Cover crops in an organic operation.
PHOTOS BY GREIG CRANNA, COURTESY EARTHBOUND FARM.
In the last 40 years, farmers have been relearning their ancestors' organic and biodynamic methods, and developing new methods that combine modern science and technology with aspects of organic production.
In 2000, the USDA formalized the turning tide, creating regulations to standardize organic production. The National Organic Program strictures were written to be scale -neutral, thus making the transition to organic production and certification the same for everyone. The standards have been refined over the last decade to meet the changing needs and demands of ag professionals.
Is an ecologically sustainable method of production suitable for your operation? Things to consider are: market demand; the size of your operation and how much of it you will consider transitioning immediately and over time; your infrastructure; your access to capital for infrastructure improvements and other costs to transition; and the time involved to educate yourself and train your staff.
The benefits are many, but like any business venture, transitioning to ecologically sustainable production is not without risk.
Experts agree - transitioning to organic and other methods of eco-friendly farming is doable and can be profitable for farms of any size. While many organic operations are small-scale, Dr. Chris Gunter, North Carolina State University, says it's easier and more cost-effective for large operations to convert. A 20-acre field of organic tomatoes will require the same equipment and infrastructure as a 1,000-acre or larger field to manage.
Nonprofit produce broker Red Tomato works with a number of large farms in the Northeast that are using advanced practices such as scouting, beneficial insects and other biological controls on apple and peach/stone fruit orchards. Integrated pest management (IPM) for strawberries and blueberries is also being used on some of Red Tomato's largest partner farms, and organic vegetable production is being used on one or two.
Earthbound Farm Sign.
Bryan Black, director of communications for the Texas Department of Agriculture, advises producers to consider the various production methods and determine what suits their production goals and consumers' demands.
Advantages of eco-friendly farming
Todd Kodet, senior vice president of supply for Earthbound Farm, reports that Earthbound Farm's organic farming on 37,000 acres kept about 11.5 million pounds of toxic and persistent agricultural chemicals out of the environment in 2011.
Eric Herm, a fourth-generation farmer and author of "Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth," transitioned to organic and sustainable practices at his 6,000-acre farm in west Texas. While Herm has gained higher yields since transitioning to organic production, he chose to go organic when he learned about the ecological advantages.
"When we imitate nature, we're enhancing the plant and soil's performance. When we flood [plants and soil] with poisons and synthetic fertilizers, we're simply masking the problems we've created with a horrible recipe that creates more weeds, more insects and more disease," Herm says.
Now Herm's costs go toward enhancing soil life, plant life, plant diversity and the overall health of the environment. The farmer believes that he, his family and their community are gaining health by living in an environment designed for all creatures to thrive.
Wholesale and retail prices are generally higher for organic produce. Kodet says Earthbound Farm is seeing a lot of conventional farmers integrate organic farming practices and achieving excellent results with crop yield and quality product. However, farmers are challenged during the three-year transition period from conventional to organic. During that time, the product can't be certified organic, so the farmer isn't getting the organic premium price on their crop.
Challenges of eco-friendly farming
There are economic challenges involved in transitioning your operation to a new model of production. There may be additional expenses for building infrastructure to sustain increased productivity. Current employees and new hires must be properly trained. You may end up using additional labor or funds to comply with unfamiliar regulatory requirements.
A 2008 survey conducted by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that average production expenditures are higher for organic farms ($171,978) than for all farms nationwide ($109,359). Labor is the largest expense in organic agriculture and the hardest challenge to evaluate, according to Black. Producers must determine labor used for production practices, monitoring practices, and marketing and record management needs.
The biggest financial risk you will take in transitioning is the risk of misjudging market demand. "If there is no market demand for your product, your efforts will be useless," warns Gunter.
Organic production involves more labor, but synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds cost more than organic inputs and seeds bred via traditional methods. For organic seed, Herm pays less than 10 percent of what his colleagues pay for GMO cottonseed.
The physical obstacles you will encounter are no different than those you currently encounter: weeds, pests and soil fertility, all of which affect labor costs. The challenge is in learning to manage these obstacles without creating an imbalance in your soil biota that could negatively affect the health of the soil and the plants. Black advises: evaluate each production method on an individual basis, then consider what method suits your production goals and will meet consumers' demands.
For organic producers, weed management without the use of herbicides involves a combination of cultural techniques such as mechanical cultivation, mulching, crop rotation, cover crops and soil balancing to control weeds. Gunter says there are limited options for highly effective weed management in certified organic systems. On small-scale farms, mechanical control of weeds may be economically possible (think hand hoeing, for example). On large-scale acreage, this process needs to be mechanized if it is to be a feasible option for growers. In vegetable crops, this type of mechanization can be challenging.
Pest management without the use of synthetic pesticides necessitates a reliance on pest-resistant varieties, crop rotation, monitoring and trapping, natural pesticide inputs, and encouraging beneficial insects and animals for natural pest control. Organic producers frequently use IPM techniques to control pests and diseases, relying heavily on biological and cultural techniques, but also approved organic pesticides when necessary. This multifaceted approach will require new skills, strategies, training and inputs.
Most commercially available synthetic fertilizers are not allowed in organic production. Enhancing soil fertility naturally is a more complex approach that involves using manure, compost, natural fertilizers, crop rotation, green manures and cover crops. In nutrient-dense crop production, mineral inputs are used to enhance soil biota. Joe Pedretti, of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, says this may be less or more expensive, depending on the original quality of the soil, how long a farmer has been building the soil, and the production goals of the producer. These more complex and labor-intensive approaches often require new equipment, new employee training (maybe more employees) and new management skills.
Herm suggests researching and experimenting to determine what works best for you on a small scale before jumping in with both feet on over 1,000 acres. "It's baby steps," he says. "Patience is a must." (See sidebar: How I Did It)
Herm will tell you that organic farming is harder work. It requires more manual labor, more time, more energy and more focus than conventional farming. "There is not downtime as long as the plants are growing," he says. Herm has witnessed one advantage to growing synthetically versus organically: chemicals and GMO crops make farming much easier and less labor-intensive. Still, he emphasizes that the costs of easier farming outweigh the benefits, while the benefits of organic farming outweigh the challenges.
To overcome such challenges, it is critical to develop a sound business model and evaluate the market closely in order to prevent your operation from failing. Herm overcame the challenges of transitioning to organic by doing his homework, asking lots of questions, and talking to other organic producers who had successfully made the transition. He credits his success to, "dedication and overcoming the ego ... Basically you have to bust your ass and not look backward once you get going. Stay on top of things, be diligent and be positive."
How I Did It: Eric Herm's Story
We currently farm over 6,000 acres. I only have 250 acres in official organic transition, but we use no pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GM (genetically modified) crops. The organic farm is 5 miles from our family farm. Our fields are pretty scattered. Our farthest field is 15 miles away. It's very different farming here in west Texas than most places. Not all our acres are together.
The biggest challenge for me was talking family or landowners into going completely organic. That didn't work, so I bought my own land (250 acres) to begin the transition. It took a couple of years to learn the farm and see what issues it had as far as weeds, using a preemergent herbicide only before planting. The farmer had farmed it with Roundup Ready cotton for several years, so it had some weed issues I had to stay on top of. This year (2011) was my first year in the transition phase. With the severe drought, weeds were easy to tame.
I started experimenting with organic/natural fertilizers in 2005 on a couple of fields and began using more and more. I could see the benefits when we received late-summer rainfall. By 2008, we were using no synthetic fertilizers on any acres. I also studied insects, realizing we were creating the perfect recipe for them to thrive.
Moths see in infrared and ultraviolet energy patterns, as well as visible energy. They seek out the weak plants. In commercial agriculture, all of our plants are weak because we're growing them in toxin-ridden, nutrient-starved soil. As we built up the organic matter in our soil, eliminated ammonia-based fertilizers (moths are attracted to ammonia), we eliminated pesticides altogether. We haven't used pesticides widespread since 2005. We used them on one field in 2007, and that's because of my failure to understand everything by then.
We can use molasses or sugar water to spray on our plants to kill bollworms. That type of worm doesn't have a pancreas and cannot digest sugars. It kills them but doesn't harm pollinating insects and beneficial insects. Plus, it's good for the plants and soil. It's a win-win.
The more we learn about nature's functions, the better job we can do as farmers. Nature is the real teacher; we are the students. We just have to be willing to learn.
No time like the present
Growers interested in changing their production methods today have an advantage over their predecessors: technology. Producers now have access to modern equipment that greatly reduces labor requirements. In addition, more eco-friendly fertilizer options exist today. From the science of compost teas to basic functions of insects and weeds, farmers have more information than ever easily available through the Internet, books and other sources. Some feel the greatest resource is the availability of educational and research information via extension programs, online, via social media groups like Twitter and LinkedIn, and increasingly with smartphone apps and other mobile devices. (See sidebar: All Access Online)
"When our founders - two city kids from New York who knew nothing about farming - started tending a 2.5-acre backyard raspberry garden 27 years ago, they knew they didn't want to handle toxic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So they studied Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and learned how to grow their berries without chemicals," Kodet shares. "Today, we can find so much information at the touch of button with the Internet."
The Rodale Institute offers an online course for growers who want to transition to organic. There are university programs dedicated to organic/transitional organic farms, focusing on research problems generated from growers' needs. These programs are spread across the country to adapt the information generated to local conditions.
In addition, organizations like Red Tomato help organic and IPM farmers find markets for their produce. A better-informed consumer base also helps. Today's consumers are more actively engaged in their food purchases than in recent decades. They're reading labels, asking questions, and even following growers on Twitter to find out what's happening on the farm. Farmers can take advantage of this to help build demand for their product.
Pedretti says since the cost of production will be higher due to the increased management, labor and organic certification costs, it is critical to receive a premium for the effort. Research and secure a market before making the move to certified organic production. Then decide whether to sell wholesale, retail, direct to consumer or some combination of these options.
It is possible under the National Organic Standards to produce both organic and conventional produce, so it may be more practical to only transition some of the total acreage to certified production initially, and then gradually transition more as demand increases and new markets are secured.
One option may be to find a program like Red Tomato's Eco Apple program, which has been able to market the eco stewardship efforts of growers through a certification program and brand. The Eco Apple seal communicates the benefits of ecological production to consumers and gives growers access to retail markets, and in some cases better prices, than they would otherwise achieve.
Government: help or hindrance?
If you're intending to transition to an ecologically sustainable farming method, consider contacting your state and federal officials to request they support federal, state and county-level programs for extension through land-grant universities. Susan Futrell, communications director for Red Tomato, says recent cuts combined with the threat of even deeper cuts could cripple the public research programs that are so beneficial to ecologically sustainable farming methods. "It's important to let farmers as well as policymakers know how important this kind of support is," she says.
Herm would like to see legislation encouraging organic and sustainable agriculture. Grants and loans are more difficult to access in these economically stressful times. "For the most part, all legislation benefits the corporate and chemical agriculture companies. Let's be real here, those billion-dollar corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Tyson Foods, etc.. are the ones really writing the Farm Bill and ag legislation these days ... People need to realize even if banks fail, agriculture cannot. Not everybody uses cash every day," says Herm, "but everybody eats."
The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.