Organic farming: more than what it’s not

What sector of US agriculture has seen demand grow by double digits since 1990, had sales nearly triple between 2004 and 2014, and is projected to continue to grow at a similar rate for the next decade? If you guessed organic food production, you would be right.

When we began farming organically more than three decades ago, we were a rare and novel kind of farmer. We grew crops for “niche” markets and attracted a number of journalists looking for a quirky human interest story. There were so few of us in those days that we knew most of the other organic farmers in a four state area by their first names.

Not these days. More than 80 percent of all consumers say they have bought organic products in the last year. Some 20,000 specialty grocers and health food stores sell organic food and nonfood products. Three out of four conventional grocery stores have an organic and natural food section. According to food industry sources, organic foods accounted for more than $30 billion in sales in 2011. That number is often downplayed as being a tiny portion of the total food consumption in this country. For comparison, however, the egg industry is thought of as a major part of US agriculture production. According to the Ag Marketing Resource Center, we bought a total of $7.8 billion worth of eggs in 2012.

Still many people do not really know much about organic agriculture. If you ask the average consumer what they know about organic agriculture, they may be able to tell you what they think we don’t do. We don’t use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They might be able to tell you we don’t use antibiotics in our livestock production and that we use manure to fertilize our crops. Beyond those things which we don’t do, we have not done a very good job explaining what it is we actually do.

Organic farmers are prohibited by the National Organic Standards from using many kinds of pesticides and fertilizers, but we are also mandated to use good farming practices. Organic farming is an attempt to grow food in a way that works with natural processes. We try to nurture beneficial insects, improve the soil in our fields, prevent diseases and insect pests by variety choices and by complex and diverse crop rotations. We use clover and other legumes to fix nitrogen and increase organic matter in our fields.

We limit disease in our livestock by choosing breeds adapted to our climate. We avoid introducing new animals without a lengthy quarantine. We use low stress handling methods and pasture rotations to limit parasites. We give our animals lots of room, fresh air and good food. We often make choices based on what is best for our animals, not what is most cost effective or efficient in the short term.

Organic research projects, often funded by organic growers and processors, are exploring new combinations of cover crops, companion planting, perennial grains and organic no-till. Individual farmers innovate minimum tillage equipment, weeding techniques and work with plant breeders to test new crop varieties better suited to low-input agriculture.

Some detractors farming try to raise concerns about the safety of organic food because organic farmers use animal manure on their fields. Yes, we do use manure. Manure use is strictly regulated as to the amount and timing of application. Compost production has very specific rules about temperatures, timing and application rates. Usually those who claim organic food is not safe because of the possibility of contamination from our fertilization practices neglect to mention the millions of tons of manure applied by conventional farmers with far fewer regulations and limits on when and how much is applied.

Organic food is as safe as any other food product. Besides the requirements of the National Organic Standards which are certified by annual inspections, audit trails and review by third-party certification companies approved by the USDA, organic food must meet the same food safety requirements as all other food. Processing plants are inspected by organic certifiers and by APHIS and local health inspectors. All farmers market suppliers meet the same health regulations whether the food they are selling is organic or not.

Organic certifiers expect farmers to have plans for protecting the environment, building soil, preventing contamination from unapproved insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as well as genetic drift. Most of our fields have a buffer strip between them and the neighboring fields. We must make sure trucks and machinery is cleaned before use. We are required to use organic seed if it is available.

Every bag of organic flour should be able to be traced through documentation back to the field where the wheat was grown. The field history records should list all practices used on that field for all the years that piece of land has been certified as organic. While organic certification applies to the farming practices used and not the product produced, buyers of organic products do expect the product to meet their standards of quality and purity which often exceed conventional standards.

In spite of all the things consumers don’t know about organic agriculture, it is consumers who have driven the expanding sales of organic food, fiber and other products. Food industry analysts expect the market to continue to grow.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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