With autumn leaf color fading and nary a dusting of snow yet on the slopes, the ski town of Stowe, Vt., was quiet. But at the nearby Stoweflake Mountain Resort and Spa, farm tractors were rolling in for a protest rally, with a huge banner that read “Keep the Soil in Organic.”

At issue was the U.S. Agriculture Department’s willingness to grant organic certification to hydroponics – a process by which plants are grown in a liquid nutrient solution rather than in soil. In recent years, the department has allowed some hydroponic crops to be labeled organic, much to the chagrin of organic farmers.

The rally coincided with the biannual meeting of the department’s advisory body, the National Organic Standards Board, at the resort.

If the occasion sparked memories of ’70s-style demonstrations among the many old-time organic farming leaders present, this event was far from disruptive. Resort staff had marked off a parking area for the rally and stood by smiling as a symbolic mountain of compost was dumped in its center, as a speakers’ platform. The local police stopped traffic on the busy road for a short protest march. And Jean Richardson, chairing the NOSB meeting, encouraged attendees to go outside during a lunch break to hear what the agitators had to say. Five years ago, the NOSB actually voted not to allow the label, but it is an advisory group and does not make policy.

“We’re not here to protest against hydroponics,” explained Peter Johnson, a young farmer who owns Pete’s Greens, a large and successful organic operation in Craftsbury, Vt. “We’re here to protest it being called organic.”

That distinction is not a quibble but a matter of public perception.

Hydroponic systems can mass-produce crops within high-tech urban greenhouses. A shopper who chooses a tomato with an “organic” sticker on it will picture fertile soil, not test tubes. And a large hydroponic company eager to capitalize on the word “organic” will happily take advantage of this loophole.

It could reach a point where the only way to know whether your food is organic in any meaningful way is to know the farmer or grow your own.

The word organic describes farming in biologically active, fertile soil to maximize food value. The USDA’s first became involved in 1980 when then Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, according to a Post account, “visited a neighbor who had switched from chemical farming to organic farming” with the result that “his soil had improved, crops yields had held up, production costs were down and his animals were healthier.” This inspired Bergland to order the Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming. Among the “basic tenets” of organic agriculture it listed this:
“Soil is the Source of Life – Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”

And this: “Feed the Soil, Not the Plant – Healthy plants, animals, and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”

No matter what you think of hydroponics, it is hard to see how it can be called organic. Yet Miles McEvoy, who oversees the National Organic Program (NOP) at the USDA, told the Burlington Free Press last year that hydroponics “may be certified as organic.”

The word has always meant far more than just avoiding toxic chemicals. It’s also about what goes on in the rhizosphere, where plant roots interact with minerals, enzymes, immeasurably diverse microbes and other aspects of soil life.

The good news is that knowledge of the soil’s complexity, and its role in the health of all living things, is growing. It’s no wonder that the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Let’s hope it can be a year of truthfulness and common sense as well.