Friday, July 11, 2008

Is Semi-Organic the Way Forward?

Drew Norman has been growing vegetables organically for 25 years and he's still not sure "organic," as currently defined, is the last word.

I had a chance this week to visit with Drew Norman on the farm he started with wife Joan in White Hall, Maryland, north of Baltimore, when they were hardly more than kids. Norman was just out of agriculture school at the University of Maryland and the reason he chose organic was because the things he was taught at the university just didn't add up for him.

One of his first classes was all about how micro-organisms are the beginning and end of healthy soil. But when he got to learning about growing fruit trees, he said, it was all about spraying pesticides, which of course kill micro-organisms along with a lot of other things.

More recently, his own farm was part of a study that measured soil health. Far ahead of Norman, who relies on cover crops and compost as his primary means of fertility, was another farmer who uses cover crops heavily as well but does not till his soil and applies an herbicide to deal with weeds on his crop rows.

Of course herbicides are an automatic disqualifier for the "organic" label. But Norman says that after 25 years of following the organic rules, he still has only 2.5 percent organic matter in his soil (5 percent is considered optimum.) He also recognizes that his usual farming techniques--plowing cover crops under, building plastic-covered rows, using drip lines for irrigation--involves quite a bit of soil tillage. And in his words, "micro-organisms don't like a lot of tillage."

So what, I asked, does he think is the answer?

Norman, who has 1,400 CSA subscribers this year, along with a hefty wholesale business, answered this way:

"I became an organic farmer to be more environmentally friendly, and 25 years later I find I can be more environmentally friendly by not being 'organic.' " After thinking a minute, he added: "If I were 100 percent CSA? I would probably write my customers a letter telling them why I was going to start using an herbicide on my crops"--meaning a switch over to more cover, less tillage and an increase in organic matter, along with a loss of his "organic" status.

Joan Norman, who handles the business end of the farm, was quick to add: "Of course we would never do anything like that without asking our customers first. Some of them would be absolutely devastated if they thought we were using an herbicide."

I find discussions like this fascinating because they show that the question of how best to farm is far from settled. Organic farmers are expected to work extra hard on behalf of the environment, but at the same time they need to make enough money to stay in business.

Or, as Joan Norman often likes to put it: "Agriculture has to be viable to survive."

For instance, it has always struck me as a bit of a contradiction that so much sheet plastic is used on organic farms (we can get into Canadian peat moss another time). Conventional plastic sheeting is made from petroleum, and it is not biodegradable. Yet Drew Norman swears by it. His crop rows--miles and miles of them crossing 175 acres--are all immaculately mulched with plastic.

"I've been chastised for using plastic because it has its isssues. But my answer to that is, it's cost effective," Norman says. "Everything yields better on plastic."

Mostly, he covers his rows with plastic to conserve water in the soil around the plant roots. The plastic also largely eliminates the need for weeding, a huge labor saver. The benefits contribute significantly to his bottom line--especially when plastic represents a mere 3 percent of his costs.

Blogging about food is great fun. Ranting about food issues is stimulating, and sometimes even results in a worthwhile discussion. But occasionally it's good to visit a farm and hear what real farmers think.


De in D.C. said...

All good points. What works well in my small backyard garden is definitely not feasible on a large scale. I heavily mulch (to the point of smothering weeds), don't till, don't spray, occasionally weed by hand, and throw my kitchen scraps around the plants.

I've always been a firm believer that the tilth of soil is highly important, so I try and do everything I can to make sure my soil stays light and fluffy. Intensive digging/tilling ruins those qualities, which is why I refuse to turn over my soil in the spring or engage in practices such as "double digging" beds.

Sarah said...

The point you bring up is an interesting one. I was chatting to a market gardener at the Saskatoon Farmers market and his point of view was similar. He sprays the weeds surrounding his farm because he feels it is probably more environmentally friendly that driving a tractor around, ploughing them up 5 or 6 times a year. Of course this probably lost him a few customers when they heard about it.
By the way Saskatoon is in Saskatchewan, Canada and is one of the best farmers markets I have ever been to.

seasonseatingsfarm said...

Of course herbicides are an automatic disqualifier for the "organic" label.
No, it's not. Organic growers, both certified and uncertified, can and do use pesticides. Pesticides cover both insect and weed. There are OMRI approved pesticides on the market. You can use an herbicide and be organic if you choose the proper herbicide.

Dr.John said...

I learned a lot from this entry. I never thought much about the problems of organic farmers. One assumes if you do what is right everything works out.

onestraw said...

I really enjoyed your article on One Straw Farm. As soon as I mentioned my problems associated with being organic, I knew I would see them in print at some point.
Part of the reason I brought all of that up was that I figured that you would 'break the ice' regarding my thinking.
I would like you, and any of my customers to know, that I would never make any changes without my customers permission. Not that I would need 100% ;but, the overwhelming majority. I enjoyed our time together, it was nice to speak with a reporter who had a good handle on what I was talking about. Hope to see you again soon. Drew

Charlotte said...

My grandmother's entirely conventional corn-and-soybean farm in Illinois went no-till several years ago. She gripes that it "looks messy" but well, she's 97. Most all the farmers in that area have stopped tilling as much as possible -- I was surprised and heartened last time I was there (of course, I try not to think about all that RoundUp).

Ed Bruske said...

De, everyone has their preferences for growing great vegetables. It's a lot like soup--there's no single recipe for it. Sounds like you've got a good system going and I agree: Soil health is where it's at.

Sarah, it's impossible to weigh all of these calculations to an absolute certainty. Your farmer friend may be absolutely correct. It may be more environmentally friendly to spray that drive his tractor around. Of course there was a time when it would all be done by people, or by using draught animals. Who knows. We may be headed in that direction again.

Robin, you're right. There are organic pesticides and herbicides. But I'm not sure those are practical for the application or the scale we're talking about here.

Dr. John, I learned a lot from this entry, too.

Drew, I'm glad you felt you could talk to me about this. I certainly don't know as much about it as you do. But coming from you, with so much experience and feeding so many people with your produce, I thought what you had to say was very significant. Thanks for welcoming me onto your farm and into your home.

Charlotte, I've heard of farms that look very messy but produce lots of great vegetables. Your grandmother sounds like quite a lady, still farming at 97.