Organic Hydroponics with industry pioneer Michael Christian

At Urban Ag News, we’re all about educating our readers with the goal of providing valuable input from a wide variety of industry professionals. Without question, Michael Christian, founder of American Hydroponics, fits that bill. I was delighted to sit down with him recently to learn of his 30-plus year career in the hydroponics industry and how his insight, in particular about the often contentious argument of what actually constitutes the definition of the word “organic,” pertains to growing plants.

Does a plant need to be grown in soil to be truly organic? Can all the biological elements required by the plant be safely replicated to meet the definition? Will soil purists ever find common ground, no pun intended, with hydroponic growers?

These questions are essential to continuing the debate over the word “organic” including the USDA  National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) own definition written in April 1995: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Seems like a fair definition, but not so fast. To say the least, the subject is a complex one and I’m hoping Michael will shed some light, pun intended, on the subject from his point of view. If anything, I’d like for an olive branch (yes, again pun intended) to be laid upon those soil purists who don’t believe hydroponic growers either have a heart nor are working, as they certainly are, at making the world a healthier and more verdant place for all.

(L-R) Fred Lau of Mari’s Garden and Fred Humphrey of Island Growers with Michael Christian at the AmHydro research greenhouse in Arcata, Calif.
Photo courtesy of AmHydro

For some background, Michael started the business in 1984 in the beautiful northern California agrarian community of Arcata, initially to meet the needs of small, hobbyist growers, and for full disclosure, those growing cannabis. Side note: Also known as the Emerald Triangle, the counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity make up the largest cannabis producing region in the United States. And perhaps the most often maligned by federal law enforcement over the past 40 years. This could all change in November when Californians will have the opportunity to vote on the ballot measure entitled the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. 

As Michael states, in those early days he essentially moved to the top of a mountain to raise kids and make some money.  It wasn’t until 1994 and a trip to Australia where he saw NFT (nutrient film technique) hydroponics everywhere. In his words, “That just blew me away as there was nothing like that in the U.S.” The following year he made the decision to target the commercial market. To this day AmHydro, as it is known, is a well-established and trusted provider of hydroponic equipment to commercial farms and greenhouses worldwide.

Success did not come easily however, and it’s only been within the last eight to 10 years that AmHydro found its groove with robust sales primarily of NFT systems into urban areas where demand for locally-grown produce is very high.

Michael recently sold a majority of his interests in AmHydro, but remains on staff to consult on various projects. He is now spending more time focusing on life’s more important endeavors, including his grand kids and fly fishing.

 

JP: Michael thanks so much for sitting down with Urban Ag News today, please tell us why you believe there is an (often) adversarial relationship between hydroponically grown (soil-less) produce versus soil-grown when it comes to the definition of “organic?”

MC: I think it’s in the interpretation. I don’t know if it’s in the DNA of people who have always seen plants come from soil. When they hear the word “hydroponics” they are kind of intimidated and whatever images they have, be they generated from media or who they talk to, has fortified their interpretation and they actually get angry at you. They say “No way I’d ever do hydroponics and give up my gloves!”

It triggers all kinds of madness, especially many years ago. However that all has changed in the last eight to 10 years. But usually it’s because of people’s ignorance as to what it is or the value of it or having never tasted it or thinking it’s chemical or synthetic or bad or unnatural. All these images are associated in their heads.

One of the contentions is the biological activity in the soil is fundamental because the plant is interacting through the roots by releasing compounds and nitrates and therefore it’s feeding and colonizing microbes. That’s part of the health of the soil but that also happens in hydroponics and NFT. The roots actually become a rhizosphere. It’s a predominant life form. It just shows up so all that biological activity whether in a foam cube or in a peat and coco plug; that biological activity is in the root zone. It really doesn’t have much to do with the mechanical structure that holds the plant up. And this is what they are getting down to in the “sand box” argument.

JP: I’ve previously read your reference to “a nitrogen atom is a nitrogen atom.” How would you directly address the naysayers that produce using soil-less methodologies are designated “organic” because all the inputs and amendments are also deemed “organic?”

MC: That’s a tricky statement because fundamentally in hydroponics all of those elements in a hydroponic nutrient solution or an inorganic mineral are elements. You can’t make elements. They are on the periodic table. You can only extract them from nature. And whether you’re growing chickens and collecting chicken poop, the food is being produced somewhere. Somewhere every input is coming from elsewhere.

It gets down into a difficult conversation or which is the most sustainable source for whatever input you are bringing in to develop whatever it is you are doing. If it’s an organic farm, what are you using in your soil? Where is it coming from? What’s feeding it?

I think fundamentally it goes back to the NOP (the USDA National Organic Program) and what their definitions are and what they think is correct.

Michael Christian visits with Pierre Sleiman Jr. at Go Green Agriculture in San Diego, Calif.
Photo courtesy of AmHydro

JP: That dovetail’s nicely into my next question: Do you believe the USDA (in a 2002 statement) was premature in designating the word “organic” without the mentioning of soil (in the definition)?

MC: That was then and this is now and we have a different set of constraints in the world. The word “organic” has lost a lot of credibility as big ag is now in it and of all the projects I’ve seen, there’s no way they are all organic. Somehow they jumped through the hoops and paid the fees and now they can benefit from the increased margin of organic produce. So really, the whole thing has shifted. It’s going more in the direction of localizing food production. That’s where the power is and that’s what people are starting to appreciate more. We have a different set of challenges now than we ever had before. The real problem is in the nitrogen cycle; there really isn’t enough nitrogen-fixing ability of the soil to support the number of people we have on the planet right now without synthetically producing it with natural gas and electricity. That’s where the really big problem is.

I read an article in Scientific American magazine, back in 1997, and I was pretty blown away with the information they were presenting. The fact is that when you look at population growth you look at a graph and then you look at ammoniacal nitrogen production.

There was a process in the late 1800s where they were actually using natural gas and electricity in making urea (which is ammoniacal nitrogen). You can have just junk soil and then put this nitrogen in there and plants grow.

It wasn’t until the 1950s when they began a process called the Haber-Bosch process in Germany and they were able to lower the cost (of creating nitrogen) by 90 percent. By the time they started making ammoniacal nitrogen, there was a direct correlation (and spike) with population growth.

The other method of nitrogen creation is from chicken or cow poop, for example, and the farmer is bringing that in and constantly adding it to the soil. When you look at the primary crops in the world which are basically legumes, grains and potatoes; those are the main crops that sustain the population. And this is where all the nitrogen tonnage is going into, not lettuce or tomatoes.

The scientific community believes there may be more than four billion people alive today because of synthetic ammonia. That’s a sobering thought when you think of the carrying capacity of the earth in that all these inputs are derived from somewhere and they are just moved around. At some point, phosphorous, for example, is just going to run out and when that does happen, how can you replace an element?

This little organic debate pales in comparison to all this other stuff.

JP: Why does the organic certification matter to the farmers and growers you know and work with?

MC: It allows them (to make) more margin. But that’s changing too. I’d say maybe eight years ago all the markets would ask “Is it organic?” And the response would generally be “No, it does not qualify as organic but it is pesticide- and herbicide-free.” That allowed farmers and growers to take ground as people would actually prefer that over the designation of organic, especially when it’s sitting next to some really ugly looking organic produce. This and the inability of produce managers (in grocery stores) to risk putting something on their shelves that people didn’t know about.

So it’s been an educational process that’s really been successful over the last eight years. I mean, a 25 percent extra margin is pretty decent.

JP: Do you believe the organic versus inorganic argument would hold true if the plants produced were flowers or medicinally-based?

MC: There’s a couple parts to this. One is inorganic or organic, is this in a sun-lit environment like a greenhouse or is this LEDs? Because one thing that I’ve come to understand through the years is when they talk about PAR light (photo synthetically active radiation) they don’t know (squat) about that! The electromagnetic spectrum of sunlight is so huge we only see a fraction of one percent. Our machines may be able to tell wavelengths and nanometers but as far as what a plant is actually taking in and what’s affecting it, we just don’t know. For me, having done a lot of LEDs inside, there’s no way that (plant) tissue is as healthy or as terse or as strong. I just haven’t seen it. Whether it is inorganic or organic in an artificially lit environment, I don’t see the health of the plant as I do with sunlit environments.

JP: Do you believe the adage that humans, for the most part fear what they do not know, has been a catalyst to the adversarial relationship between soil-grown and soil-less? Or is this fear based on the increase in indoor vertical farming operations and the soil growers essentially fear they will lose business and market share? 

MC: I think it’s all of those. I think they do fear what they don’t know and a lot of these big guys, especially big ag with all their machinery, have been doing that (growing in soil) for hundreds of years. They know that they get so much per acre and they can get organic certification if they talk to “Jack” and they jump through hoops.

But meanwhile, all these localized, food production farms have such high production rates. In 8,000-square-foot greenhouses these guys are producing 6,000 heads of lettuce a week, year round. And when you look at 28 million heads of lettuce produced in the U.S. per year, you can see that all you need is maybe 15 or 20 acres located near cities and you’re going to put a hurtin’ on big ag. People prefer, instead of shipped-in produce at a lesser quality, they prefer locally grown. And the locally-grown guys are expanding like crazy because the market is just so open and ripe right now.

People prefer to know that the grower who is growing the food they are eating lives down the street. And why would he mess with them and put pesticides in their food? It’s becoming more of a community operation.

The whole issue of pricing, distribution and organic…people just want to get food from their neighbor. People don’t want to feel powerless and they can do something by going to their local store and buying something locally produced. They can make a difference by doing that. That’s an act of power and has more value than the word “organic”.

JP: Thank you Michael. You are a gentleman and a scholar and I hope you catch some big fish!

 


For more: AmHydro (American Hydroponics), 286 South G St., Arcata, CA   95521; (800) 458-6543; http://americanhydroponics.com/.

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