marianne cufone
Marianne Cufone is fighting for the rights of hydroponic farmers to grow certified organic produce.

The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) will change its guidelines for organic produce this coming Wednesday, April 19 in Denver, CO. These new rules will have major implications for the $39 billion American organic produce market, and determine which types of farmers can grow under a certified organic label. The upcoming decision may negatively impact hydroponic and aquaponic farmers like Marianne Cufone, sustainable agriculture expert and executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition in New Orleans. Farming technology may prove life-saving one day, and these alternative growing professionals are developing methods that could sustain future generations.

Cufone’s operation seeks to conserve and re-use all resources involved in organic farming, from water and electricity to space and fertilizer, and spread knowledge of this highly efficient method of producing food. Her work as an adjunct environmental law professor at Loyola University New Orleans and champion of alternative agriculture (especially within food deserts) earned her a spot on the 2017 Grist 50, which spotlights visionaries in the field of sustainability. We spoke with Cufone about what goes on at liquid-based farms, what’s at stake at the NOSB meeting and why these technology-driven techniques really aren’t that technology-driven at all.

Huge congrats on making the Grist 50! What was it like to be chosen?
It was a huge honor. The people on that list are just amazing, and I was so honored and so awed to be a part of that. I think that having a vision for the future is extremely important and thinking of ways to deal with challenges coming our way is critical. To see so many people committed to that in so many different ways was empowering and humbling. There are so many working out there for a better future. I think Grist is amazing as well, a very cool entity with the intent to make a better planet for people.

What is the difference between hydroponic and aquaponic?
Hydroponics is growing plants only in some sort of liquid solution of nutrients — water with nutrients, essentially. Aquaponics is raising fish along with plants, and for our purposes, those systems are recirculating.
In your CNN op-ed, you suggest that water-based cultivation is misunderstood. What are some of the perceived stereotypes associated with using these methods as opposed to organic dirt-based soil?
It feels like a lot of folks just don’t understand hydro and aquaponics. Based on the types of comments we’ve heard about inefficiency or scale or “it can’t be organic because there’s no dirt” is very concerning. In my mind, I think these are the epitome of the ethos of organic. The farms striving to be organic use natural materials, don’t use pesticides or synthetic chemicals, and employ different innovative mediums to grow food. To take it away is almost saying “these systems aren’t good enough.”

One of the biggest misconceptions is that these systems are radical and tech-y and new, and the reality is they’re based on techniques used for centuries all around the world and that today we have put a new twist on them for them to be more productive and eco-friendly. Some of the systems for example, might be operated on solar power or geothermal power or gravity, things of that nature so they can be extremely eco-friendly. And especially with the farms I deal with, recirculating water.

What are some examples of these techniques being used throughout history?
The Aztecs had a series of gardens in open waters — that is aquaponics helping to fertilize their floating plants. Then you have the hanging plants of Babylon, which is hydroponics. China has also used a variety of these methods for many generations.

marianne cufone
Farmers tend to Romaine lettuce grows in recirculating water with natural liquid nutrients.
Just how efficient are these methods?

In our operation, all the nutrients, water and waste recycle in the system, so they can be very energy efficient. There’s another misconception that these systems are largely indoors, use a lot of lighting, chillers and heating. While that can be a type of system, that’s not the general type of system because it can be very expensive. As a grower, if you’re looking to make a living, you need to be extremely mindful of the amount of inputs.
We’re disappointed that we’re hearing so much concern about making these sorts of farms continue to be allowed to be certified organic. I feel the USDA should be as supportive as they have been in the past. It feels a lot like it’s more about the market and money than the ability of these farms to meet USDA organic standards. We get it, organics are a $39 billion food market, but it seems like there should be room.

What even IS soil?
For those of us who practice aquaponics and hydroponics, soil isn’t necessarily dirt. It’s about the biological interactions in the system — the processes that provide nutrients to what we’re growing.

What is the environmental impact of these farms versus traditional dirt-based cultivation?
It’s entirely design-dependent. You could design a system to be inefficient if you wanted to, using lots of energy and water and lots of inputs, or you can design it to be extremely efficient. That way, you’re getting an eco-friendly product at a lower price point. I’ve had farmers report that they’re replacing just slightly more than 1% of the water in their system, which is amazing. Others tell me it’s closer to 10%, but think about the amount of water you use in an in-ground system where the plant absorbs what it needs and rest is lost as runoff or groundwater. In liquid-based systems, the same water is constantly cleaned and reused, so you lose some to absorption, and some to evaporation if you’re not climate-controlled, but otherwise you’re conserving a lot your initial resource.

What does the current law say about soil-based farming versus liquid-based?
The National Organic Standards Board [an advisory body within the USDA] put together an ad hoc advisory panel last year, and pulled people from both traditional in-ground dirt-based farming, aquaponics, hydroponics, scientists, farmers and lawyers. I was on that panel, and it was pretty contentious. The conversations were uncomfortable and unfortunate. They’d put us together to advise jointly on what our thoughts were on the existing law — did it need to be changed, could existing systems work, and most importantly: Does the law allow nutrient liquid-based growing to be organic? The answer is yes. The laws don’t say anything about dirt, the definition of organic doesn’t mention dirt. There’s one line in the [existing] law that says not to harm dirt, but really, in some instances we actually improve it. A lot of aquaponic farms take the solid waste from the fish in their systems and use it in soil-based growing. We did that as well, we had a farm where we’d use fish water and solid waste to create natural fertilizer.

In your dream world, what is the role of hydro and aquaponics in urban and suburban areas? 
I think the opportunities are limitless — these systems are only limited by creativity and ability. You can grow up in towers, out in raised beds, side lots, roofs, basements. You can design them just about any way you like. I do really think that it’s the way forward. We of course support earth-based growing as well — it’s not exclusionary — and I think that’s where the disappointment has largely come in. Our organization grows in ground, raised, dirt beds and hydro and aquaponics. It’s integrated “smart farming.” In a perfect world we’d have lots of different kinds of growing and growers, and lots of local healthy fresh food, and that’s really the point: accessible fresh food for everyone.

A few of the CSA offerings at the NOLA-based farm.

How did you come to establish the Recirculating Farms Coalition in New Orleans?
Part of the reason we picked New Orleans was because of the different layers of complexity here. There’s a high income differential in neighborhoods. A lot of neighborhoods have been labeled food deserts, and a lot of the grocery stories are in the higher-income neighborhoods. Many people are taking a couple of buses plus a streetcar to get to a store that prices them out anyway, so they’re buying packaged and processed foods because they last longer.

Our hope was that we could fill that niche for certain neighborhoods where they could come get fresh affordable healthy food right from the farm. There have been successful urban farms spouting up in NOLA, and people are buying a weekly box from the CSA, eggs, herbs, fruit and greens and it’s been a really amazing experience. Not only are people now getting fresh food, they’re building a community. We have free WiFi, and a lawn! People come to visit, hang out, do work on their laptops, play with the chickens.

What’s the next step you’ll take at the Denver NOSB conference?
The expectation was that they’d make a decision. I’m now hearing that might not happen — it might, but it might not. There’s been some noise coming out that they might have a discussion, collect a little more information and delay the vote again. I’m hopeful that they will delay, because our panel process was cut short, possibly because the process was so contentious. Our report, which was supposed to take a year to formulate, was rushed so we couldn’t provide the complete set of information we wanted to.

What do you predict will be the role of hydro and aquaponic farms 25 years from now?
Obviously climate change is a big factor. Part of the reason that I started supporting aqua and hydroponics is because they’re a way to mitigate those climate change factors and a way to continue to grow food in a world where our climate is uncertain. I think we’ll see more of these systems in the future because of their resilience and smaller footprint. You can grow up instead of out to take up less space, they can be in spaces where the dirt under them is not suitable for growing. You can rule out any factors that would ordinarily prevent you from growing, because they don’t interact with what’s under them. You can even grow on top of contaminated soil.

Because they can be located anywhere, you’re cutting down on fuel for packing, shipping and refrigeration because you have these farms in communities that use this food. My vision would be more, not less, of these farms, and becoming more able to feed hungry populations in a time when our climate might not support traditional agriculture.