50 deposit is required to reserve a turkey. The order form is updated if we are sold out or if turkey parts (breast, wings, thighs, drums, backs, and livers) are available.
Farming practices: We raise Broad Breasted White turkeys on pasture. They are fed only a vegetarian feed and processed at an animal welfare approved processing facility.

Reverence Farms, Suzanne Nelson
Location: Saxapahaw, NC
Preferred contact: Email
How to order: There is an option this year to choose a fresh or frozen turkey. Both are processed within the month of November, we are just looking to add a larger pick-up window. Frozen birds are $6.99/lb and fresh are $7.99/lb. Pick-up for fresh turkeys will be Saturday, November 18th from 12pm – 4pm at our farm: 2301 Austin Quarter Rd.
Saxapahaw, NC 27253. If you requested a frozen bird, you can pick-up at Reverence Farms Café (6956 NC-87, Graham, NC 27253) starting November 14th during regular business hours, Tuesday-Saturday 8am-8pm. Or if you are part of our Mobile Farm Store delivery service, your bird can be delivered on our November delivery day of Thursday the 16th.
Farming practices: Reverence Farms is a thriving polyculture where animals are treated with reverence and grace and all critters eat a species-appropriate diet. The hens follow our dairy cows and sheep with the pigs in a rotation that regenerates the land and provides the best nutrition for all animals.

Eastern NC

Fort Clux Farm, Rebecca Larkin-Martinez & Tom Martinez
Location: Castalia, NC
Preferred contact:
How to order:  Place a non-refundable $25 deposit at, choosing your preferred size. Pick up a fresh turkey the weekend before the holiday and pay the balance (= market price x weight – deposit) for the turkey.
Farming practices: We raise free-range laying chickens, turkeys, Katahdin/Dorper sheep and bees. We supplement their grazing, when necessary, with locally grown hay and non-GMO feed, grown and milled locally. All our animals range during the day and return to a more protected space at night. Additionally, we have guardian dogs who help alleviate predator issues.

Midlands SC

Up On Cedar Knoll Farm, Jackie Cavallin & Steve Acuff
Location: Blythewood, SC
Preferred or 803-240-6512
How to order: Reservation is by receipt of $20 deposit. Let us know by phone or email desired weight range and if preferred frozen or fresh chilled ($8/pound). Reservations are currently being accepted and open until all reserved. Harvest dates for 2017 will be Nov 4th (for frozen) and Nov 18th (fresh chilled). Pick up on farm only, no shipping. Balance due at pickup, cash or local check.
Farming practices: Heritage Bourbon Red Turkeys. We are NPIP, SC Small Flock Certified and also DHEC licensed for on farm processing. We raise our birds cage-free on wooded pastures. Average weights for Bourbon Reds after processing are 7-11 pounds for young hens, 11-20+ pounds for young Toms, each will vary. Smaller to mid range weight birds reserve out quickly!

Five Forks Sustainable Farm, Lisa and Taylor Rees
Location: Pageland, SC
Preferred contact: Email to
How to order: Prefer email or personal message on Facebook to order turkeys, letting us know approximate desired weight. Price is $4/lb, with pickup at Union County Farmers market or at the farm. Can deliver with small delivery charge.
Farming practices:We are raising a small flock of 30 Broad Breasted Bronze and White turkeys on pasture with supplemental feed. Order early for best selection of desired weight.

Pee Dee SC

Maypop Farm, David White
Location: Darlington, SC
How to order: Visit, or our website at, or you can also order turkeys through the Ovis Hill Farmers Market,
Farming practices: Free range on pasture managed without chemicals, fed no antibiotics or growth promotants.

Lowcountry SC

Fili-West Farms, Nathan Boggs
Location: Vance, SC
Preferred contact:
How to order: Pay turkey deposits and order online at Please note what size turkey you’d like in the “Notes” section, $5/lb. We will take orders through Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, or until we run out of inventory.
Farming practices: We offer fresh pasture-raised broad breasted white turkeys for Thanksgiving. All of our birds are moved to fresh grass daily in order to keep both the birds and the pasture clean and healthy. Fresh air, sunshine, forage, and a high quality un-medicated feed from Bartlett Milling all conspire to make this the best turkey you’ll ever eat!


FDA Presses Pause on FSMA

By Roland McReynolds, CFSA Executive Director

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made several big announcements recently that will slow the enforcement of rules for safely growing produce under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). These delays are welcome by the entire produce industry, and farmers hope that these are first steps in reforming FDA’s approach to regulating the production and marketing of fruits and vegetables.

On Sept. 13, FDA published a proposed rule that would extend the deadlines for farms to comply with rules about water used in crop production. Although most of the FSMA Produce Rule comes into effect beginning in January 2018, the water standards currently take effect in Jan. 2020 for farms with over $500,000 in produce sales; Jan. 2021 for farms with sales over $250,000; and Jan. 2022 for those with sales less than $250,000 but greater than $25,000. The new proposed rule shifts each of those deadlines another two years down the road, to 2022/2023/2024. FDA is taking comments on the proposed rule until Nov. 15. If the agency’s review of comments goes quickly, the extended timeframe could become official early in 2018.

The day before, in a speech at a meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb promised that Produce Rule compliance inspections for the largest farms, which had been due to start in Jan. 2018, would now be deferred until 2019. FDA published the final Produce Rule in 2015, but has not yet published promised guidance documents that would help farms and state governments understand how to interpret the language of the rule.  State departments of agriculture have become increasingly concerned that they won’t be able to fairly apply the rule without this kind of guidance and training for their inspection staff.

And finally, FDA issued a fact sheet addressing a major scientific flaw in the water rule that had water quality experts in an uproar. Essentially the agency provided a list of laboratory test methods it will accept, in addition to the one very expensive and rare one it named in the text of the Produce Rule.

These adjustments are important, but by themselves are not enough to avoid the debilitating punch coming for U.S. farms and food makers from FDA’s current FSMA scheme. For example, the water rules are incredibly complex and open to interpretation, with testing targets that are not supported by water quality science. CFSA and dozens of other farm groups, along with researchers and state officials, have been saying since the draft water rules were published in 2013 that the FDA approach needs to be scrapped (an article published in Food Safety Magazine last month ably summarizes the scientific concerns). Simply delaying rules that will be impossible for many farms to comply with forces the inevitable reckoning down the road, but won’t stop it from ultimately happening.

In announcing the proposed water rule extension, FDA stated it “plans to engage with stakeholders to learn more from farmers, state regulatory partners and other stakeholders about the diverse ways water is used and ensure that the standards will be as practical and effective as possible for all farming operations.” Whether that intention includes a genuine willingness to give up the unjustified burdens in the current water rules remains to be seen.

FDA must shift its approach and create a system that supports farms of all sizes to implement realistic food safety risk management, instead of its apparent focus on building legal tools for prosecuting farmers.

Even without interpretation standards, inspector training programs, or approved regulatory training materials written in Spanish, FDA has been moving forward with its plan to start enforcing FSMA. It has doled out millions of dollars to state governments to fund creation of state-based FSMA compliance programs, and has kept representatives from agriculture at arms-length on those plans. As a result there has been poor transparency about what farms can expect, and confusion among states, as the main Produce Rule compliance deadlines loom. And in exchange for its money, FDA has forced states to start compiling ‘inventories’ of all the farms that could possibly grow produce, including so-called exempt farms, raising huge questions about the privacy of farm information and adherence to Congressional protections for farms that were written into FSMA. No one really knows what FDA will do with its new Produce Rule authority when it kicks in, but the examples from the agency’s history in food safety regulation are discouraging.

Certainly putting off the first official enforcement of the Produce Rule makes good sense, and farmers will be glad to take this much progress. But more is needed: FDA must shift its approach and create a system that supports farms of all sizes to implement realistic food safety risk management, instead of its apparent focus on building legal tools for prosecuting farmers.

Any farm that grows crops covered by the Produce Rule needs to start preparing for how to handle the day when a government inspector shows up to do a FSMA inspection. A great place to start is the two-hour workshop on a farmer’s rights and responsibilities in such a visit that we are presenting at this year’s Sustainable Agriculture Conference. And CFSA’s Local Produce Safety Initiative provides a variety of resources to help farms improve food safety practices.

The incredible efforts of farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates have made a difference in shaping FSMA every step of the way, winning important protections for local food and ensuring key parts of the rules are grounded in science. But fixing FSMA is not a marathon, it’s an ultra-marathon. We have to continue to press the states, the FDA and Congress to make the rules sensible, and protect farmers and food entrepreneurs’ ability to bring healthy, sustainable, local foods to more people.

From Weddings to Goat Yoga, It Has Gotten More Complicated to Do Agritourism on North Carolina Farms

By Rochelle Sparko, CFSA Policy Director

In July 2017, Governor Cooper signed into law the Farm Act of 2017. With support from NCDA and Farm Bureau, Senate Bill 615 moved through the Senate and House with relative ease. One provision has captured the attention of small scale farms and beginning farmers. Section 8 of the Farm Act of 2017 restricts the ability of beginning farmers and small scale producers to engage in some types of agritourism on their farms.

In Section I, I take a look at the state of the law prior to July 2017. Section II describes the circumstances that led NCDA and Farm Bureau to engage in a concerted effort to change the law. In Section III, you will learn what’s changed as a result of the Farm Act of 2017. Finally, in Section IV, I offer farmers actions they can take if their farm enterprise is or will be adversely affected by the change in the law.

I. What WAS the law?

The state of North Carolina authorizes local government to enact zoning ordinances. See NC General Statute Section 153A-340. Zoning ordinances set some limits on how property owners may use their land. These ordinances cover property use issues ranging from how close construction can get to the property line, to what kinds of uses happen in particular areas to keep the heavy industrial activity separate from the community swimming pool. Zoning rules also require that people purchase permits in order to build on their property.

A number of years ago, North Carolina decided that farms would NOT be required to comply with zoning ordinances when constructing structures for use in farm operations. This makes it less expensive and less time consuming for a farmer to, say, build a barn for her cattle, a washing and packing shed for his vegetables, or a storage building for their tools.

The state law said that there were five ways that counties could  determine whether a piece of land was a farm, and therefore could use the exemption from zoning law. (1) a farm sales tax exemption number issued by the NC Department of Revenue; (2) a copy of a property tax bill showing that the property was assessed using the present use value of the land; (3) a copy of the farmer owner or operator’s Schedule F IRS form from the most recent tax year; (4) a forest management plan; or (5) a Farm Identification Number issued by FSA.

As more and more people are interested in having farm experiences, some farmers have used this exemption to build structures on their farms for agritourism: a shop or stand from which to sell their products, a dining space and commercial kitchen for hosting on-farm events like weddings, dinners or corporate retreats, a heated space where people can drink cocoa after time spent in a corn maze.

II. Why did public and private agricultural entities lobby for changes to the law?

A couple of conflicts between rural communities and new land owners led to an effort to make the zoning exemption for farms more restrictive. Because there is money to be made from holding events on farms, investors have purchased farmland and constructed expensive venues designed to host weddings or other events. New landowners have relied on one of the exemptions to zoning law, specifically that the land purchased came with a farm identification number issued by the FSA, to construct these venues without complying with local zoning ordinances.

Rural neighbors of these new venues complained that these new venues were being treated as farms despite engaging in very little agriculture because they were able to purchase land that already had an FSA number from a prior owner’s use. The Department of Agriculture heard these concerns, and pressed for a change to the zoning exemption law in an effort to restrict or eliminate use of the exemption by landowners who are not primarily farmers.

III. What is the law now?

The General Assembly passed the North Carolina Farm Act of 2017(Farm Act of 2017) and it was signed by Governor Cooper on July 12, 2017. As soon as the governor signed the bill, the North Carolina law about which farms are exempt from local zoning ordinances changed.

The Farm Act of 2017 limits the ways that farmers can prove that they are operating bona fide farms in order to qualify for the exemption from zoning ordinances. From July 12, 2017 onward, if a farmer wants to construct a farm building on their property, they can no longer use an FSA number as evidence that they are operating a bona fide farm. Farmers are still able to use the other four methods of proof to prove that they are bona fide farms when building buildings for agricultural purposes other than agritourism. As a quick reminder, the four remaining ways to prove a farm is bona fide:

  1. A farm sales tax exemption number issued by the NC Department of Revenue;
  2. A copy of a property tax bill showing that the property was assessed using the present use value of the land;
  3. A copy of the farmer owner or operator’s Schedule F IRS form from the most recent tax year; or
  4. A forest management plan.

The General Assembly narrowed even further which farms can construct buildings for the purpose of agritourism. Only those farms that meet one of two criteria may construct such structures without complying with zoning laws. Those criteria require that the farmer show the county:

  1. A farm sales tax exemption number issued by the NC Department of Revenue;
  2. A copy of a property tax bill showing that the property was assessed using the present use value of the land;
Note that North Carolina law has restricted access to the farm sales tax exemption number to farms grossing over $10,000 since 2014. This means that beginning farmers and farmers who have years with low yield due to adverse weather, illness of the farmer, etc. will not be able to use method #1. Also worth keeping in mind is that present use valuation is only available to farms with at least five acres in horticultural production or ten acres in row crop production, making it impossible for many farms in the state to access the present use valuation program. Thus, a large number of farmers will be barred from using the exemption method #2.

The Farm Act of 2017 defines agritourism as, “any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public, for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, ranching, historic, cultural, harvest-you-own activities, or natural activities and attractions.” Further, “(a) building or structure used for agritourism includes any building or structure used for public or private events, including, but not limited to, weddings, receptions, meetings, demonstrations of farm activities, meals, and other events that are taking place on the farm because of its farm or rural setting.”

The Farm Act of 2017 addresses what happens should a farm with a sales tax exemption or a present use property valuation build a structure for agritourism and then, within three years of the construction, no longer qualifies for either the sales tax exemption or the present use valuation. At that time, the structure will become subject to the applicable zoning and development regulation ordinances adopted by the county. CFSA expects that the farms most likely to be harmed by this provision will be farms that do not qualify for present use valuation (smaller than 5 acres in production) who experience one or two years with less than $10,000 in income. These farms will be subject to this “clawback” provision in the law, and will, at a time when money is tight, be forced to bring these farm structures into compliance with local zoning ordinances.

CFSA does not know how individual counties will enforce this new law. We have been told by sources at NCDA that structures used both for agritourism AND other agricultural purposes should be considered an agricultural rather than agritourism use, but the law does not clearly state this.

IV. What can I do if the new law is hurting my business?

If your farm business will be hurt by the changes in the law, there are several things you can do. You should call the NC Department of Agriculture and let staff there know what’s happening to your business. Phone calls to NCDA are what put this issue on the Department’s radar in the first place; they should be made aware if the changes they asked for are hurting farmers.

You should also contact both your state senator and representative and let them know that this new law is adversely impacting your business. Tell them that you’d like to see the General Assembly make some changes to the new law in 2018 to help protect farms like yours.

Go to your county Farm Bureau’s policy meeting this fall and make sure to support changes to Farm Bureau’s policy book that will enable farms like yours to get the zoning exemption. Without this change, it is likely that Farm Bureau will continue to support the new law that limit which farms get state support and which don’t.

Let CFSA know how the new law affects your farm. Email CFSA’s Policy Director, Rochelle Sparko, at or call or text her at 919-410-7645. CFSA needs stories from farmers to convince the General Assembly to make changes to the new law. If you don’t tell us what’s happening on your farm, there’s nothing CFSA will be able to do to try and change this law.

Sweet Peas Urban Gardens: Growing Wake County’s Urban Farming Community

by Lindsey Carver and Tonya Taylor, Capital Area Food Network

Sweet Pea Urban Garden Crop Box

Hydroponic producer Tami Purdue will tell you that her favorite microgreen crop to grow is arugula, but she has also helped cultivate the urban farm community in Wake County, North Carolina.  Three years ago, Purdue left a career in law office administration and purchased a CropBox, a retrofitted shipping container.


CropBox, as described by the manufacturer, is a turnkey agricultural system that is able to grow the equivalent of an acre of field grown crops or 2,200 square feet of greenhouse space within a 320 square foot footprint.  This innovative system boasts that it uses 90 percent less water than conventional and greenhouse cultivation and 80 percent less fertilizer than conventional cultivation. It also promises to produce approximately 1,347 tons per acre while only using 27,000 gallons of water annually.  Compare that to the 270,000 gallons per acre used in a conventional agriculture system and the 321,200 gallons in an evaporative cooled greenhouse.  Those are no small drops in a bucket!


Tami Perdue, Sweet Pea Urban GardensIt is important to note that Tami’s CropBox was among the first prototypes in the country for this new approach to farming. Since her purchase, Purdue has grown microgreens, or immature vegetables and herbs, and educated the local community about their health benefits.  Microgreens are harvested at the formation of their first true leaves and contain between four and 40 times the nutrient density of full grown produce.  After a taste test, we can also confirm that they are bursting with flavor!


Purdue draws her inspiration from the initial crops of tomatoes, arugula, and peppers she grew when she moved to her home 15 years ago.  At the time, she did not know about the resources available to help with her struggling plants.  Purdue and her plants’ fate turned around when she started connecting with local organizations promoting food security, leading her to sign up for a workshop with Will Allen, founder and CEO of an urban farming organization in Wisconsin called Growing Power.  On the final day of the workshop, Purdue found her calling during the microgreens session.


Within two months of farming for a living, the physical issues Purdue felt from years of sitting at a desk vanished.  Purdue said that she started to feel “powerful, connected, like [she] was doing the right thing.”  While her CropBox may be a nontraditional growing environment, she feels the same peace growing and harvesting often described by farmers working outdoors.


Microgreens from Sweet Pea Urban GardensCurrently, Sweet Peas Urban Gardens sells about a third of their microgreens at four local farmers markets, about a third of their products directly to restaurants, and the remaining third of their harvest through Community Supported Agriculture-type programs.  While their top sellers by weight are sunflower shoots and their namesake, sweet pea shoots, manager Spencer Ware likes to create new blends based on availability and flavor.  Their latest iteration is a fiesta mix that includes purple radish, garlic, mustard, and cilantro.


While business and interest surrounding the CropBox and Sweet Peas Urban Gardens has grown over the last few years, so has the farm’s production capacity thanks to help from the next generation.  Purdue employs a manager, videography and photography intern, and volunteers from the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program (WWOOF).  WWOOFers, as they are called, comprise a worldwide movement of linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community.


Sweet Peas’ current ventures include growing mushrooms in containers on the floor of the CropBox, shiitake logs outside the shipping container, a wildflower prairie garden, a hugelkultur production area, and honey bee hives.  Sidebar: In case you finished the sentence and are still wondering what “hugelkultur”is, it is a composting process employing raised beds constructed from decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds as defined by The Permaculture Research Institute and in Permaculture Magazine’s article “The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur.”


When asked what challenges seem most pressing for new farmers, Purdue expressed that land access and knowing what resources are available were key.  She believes in the power of experienced and emerging farmers connecting and creatively using resources to help each other.


After a visit to Purdue’s urban farm, there is no doubt that she has faith in the potential for urban farming to save our food system, emphasizing that “This is not just a fad.  This is real.”


Visit the Sweet Peas Urban Gardens and the other amazing sustainable farms on the Eastern Triangle Farm Tour, happening Sept. 23-24, 2017 from 1-5 PM. Plan your tour route and buy your carpass today! CFSA members save $5 on advance tickets! 

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Well Fed Community Garden and its Farmer, Morgan Malone

by Capital Area Food Network Farm Advocacy Circle

Just a 10 minute drive from downtown Raleigh, you can find an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life at the Well Fed Community Garden, just one of the farms on the Eastern Triangle Farm Tour, Sept. 23-24 from 1-5 PM. Driving down Athens Drive, you immediately notice the pollinator garden bursting with herbs, flowers, and fruit trees. As you pull into the driveway and find your way to the backyard, you notice that this is no ordinary suburban lot.

This 1.5 acre parcel of land with a red brick home, was purchased by the owners of the Irregardless Café, with 4 other families in March 2012. Their goal was to use the acreage to provide fresh local food to supply Irregardless’ kitchen, as well as the community. With the help of many passionate, creative, and hardworking people, the garden has grown into a beautiful example of urban agriculture.

Shortly after the property’s purchase, the new owners surveyed the overgrown yard and were surprised to discover an old well, a remnant of its earlier farming days. The well has been re-dug and a modern irrigation system waters the entire garden. The Garden’s name speaks to the ‘wellness’ that the Garden is bringing to the community and how it reconnects us to the true source of life.


Farmer Interview – Morgan Malone

Farm manager Morgan Malone and resident farm dog Bella Pepper

Morgan first started working at the garden part-time as a summer intern with previous farm manager, Jenn Stanford Johnson. While working at the garden, Morgan fell in love with the close connection to the nature environment that she found at Well Fed, as well as the vibrant community of volunteers, students, and staff. As Jenn moved on to her new adventure at Chickadee farms (also featured on this year’s farm tour), Morgan joined the garden team full-time as farm manager.


How did you get into farming?

Morgan – Growing community through urban agriculture is where I find passion in what I do. I fell in love with farming and community based agriculture while I was in college at NC State. I learned that there was more to growing food than just seed and fertilizer. I started studying crop science but also working with community gardens and small farms. The community and people involved were very passionate and I loved being a part of that energy. To me, that’s happiness, plants growing and people coming together. It is how the world works, and being involved with that is really exciting.


What are your favorite crops to grow?

Morgan – The garden is full of a great diversity of crops. I love growing something that is new for people, crops that most people have never seen grown before. I love when someone first discovers that the eight foot tall, red stalked plant with striking white flowers is red okra, or the look on their face when they have tasted their first sungold cherry tomato fresh off the vine. Along with the great diversity of crops in the field, we also grow hydroponic lettuce almost year round in our high tunnel greenhouse. This is a very popular product because the leaves stay tender through most of the harsh summer months that normally turn lettuce bitter.


What do you love about farming? What are the challenges?

Morgan – There is so much I love about farming. I love how I learn something new every day and how there is rarely a dull moment on the farm. I love all the amazing people who I get to meet and work with, whether it is a student bringing new ideas, a volunteer with an interesting perspective, or just a neighbor passing by. We have such a wonderfully diverse community of passionate people involved with the farm.

In the past year and a half I have also had to face many challenges. A big one for me is time management. There is always so much to do it can be hard to step back and just enjoy the work that has already been done.


What advice would you offer new farmer?

Morgan – Farming is a very rewarding job; however it is a lot of work and can be a bit stressful. So much of what we do is dependent on uncontrollable factors, such as the weather. Especially as a new farmer, there can be a lot of pressure to not make mistakes. However, mistakes will happen; don’t let them get you down. Learn what you can and continue to move forward. There are so many wonderful resources and farmers who are happy to help you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Lastly, there will be many long, hard, hot days that will be challenging to get through, so never lose sight of your passion, farming should make you happy.


What are people going to love seeing on your farm?

Morgan – Once you walk into the garden you will immediately greeting by Bella Pepper the farm pup and our noisy laying hens, aka the “ladies.”  As you continue through the farm you will find there is so much to explore in the garden.

Using permaculture as a base for design, the garden has lots of exciting features, including seasonal and extended vegetable cultivation, blueberry bushes, black berry brambles, fruit trees, cooking and medicinal herbs, edible flowers, teas, mushroom cultivation, honey bees, and much more. This garden design promotes organic agriculture methods, which minimally disturb the Earth’s natural balance.

When visiting the farm, guest also love to walk through our pollinator garden and see all of the different flowers, herbs, and fruits that we have. Just spending a few minutes wandering through the herb garden or peering into the mountain mint cluster you will notice the wide variety of insects that find food and habitat in the garden. There is an incredible amount of diversity including many native species.

I also recommend that people wander back to the mushroom logs and vermicompost, and check out the hydroponic greenhouse.


What future plans do you have for the garden?

Morgan – I strive to make the garden a place that people can come not only to enjoy gardening and local food, but as a place where people can learn and share knowledge, find peace among the plants, and explore their creativity through art, mediation, and working with the soil.

The Community Garden is funded by the Irregardless’ guarantee to purchase up to eighty percent of the produce grown by the garden. The remaining twenty + percent of the produce is distributed to the volunteers and is given back to the community.


Visit the Well Fed Community Garden and the other amazing sustainable farms on the Eastern Triangle Farm Tour, happening Sept. 23-24, 2017 from 1-5 PM. Plan your tour route and buy your carpass today! CFSA members save $5 on advance tickets! 

Buy Now