Guelph Organic Conference Review

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Robert Pavlis

The Guelph Organic Conference is an annual event that attracts organic minded people from across Canada and northern parts of the US. Much of the focus is on farming, producing organic food and smaller backyard operations. This year, I was an invited speaker and talked about Growing Food in Ponds. The publisher of my book, Building Natural Ponds, New Society Publishing, is a sponsor of the event and we wanted to find a topic that would interest organic gardeners and help promote my book. It was an extremely popular topic.

The conference also holds a large Trade Show which gave me the opportunity to speak to a number of vendors. I thought it would be fun and educational to review some of my discussions and observations.

If you are one of my regular readers you will know that I am organically minded, believe in the basic organic philosophies, but I don’t blindly follow all of the dogma that is preached. Unfortunately there are many snake-oil salespeople in the organic movement.

Organic conference, Guelph Ontario 2018
Organic conference, Guelph, Ontario 2018

Organic Food

Numerous vendors were selling processed organic food, so I sampled several products. Most were some form of oats or grain made into a health food bar.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Why is it, that processed organic food all tastes like paper?

At the reception I happened to grab the last organic, white chocolate, cookie. I usually love these, but not this one. I wonder if organic processed food is made to taste bland as part of their branding effort. Would customers perceive it as organic if it tasted good?

organic, vegan, black licorice
Organic, vegan, black licorice

I even found some ‘organic, vegan, black licorice’. I love black licorice so I had to try some. It did taste a bit like black licorice, but it had very little flavor.

I had to ask, what makes this vegan? The product used to be only organic until they stopped adding bees wax – that made it vegan. I am sure it also increased the price!

It boggles my mind that a bit of bees wax would add too much ‘meat’ and make the product unsuitable for a vegan diet, but there you have it.

Why would anyone make organic, vegan, black licorice? I associate organic with healthy eating and licorice with junk food. If someone is taking care of their body and only eating good things – why would they even put black licorice in their mouth? I’ll stick with the regular kind of junk food.

Vermicompost in my Backyard

My last post was on vermicompost, and the first person I met at the conference was a commercial producer of vermicompost, Annelid Cycle. We had a nice chat about the product and the owner was quite knowledgeable about their product and did not oversell its benefits. What really surprised me was that they are local and sell vermicompost by the truck load.

They produce the material in long bins and add new food beside the worms, which causes them to migrate out of their castings and into the new food. After a few weeks all of the worms are at the food end of the bin, making it easy to harvest castings at the other end, eliminating the problem of separating worms from compost. Long narrow bins in the home might not be convenient but a circular bin in the shape of a doughnut should work well.

I also looked at a Moon Calendar Books. It said, “plant beans on June 2, but don’t garden after 11:30. In the UK and Ireland, add a week”.

So in the UK, which is mostly zone 8, you should plant beans a week later than here in my zone 5 garden! And, you better not sleep in or you’ll run out of time. Is the 10:30 EST or GMT?

For more about gardening by the moon see Does Planting by the Moon Work?

Cow Pots For Starting Seed

A Cow Pot is a pot that is made out of pressed cow compost. They are very similar to peat pots which are made out of pressed peat moss, but the claim is that Cow Pots decompose more quickly. This is important since traditional peat pots decompose too slowly and don’t allow roots to enter the soil outside of the pot.cow pots

Unlike peat, which has almost no nutrients, Cow Pots are made of compost so you would think they would feed the plant as it grows, but no such claim is made by the manufacturer.

They do claim that they “retain shape and strength in a greenhouse setting for 12-16 weeks” and that “once planted, they break down in 3 to 4 weeks.” I asked them for data to support this claim but none was available.

In the Q&A section of the website they give this explanation as to why Cow Pot don’t always decompose.  “Depending on the soil type and amount of rain Cow Pots may decompose at differing rates. They are very porous and will allow the roots to readily go through the pot wall even if they do not rapidly decompose. Slow decomposition of a Cow Pot that has been properly transplanted may be an indication of under watering after the transplant.”

So there are several reasons why they don’t decompose as claimed. Let’s see some proof the pots actually work.

Rock Dust

You can’t have an organic conference without some rock dust. A product called Huplaso may be interesting. They claim to have data that shows the rock dust decomposes quickly, releasing nutrients into the soil – I have requested the data.

Huplaso is guaranteed to “add at least 57 macro, micro, and trace elements to your soil”. They don’t claim that these minerals will actually be available to the plants. Even if you bury some rocks you will be adding these minerals to soil, so I guess we can believe the claim. However, plants use at most 21 nutrients from soil, so there is little point adding so many.

The brochure claims that the product is a “liming product” and that it “balances soil pH”. How can that be? Liming increases the pH of soil, so it can’t also balance it? But they have an explanation for this, “Huplaso pH level is about 9.04,… but Huplaso only dissolves in the presence of acidity. As a result, it balances the soil’s pH up to a maximum of +/- 6.5, representing the optimum pH for the plants in most crops.” So…. Huplaso dissolves and limes the soil until the soil pH reaches 6.5. At that point it stops dissolving and there is no further pH change.

Lets assume the claim in the last statement is correct. This means that the product releases no minerals into soil that has a pH of 6.5 or higher, which means it only works in acidic soil. They don’t mention that fact.

It is extracted from a Canadian basalt quarry, so this rock dust may be different than the usual stuff?

I was not convinced about the product until I noticed that it also has ‘paramagnetic’ properties! Here is their explanation, “Paramagnetism is the space reaction that has no spontaneous magnetization, and that will develop one under the presence of a magnetic field. This will help different elements having a free electron and that normally do not have magnetism to be paired. A good example is H and O. Hydrogen and oxygen are not magnetic elements but both are missing electrons. With the magnetic field created by Huplaso, the two elements can hook to create H2O (water). This partly explains why Huplaso improves soil water retention.”

Yes – I am now convinced!

P.S. Marketing people should have chemists read their claims.

Lots of Compost Tea

Several companies were selling compost tea or compost to make tea. None of the ones I talked to had any research to support their claims, but they did have lots of testimonials.

I found this claim on one brochure interesting, “The humic acid chelates macronutrients and the fulvic acid chelates micronutrients effectively tying them up in the soil in plant available forms.” I wrote a post about chelation recently. Organic material is able to chelate, ie hold on to certain ions. The three most significant macronutrients are nitrate, phosphate and potassium. The first two are negatively charged, and the latter is positively charged. In fact potassium is chemically more similar to most of the micronutrients than the macronutrients.

How nutrients chelate has nothing to do withthem being a macro or micronutrient. It is based on it’s chemical properties. This is just more marketing gibberish.

Cucamelon (mouse melon), photo by Julia Dimakos
Cucamelon (mouse melon), photo by Julia Dimakos

Mouse Melon aka Cucamelon

I went looking for seeds of this interesting vegetable and found them in the Urban Harvest booth, a supplier of organic seeds. Melothria scabra (Mouse Melon aka Cucamelon) are the ‘in’ thing to grow.

I asked the vendor, “what are the benefits of organic seed”? I have written about this before in Organic Seeds – Why Buy Them? and the only reason I came up with is that buying organic seed supports organic farmers, and that is exactly what this vendor said. Good for her. The organic movement would be so much better if proponents were honest about it.

Revitalized Water

Then I found the water revitalizing product. You flow water through a metal tube and it gets all kinds of powers. The AquaKat uses no electricity, chemicals or magnets, but it emits “subtle information patterns which change the characteristics of water, causing it to resonate at a specific frequency (like a homeopathic reaction). This results in water’s crystalline structure taking on the attributes of natural spring water.”

It doesn’t go on to mention which attributes they are taking about, but who would not want natural spring water coming out of the tap?

If the mumbo jumbo is not enough to turn you off, I hope that the claim to be like a “homeopathic reaction” is.

Organic Conference Summarized

There are certainly honest people in the business, producing and selling quality organic products, but the industry also has a significant number of charlatans. It is an industry where the consumer is easily swayed by nonsense because of their blinding believe that anything marked organic and green, must be good for them and the planet.

This is really too bad. Our planet needs green solutions but they need to be solutions that are honest and supported by science. We are a long way from that happening any time soon.


  1. Image of Cow Pots; West Coast Seeds
  2. Image of Cucamelon; Julia Dimakos


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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

8 thoughts on “Guelph Organic Conference Review”

  1. Why not write about the best practices you learned from the conference? You added nothing to my gardening knowledge in this article

  2. Nice to find a critically thinking blog like this. I’m the same way in that I’m open minded to organic stuff, but I don’t let my brain fall out in the process.

    This snake oil peddling thing you see at garden shows is also a huge problem in the pet world. I can’t go to a convention or dog show without seeing crazy claims there either. Except I’d postulate it’s even worse because people seem to be more sympathetic towards animals than plants, so there is more pressure to start virtue signalling that you only feed your dog raw organic grass feed beef steak for dinner and put water from a pure Himalayan glacier in their dish.

    Re: the organic food section
    Health food bars are so full of sugars most of the time anyway, but they say…
    “but it’s organic antibiotic free honey so it’s okay”
    “but it’s raw cane sugar so it’s okay”
    NO! It’s still sugar! It’s so choc full of sugar that no amount of ‘nutrients’ make the calories worth eating them.

    It’s the same thing with the gluten free stuff. I was diagnosed to have a problem with gluten. The common thinking goes “oh it’s gluten free so it’s okay”. In reality no one should buy and eat a ton of expensive gluten free pastries and cookies and pasta and other junk. Even if it won’t make you horribly sick it’s still junk! When I was diagnosed well meaning people started bringing me gluten free pizza and cookies so often I had to tell them to stop! I’m fine with my salad.

    So yeah, I can’t figure out why people who want to eat healthier and feel better make or buy crappy versions of deserts. If I’m going to eat ‘bad’ I’m going to eat the most delicious and unhealthy thing as a rare treat, once in a blue moon, and enjoy the crap out of it (and maybe accept the consequences if it’s REALLY bad…).

  3. way to go Robert… I enjoyed your review… especially the comments on the organic community… and the warnings to the consumer and/or gardener.


  4. love your no bs approach. I am a retired MD in minnesota and would appreciate any info you can provide RE best spading practice if any(loved your book,hurry with number 2) and your favorite organic gardening references. the books I have read seem a good bit voodoo science and I wonder how much of what they suggest is the equivalent of pouring hot oil on wounds cuz “this is how we’ve always done it”. Again thanks for the blog and the book; you seem like a kindred spirit

    • If by spading practice you mean digging the soil, the best practice is not to do it. Disturb soil as little as possible. Apply mulches and let nature move the material into the ground.


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