Why organic?

I’ve been learning Organic growing practices on my farms these last two seasons.  I thought I should go into Organic a little bit and explain why I think  it’s important.  Many people I talk to seem to have a poor opinion of organic or don’t understand why one would want to use organic practices.  I want to explain why I value organic and would prefer to see organic practices, both at a home gardening level and at a commercial farming level.

First of all, what does organic really mean?  Organic food is that which has been grown without the use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.  It is also not genetically modified – more about that later.  Fertilizers can be used on organic farms (in fact they are a highly critical ingredient), but they are made of things like ground up mineral rocks, composted animal manure, bone meal, kelp, and etc.  They cannot be petroleum-based or man-made compounds.  There are some organic pesticide sprays as well, made from things like dried flowers or elemental Sulfur.  However, even though these are technically classified as organic, many (most?) organic growers choose not to employ them and instead rely on techniques like crop rotation, trap crops, cover cropping, and fostering beneficial insects as predators, as ways to reduce pest outbreaks.

Organic practices, when used correctly, make the soil richer and a more hospitable place for growth.  The soils are more likely to be balanced, contain micronutrients, trace elements, and healthy bacteria and fungi.  Non-organic chemical pest control tends to kill off all the healthy soil life in addition to the targeted pests.  Therefore land that has been hit with chemical pesticides repeatedly tends to develop *more* harmful outbreaks because there are no beneficials there to protect against them.   Non-organic chemical fertilizers tend to be a heavy-handed dose of Nitrogen to give plants a short-lived growth spurt but they *imbalance* the soil and over time make it a less hospitable and diverse environment.  This is basically what people mean when they use the word “sustainable.”  A blanket statment with lots of room for qualifications is that good organic practices are more likely to be sustainable indefinitely, whereas conventional practices get you good crop once or twice and then require more and more inputs as the soil gets worse and worse.  Think about the meaning of the word sustainable.  Why would we want to do something unsustainable if a sustainable option is there?  Well, because the sustainable option requires more work and the unsustainable option is easy.  Easy, though, for now.  Eventually, following unsustainable practices is going to make for an awful lot of work.  Can we not think ahead and realize that unsustainable literally means it’s not going to work forever.  Can we not buckle down and do the work required to do it right the first time?

Back to organics, though.  The place where fertilizers and pesticides and other growing practices are classified as organic is within the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Organic Standards.  Farms that wish to call themselves Certified Organic must be certified annually by one of several approved certification groups.  They must show various forms of documentation and pay a fee for this certification.

As I mentioned before, many organic farmers choose to follow their own sense of best practices instead of doing everything allowable by the organic standards.  Similarly, many (most?) of the farms that I know of that are following organic practices are not Certified Organic.  These farmers are not willing to pay the money and jump through the hoops required to gain the USDA certification.  They prefer to make their good farming practices transparent to their consumers in the hope that those consumers will buy from them without the official stamp of approval.

On the other side of the coin, much of the organic produce you can buy in the grocery store comes from “Big Organic” suppliers.  These are huge farms, mainly in California, who, in my opinion at least, follow the letter of the Organic law instead of the spirit.  Although I haven’t worked on a farm like this, it is my understanding that the produce may not be all that different from conventional.  It is still industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture.  Grocery store organic, therefore, is good in a pinch but is not the produce I would generally choose to buy.  “Real organic” (again, my opinion), comes from the farmers market *or* your local food co-op type store.  In Seattle, PCC and Madison Market are the go-to places.  Any store that indicates the name of the farm where items were grown, rather than just the region, is going to be your supplier of the real goods.  I would recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for a more eloquent description of Big Organic.

Let me take a little tangent now and relate something interesting I noticed when I was home in Michigan last August.  Of course the agriculture there is all corn and soy just like the rest of the midwest.  These are the two giants of the industrial crops – produced for animal feed as well as to be broken down into their biological components and made into food additives like lecithin, mono- and di-glycerides, and xanthan gum.  Yes, these are all corn or soy — I looked them up.   Anyway, I was intimately familiar with Michigan’s corn/soy landscape from my childhood, and I remember being aware that the fields surrounding our neighborhood were sometimes corn and sometimes soybeans.  Crop rotation was being practiced, at least on a very minimal level.  But this time, I noticed something funny – all the soybean fields had scattered cornstalks poking out of them.

Why is this funny?  It’s just last year’s corn coming back as a weed in this year’s soybean field.  Well, the funny – or scary – part is that there were no other weeds there.  The soybeans were growing out of bare ground except for the cornstalks popping up here and there.  I might not have noticed this except for the fact that I am now familiar with how the fields look on the organic vegetable farms I’ve been working at.  There are weeds everywhere.  Nature abhors a blank space, and everywhere vegetables are not, there are “natural” plants (i.e. weeds) coming in to compete.  As farmers it is our job to keep the weeds to a minimum at critical times for the vegetable to germinate and grow.  We do this using hoes, our hands, and sometimes the tractor.  Other times it is our job to make peace with the fact that the weeds are there — as long as they are not outcompeting our vegetables, the presence of these plants shows that our soil is fertile.

In conventional Ag, however, weeding is done with herbicides.  These chemicals kill off the weed plants so the farmer doesn’t have to do it by hand.  How come the chemicals kill only the weeds and not the vegetables?  You might well ask.  They’re both plants, aren’t they?  Well in some cases, the chemicals can be targeted to kill only seeds that have emerged and not unsprouted ones, so these could be applied when the vegetable seeds are first planted and before they have emerged.  In other cases, as with the soybean fields I noticed, the vegetable plants are made to be resistant to the chemicals so the chemicals can be applied while the vegetables are fully grown and will kill only the weeds.   The way they are made resistant is by genetic modification — insertion or deletion of genes from their DNA.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is a term that I’d like you to learn if you haven’t already.

Monsanto produces “Roundup-Ready” GMO corn and soybeans.  This means that the DNA of these plants has been genetically modified — in this particular case it has had a gene from a bacterium inserted — in such a way that it becomes resistant to Roundup (Monsanto’s trademarked name for its potent herbicide composed mainly of the chemical glyphosate).  Are you tracking with me here?  You can now spray your soybean field with this toxic chemical that will kill every type of plant growing there except for the soybeans.   You can buy the chemical, and the seed that resists it, only from Monsanto which has patented both.

Seeing the stray corn plants in the otherwise weed-free soybean fields all across Michigan freaked me out because I was unmistakeably seeing Monsanto’s takeover with my own eyes.  These farmers had grown Roundup-Ready corn the year before in the fields that they were now using for Roundup-Ready soybeans.  When they doused their fields with Roundup this spring, it killed all the weeds and made the soil an inhospitable place for more weeds to grow.  There’s nothing there except soybeans — except for those corn plants that sprouted from last year’s fallen seed and are now growing there as weeds.  They’re GMO’s with the Roundup Ready gene too.

Doesn’t this just seem wrong at a very basic level?  I’m sure there are scientific studies on both sides (and how many of the studies showing Roundup does no harm are funded by Monsanto?) But isn’t it just common sense to think that 1) spraying large quantities of a chemical that kills things onto farmland is probably not good for the land or the people spraying it, and 2) vegetables that have been made able to withstand the spraying of this killer chemical and then doused with it multiple times might be a strange and unnatural thing to eat?

GMO food crops were first planted in the United States in 1996. In 2010 in the US, 93% of the planted area of soybeans, 93% of cotton, 86% of corn and 95% of the sugar beet were genetically modified varieties. (Wikipedia).

Zero in 1995.  Ninety percent in  2010.  Isn’t this unrestrained skyrocket to complete dominance of a never-before-seen organism a little scary, too?  I feel pretty sure that we were growing a hell of a lot of corn pretty darn well before 1996.  The rest of the world is taking a more measured approach to GMO’s.  Other countries, most notably the European Union,  whose governments are not controlled by Monsanto (sorry, perhaps this is the leftist propaganda getting to me), have banned various types of GMO seeds or have banned importation of GMO crops or require labelling, etc.

Not so the US.  If you’re in America eating a non-organic product containing corn or soy, or restaurant food that was cooked in corn or soybean or canola oil, you’re almost assuredly eating genetically modified food.  However, something important that I learned recently is, Organic (basically) Equals GMO-free.  I’m sure there are trace amounts or exceptions or whatever, but the organic standards say that organics can’t contain GMO’s.  These days I really do only buy organic corn chips and tofu because I really have decided that GMO crops is a practice I don’t want to support.

Everything about it just seems wrong — what about the patenting of seeds?  What about the fact that repeated applications of Roundup has now been shown to be creating weeds that have evolved resistance to this killer chemical?  These are whole big issues in themselves.  You can find plenty of information on GMO’s that will make it much clearer than anything I can explain here.   This statement from The Non-GMO Project is a good one to start with.  I like this bullet point from that document:

The scientifically demonstrated risks and clear absence of real benefits have led experts to see GM as a clumsy, outdated technology. They present risks that we need not incur, given the availability of effective, scientifically proven,
energy-efficient and safe ways of meeting current and future global food needs.

I believe that we as a society know what good farming and good food looks like.   We just choose to try to find ways to get around the fact that farming is hard and requires knowledge and skill.  We choose instead to attempt to outsmart nature by using heavy handed agricultural practices like thousand-acre monocultures, government subsidized commodity crops, GMOs and chemical controls.  These practices are not sustainable; they are a shameful mismanagement and misuse of our land and our farmers’ hard work;  and they result in a strange and off-balance food system that has totally perverted what we recognize as food and is making us fat and unhealthy.

Non-organic agriculture has only been widely practiced from the 20th century on.  It’s pure propaganda that calls non-organic “conventional” as it has only been conventionally done that way in the last 100 years.   My grandmother remembers the milkman and butcher coming around with deliveries, for goodness sake.  There’s local, small-scale, organic for you- but it didn’t have to call itself that.  It was just food.  Imagine how different that milk and meat was from what passes for the same items today.  I believe that we need to rescue our food system, not by bringing it back exactly to the way it used to be, but by bringing back a lot of the old time-tested elements and doing our best to ensure that we use our great amount of knowledge and technology wisely.

I believe that changes can happen as more and more people are currently recognizing the problems and making themselves knowledgeable about how to fix them.  I also believe that individual consumers who don’t care to get involved in food politics can still make small changes to their food-buying habits that will begin to have a big influence on restoring sanity to America’s food problem.  See if you can make some small steps; you don’t have to go “whole hog” (as it were) right off the bat.  Here’s what I would say about what to eat, starting with the best options:

1. Food you grow and raise (organically) yourself

2. Food you buy from producers you know and whose farms you have seen

3. Food you buy from any vendor at your farmers market (I believe it’s safe to assume the market management has some knowledge about the producers’ practices, and I support small and local over and above Certified Organic,  so I buy from market vendors even if they’re not Certified Organic)

4. Food you buy from a local co-op type grocery store (These tend to carry a lot of “real” organics and thoughtfully-chosen non-organics, plus are fun to shop at once you get used to them)

5. Food you buy from a restaurant that cooks from scratch and lists local/organic sources of meat and produce

6. Organic food you buy from a supermarket or food you buy from a restaurant that’s listed on the menu as organic (unusual)

7. (If you care about GMO’s): Non-organic food from a supermarket that doesn’t contain any corn, soy, or sugarbeet-derived ingredients.  Food you buy in a restaurant that hasn’t been cooked in corn, soybean, or canola oil.

Whew.  Okay.  Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts, and happy eating.

Love,

B

Nematodes and other things



Well, the weather is finally warming up and it’s starting to feel at least springlike if not summery.  Every day on the farm continues to be a delight and a joy for me. I feel extremely lucky to be here.









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Betsey has started a new blog for her farm!  We’re working on getting it up and running, at laughingcrowfarm.wordpress.com.

I wrote a little post on there about our recent trip to Sequim, which was *awesome* as we got to learn about draft horse farming and drive a team of draft horses.  More pictures from the trip are on my flickr page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/warnerbecky/

I have a lot of prior horse experience, but it’s all been with riding. I was really surprised at how hard it was to drive the horses while sitting behind them on a wagon instead of on top of their backs. It’s the same communication, right? Wrong — when riding, you have your whole body (seat and legs) to use for communication. When driving you just have your hands on the lines and your voice. John, the horse trainer whose farm we visited and who taught us the driving lesson, has amazing communication with his horses. He can be standing across the field and say “back” and that horse will march backwards. It comes from a lifetime of learning on the part of the trainer and years of building up a relationship with that particular horse. I hope that someday I will have the opportunity to own horses again and experience that relationship as a daily part of my own life.



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Mainly, I wanted to write this post about beneficial nematodes. What are those?? I wrote about soil microbes in my compost post and then realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about. What is a microbe exactly? And why exactly is it good to have them in soil that you want to grow stuff in? I decided to investigate one type of microbe.

A microbe or microorganism is an organism that is too small to be seen with the naked eye. Nematodes are one type of microorganism I had already heard about from Betsey. She applies a spray to her fields containing these little guys as a preventative against pest problems.

A nematode is a wormlike creature that lives — get this — in the film of water surrounding soil particles. Crazy! There are many types of nematodes. In fact, they are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth. But one type of nematodes are what we call beneficial or insect-parasitic. What they do is burrow inside a larger insect, entering through one of its natural body orifices(!), and then emit a bacteria that kills the host via blood poisoning.  The nematode then feeds off of the host and multiplies inside it.  Yikes!

As much as this sounds like some terrifying horror movie, the fact that this happens is great for farmers because having a healthy nematode population will keep down your soil-dwelling pest poulation. Pests like black fly (Brian worries about them on carrots) and root maggots (Betsey had some failed onion transplants because of them) can wreck your crops if they get out of control. In organic farming we can’t (and don’t want to) use chemical pesticides to kill those bugs. What we have to do instead is make sure there is not a good environment for the bad guys to flourish. This includes making sure we have really strong and vigorous plants that will be more resilient and not overwhelmed by a bug attack. It also helps to keep natural predators like bumblebees, ladybugs, and nematodes happy.

To that end, Betsey uses the beneficial nematode spray. The nematodes come via mail order from someplace that grows them (can you imagine being a breeder of microscopic wormlike creatures as your job?) She mixes them with water and sprays them on the fields. I see Betsey out there in the onions occasionally with a backpack sprayer in the evening and I know she is spraying her nematodes — ultraviolet light and heat will kill them so it’s best to apply in the evening.

So…… now we know!

Compost 101

We are eating some fantastic vegetables lately! Eat a bunch of Brian’s carrots and you will never again be able to snack on a grocery store carrot and be satisfied. They are like two completely different vegetables. One is sweet and tasty and tender; the other is chemically-tasting roughage in comparison. Why such a big difference?

One of the main reasons is the quality of the soil they were grown in! Commercial crops are produced on a large scale by using pesticides and herbicides to kill pests and weeds. But when these chemicals are applied, they also kill off all the good stuff in the soil. Chemical fertilizers are then added which can boost nitrogen levels and make the plants grown vigorously but this doesn’t restore life to the soil. At that point the vegetables are being grown in dirt — the kind you sweep off your kitchen floor — instead of rich, living soil with all the minor nutrients required to make a fully flavorful vegetable.

Alternatively, in organic farming, we weed by hand instead of using herbicides. And we rely heavily on compost to boost levels of beneficial soil microbes. Compost is amazing! It can be created from a variety of materials. The point is to provide the perfect environment for soil microbes to live and break down the materials into humus.

The two base ingredients are “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings or food waste), and “browns” (carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves or wood shavings). Here on the farm we have been spending a good amount of time building Betsey’s compost pile, a delicious layer cake of horse manure (“green”) and straw (“brown”). The other critical components are proper moisture and airflow to provide the aerobic bacteria a happy little home. You’ll know they are working away in your pile by checking the temperature. It gets super hot in there! After a year or so, as long as the balance is right and the pile is turned over a couple times, you will have compost.

When we grow crops in our soil, we suck nutrients out of the land. Therefore we need to add organic matter back in if we expect to continue producing good food from that space. Luckily we can create compost from various waste produts. Instead of disposing of food scraps, manure, etc, we can enlist our microbe friends to compost them into beautiful rich humus we can use to add more nutrition and flavor to our food.

Today, the other apprentices and I picked the first sugar snap peas of the season and snacked on a few while we weighed them out into half-pint containers to put out for our CSA members at our farmstand. This is real food, straight from the ground to the plate, and you can taste the difference!