Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is Your Farm Organic?

"If it isn't Scottish; it's crap!"
Mike Meyers, as owner of a Scottish import shop on a "Saturday Night Live" skit

I'll begin with a word from Michael Pollen, an author and unabashed organic proponent, who wrote "The Omnivore's Dilemma". If you haven't read it , and you're interested if food and what we eat, it's a great read.

This quote comes from his followup book, "In Defence Of Food; An Eater's Manifesto"

"Eat Well Grown Food From Healthy Soils....It is true that food certified organic is usually grown in relatively healthy soils, yet there are exceptional farmers and ranchers in America who for one reason or another are not certified organic and the food they grow should not be overlooked. Organic is important, but it's not the last word on how to grow food well."

Certainly, the connection between healthy food and healthy soil is irrefutable; how then can a conventional farm achieve that healthy soil that is the cornerstone of organic agriculture?

A large part of the answer is crop rotation, the practice of growing different crops on the same piece of land,as opposed to monoculture; where only a single crop is grown year after year.

In any given year, our farm acreage is planted as follows:

Year 1. Soybeans.
Year 2. Wheat (straw chopped and returned to soil) with red clover under seeded .
Year 3. Red Clover (clipped twice and then plowed )
Year 4. Vegetables, followed by Year 1,2 etc.

We are in the extremely fortunate position of farming enough of a land base to allow us to rotate our crops in this manner for the past 30 years. Years 2 and 3 are the foundation of our healthy soils: we have seen an increase in organic matter and a drastically reduced need for purchased nitrogen fertilizer.( I'll save the lesson on how clover does this for another time.) We soil test religiously and pay close attention to fertility trends and trace elements.

It also allows us to use fewer pesticides, as it is more difficult for insects,weeds and plant diseases to establish themselves on different host crops from one year to the next.

In other words, we try and maintain natural processes to the very best of our abilities. Our vegetable varieties are chosen for taste rather than yield or shipping abilities; picked fresh daily and sold at the height of their flavor and presumably, nutrition.

The organic camp maintains that food grown organically is more nutritious than conventionally grown food, and yet current unbiased university research suggests otherwise: they are the same.

Soil scientists and nutritionists would surely agree that we have really only just begun to scratch the surface of understanding the complex relationships between the thousands of elements that make up soil.

Putting the organic vs.conventional argument aside for a moment, I think common sense would argue that a cauliflower from a field that has grown only cauliflower (or other cole crops) for the last 20 years is less nutritious than one grown in a crop rotation, planted every fourth year .

Different crops use different elements in varying quantities and, conversely, different crops add different elements (besides the basic nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.)

Surely, growing the same crop year after year, that is pulling the same fertility out of the soil is creating a crop that is less nutritious. Someday, we will understand the interplay and crop use of different major and minor soil nutrients and be able to make more informed nutritional comparisons.

In the meantime, the question that concerned consumers need to ask is not "is it organic?" but rather "is it nutritious?". That last sentence is a direct quote from Eliot Coleman, an widely respected American organic farmer and author.

Given that one of the strongest drivers for the purchase of organic products is the perception that they are more nutritious and healthier, I think that it is high time that consumers who genuinely care about their food started to ask farmers other questions besides,"is your farm organic?"

How about: " What crops do you rotate your fields to?"
Any responsible grower would be delighted to share this knowledge with you; it's something that we're all passionate about.

How about: "Did you grow this on your farm?"
You might be surprised. A straw hat and a pickup truck doesn't necessarily make a farmer.

How about: "What was this crop sprayed with?"
Food safety and nutrition go hand and hand. In 2007 (a dry year) we didn't have to spray our tomatoes at all. In 2010 (a reasonably wet year) we are forced to spray for late blight to get a crop. My organic grower friends were wiped out. I understand their position,but I can't afford to not have tomatoes on our farm. Google "LD 50" and find out how benign some of those chemicals that organic farmers are allowed to use really are.

Finally, take a deep breath and realize that we're all in this together.

There are many good stewards of the land on this earth (kindly allow me to be immodest enough to include myself.) Green manure, cover crops, soil tilth are among our earthly (pardon the pun) delights. They make our job easier,our crops better and your food more nutritious.

We're not trying to poison you or ourselves; we are trying to do something that we love in a responsible fashion. When we open a roadside market selling our own crops , we're like a cook laying on a great meal: we love doing it and we love hearing back from you that you appreciate us for it.

" Soil is the tablecloth under the banquet of civilization"

Steven Stoll, Larding the Lean earth (2002)