Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Organic farming: the wave of the future?

When I was growing up in south Orange County, California, my mom would exclusively buy organic produce for our family to eat. She insisted that organic food was healthier and safer and she was willing to pay extra money to ensure that we were eating what she thought were the best quality fruits and vegetables. We were the only family that I knew of at that time who did this (my mom often engaged in fervent debates on the subject with friends and family members). Due to the higher prices of organic food, the seemingly harder work that farmers have to do to grow produce without pesticides, and my perceived low demand for organic produce, I have always assumed that organic food was a sort of luxury that was less profitable and more of a holistic enterprise for farmers. Apparently, this isn’t necessarily the case.

As "The Rural Blog" reports, a 13 year study by researchers at Iowa State University recently concluded that organic farms can see much higher economic returns than ordinary farms. According to the study, organic farms can produce the same amount as ordinary farms without the high overhead costs that pesticides and synthetic fertilizer require. Additionally, organic crops sell at a premium rate. The study found that “organic systems return roughly $200 per acre more than conventional crops.”

Moreover, the study found that the benefits of growing organic go beyond the monetary returns; organic farms produce healthier soil. Organic farms don’t use synthetic herbicides or synthetic fertilizer- only natural manure. This increases the nitrogen level in the soil by over 33% and other nutrients such as carbon, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and calcium were more bountiful as well. The higher quality of soil can increase growing efficiency.

If organic farming is more profitable, efficient, and better for the environment, why doesn’t every farm become organic? As one might imagine, it’s not quite that simple. For a farm to be considered organic, it cannot use synthetic chemicals for three years and the transition from one method to the other can be difficult and time-consuming. However, the study showed that if the transition is done the right way, transitioning farms can stay competitive with other farms even during the transitioning years.

The Iowa State findings complement the findings of the Rodale Institute, which lists even more environmental and economic benefits of organic farming. This website also lists what are typically thought of as the pros and cons of organic farming and opines on the merits of these pros and cons.


oceguera said...

Organic farming would definitely be a better option if it also consisted of alternative propagating and harvesting techniques. Instead, we see traditional mono-culture crops on large tracks of land that are still considered "good for the earth" only because pesticides are not being used. Big agriculture businesses have tapped into the organic market and making a lot of money (think Walmart Organics). Unfortunately, small farms don't have the luxury of converting to organic or even if they are organic they sometimes cannot afford to be certified organic. Organic has become yet another label to profit off of instead of a natural more holistic way of working with the farm.

JWHS said...

Well, I think the answer to your question is the cost. As you note there is an added value to organic produce--perhaps a fictional, inflated value. Did the study account for the price difference?

If people did start buying only organic then surely the price would change.

Namora said...

A lot of small farmers do meet the criteria for organic farms. However, these farms can't always afford to go through the expensive process of becoming "organic certified." Thus, small farmers aren't able to reap the benefits of marketing their food as organic, because the certification process is too expensive.

Tammy Curry said...

There is an alternative it is called Certified Naturally Grown. More of a grassroots version of the USDA certification. Same standards apply if not maybe a little more stringent. They have a minimum donation amount and it is self governed by members.

I do know that a handful of organic farmers will charger higher than normal prices simply because they feel their market can handle it. It is more time consuming to grow naturally. The best way to find out what is going on locally is to talk to your local producers, they may be growing organically or naturally and offer affordable produce selections.