Texas Farm Bureau: Organic gardeningBy Gene Hall

I am a fan of the way we grow food in America—every way—every technique. In this blogspace I am sometimes forced to defend that. It’s my job and my passion. In my enthusiasm for defending what some call “conventional agriculture,” I don’t want to leave the impression that either Mike or I don’t appreciate organic farming. In fact, I have deep respect for those that labor to raise food and fiber for that market.

Clearly, organic farmers forgo some of the production tools used by others to satisfy the requirements of organic certification. It is also blindingly obvious that some consumers prefer those products and if American agriculture is about anything, it’s about satisfying consumer demand. Currently, the organic market is about 3 percent of the overall demand, but it’s growing. There are farmers eager to meet that demand for those willing to pay more.

Why does organic produce cost more? Part of it is supply and demand. There’s not as much of it, suggesting a demand driven premium. Also, the bugs will take a bigger bite from potential organic production. Yields are not as high. Supplying nutrients is more problematic, sometimes coming with other environmental baggage. Manure, for example, is a primary nutrient. Organic farmers have done a nice job in managing those difficulties though. I did a story in my “pre-blog” days for our publication about an East Texas producer who was processing chicken manure with earthworms. He produced a high quality fertilizer while cleaning up other potential environmental problems.

Organic farms won’t work everywhere. Conventional agriculture has the capability of using croplands where organic methods might not work so well. The market for food is a very stubborn thing and it will tell us what and how much to grow. It may be that in a couple of decades we will be growing mostly organic. If that happens, I’m assuming we’ll have solved some major problems—like the additional land required. If we do it backwards, by imposing regulations, we’ll have some serious trouble.

I don’t think we’ll go all organic. I don’t think we can, but that’s a discussion we can have—in good faith and in mutual respect. When we fight, when we have to differ, is when it’s suggested that conventional (industrial or whatever label you want) is not safe or not sustainable. I believe the weight of evidence disagrees. I don’t want to fight. I think this market is big enough for all. That is, supply folks who want organic and are willing to pay for it and also those who must make every food and fiber dollar count.

In case anyone doubts where I am on this, here’s a salute to organic agriculture. Its practitioners are making a living and building a market, sometimes under very difficult and challenging circumstances. Now that’s one thing all of agriculture has in common.

 

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Gene Hall

Public Relations Director
Texas Farm Bureau
I believe that the only hope for a food secure world is capitalism and reasonable profits for America’s farm and ranch families–that the first element of sustainability is economic survival.
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8 Responses to “In praise of organic farming”

  1. -Part of the cost differential IS the supply and demand. Another factor is the cost of inputs but the largest cost factor is the intensive management that’s required. Diminished yields in NOT a factor. Soil fertility is a huge part of organic and after rebuilding that fertility with green manure and other methods, organic yields will usually outpace conventional. True soil fertility is MUCH more than just N-P-K with an occasional mineral thrown in. Healthy soil is a living, breathing entity and must be treated as such. One of my greatest farm assets is my poultry manure. It is the “gold” in my “kingdom”. Organic can work anywhere conventional does and then some. By organically rebuilding depleted soil you can do things many in the conventional system would never believe.
    – With yields exceeding conventional why would you need more land?
    – I don’t think we’ll all go organic either, but we COULD. Entire states in India are now going exclusively organic. Someday after peak oil, we’ll all be forced to go organic.
    – “Sustainable” is a system that can exist in perpetuity within its own closed loop. While some conventional agriculture is certainly MUCH better than other, it is highly dependent on fossil fuel inputs and therefore is not sustainable. Toxic chemicals that affect life affect ALL life. Synthetics that don’t biodegrade (like RoundUp), accumulate and reap havoc on our bodies.
    – There are few who can’t afford better food. Are you truly poor when you have 200 cable channels and 4 cell phones in a household and eat at McDonald’s 5 times a week? It’s more about the priorities in our material world. Consider cost per nutritional unit of whole, unprocessed, organic food and you’ll find that dollar for dollar, it’s not only affordable but an immensely better value than the over processed GMO based corn and soy food facsimiles on our store shelves.
    – YES, organic CAN feed the world. It just won’t line the pockets of Monsanto. Organic is the best hope that consumers have to improve their health and the best hope that farmers have to survive.

  2. Bravo on a great, well-balanced post. I’m curious, Gene, can you post some links to "the weight of evidence" alleging that industrial farming is sustainable?

  3. Melissa, I’ll post one, a previous blog post of mine in which I extensively quote the Natural Resources Inventory published by the Natural Resources conservation service of USDA. It includes a link to the complete report. "Sustainable" is a word that, to me, has come to have more political than scientific meaning. The NRI points out, quite correctly, that we have increased production while reducing acreage, all while substantially reducing soil erosion. And – as I always point out, economic sustainability has to be part of the equation.

    As for Tim’s post, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

  4. Charles Gearhart says:

    Good morning Gene,

    I appreciated your blog. Fifteen years ago I switched to organic citrus production and am very glad I did. Not only am I saving money on application materials, I’m no longer exposed to toxic chemicals.

  5. @Charles – Your story is the type I love to cite as an example. Please share with your experience with yields on citrus. Is it comparable to convnetional? Has your profitiability risen? The environemental impacts of your transition are self evident.

    @Gene – I do agree that ag must be economically sustainable, brought all the more to light in our current bout of economic unsustainability. Respectfully though, I just don’t understand how you can declare conventional ag as "sustainable" when it is "bathed" in fossil fuel. I’m not just talking about diesel fuel, I’m referring to fertilizer and pesticides as well. The quantities of oil, coal and natural gas used is staggering and accounts for nearly 20% of energy consumption in the US. It takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce 21 million tons of synthetic fertilizer and 50 million tons of synthetic pesticides. I am not so naive that I think this can be remedied today or tomorrow and I certainly have no plans on trading my diesel tractors in for draft horses but to change the system we have to first admit that there is a problem and then formulate some sensible solutions. It is not unrealistic to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 20% over the next decade with some fairly easy solutions. We need to stop big agribiz from dictating our future (that mostly benefits them) and let the farmers and consumers start planning for it.

  6. Charles was one of my first video interviews when I started working for Farm Bureau. I respect him a lot. Of course, I started this thread by stating how much respect I have for organic farmers. I am hopeful that all farmers can stand on commong ground. Clearly, not all feel this way. The word "bathed" in this context is hyperbole. When pesticides are used per label directions, they are safe, with multifold safety margins built into the regs. Even while bashing chemical use, some environmental groups admit that its better to eat "conventionally" grown fruits and veggies than not to eat them at all. I’ve talked with Texas farmers about this subject for more than 30 years. Many have evaluated organic production. A great many have concluded it won’t work for them. Some have tried it and gone back the other way. Some have made a go of it. Every one of them is completely free to make their own decision about it. I hope we can stop marketing by means of trashing those who choose to go a different way. Reminder – we have a rule here to stay on topic and we have a low tolerance for conspiracy theories and corporate bashing. This is just not the place for it. Good luck and best wishes to all the farmers who are the bulwark of our national food security.

  7. This is a great topic for discussion. I buy virtually all my produce at local farmers markets and buy 95% or more organic. I know I pay a little bit more but I really believe it is worth it. My biggest problem with conventional farming is the power they push around trying to put smaller farms out of business… particularly in the dairy industry and attempting to do the same in the poultry business. The other thing I have a beef with is the beef industry and the effect it is having on the produce industry. It won’t be long before all the conventional foods are irradiated because they have been polluted with deadly bacteria caused from runoff from these feed lots that ends up on the produce producing farms in the area. We are on a deadly track and only the people can stop it by being better informed and buying local and organic if possible.

  8. Mr. Sustainable – Your fears are not supported by evidence. My point was and is that organic and conventional farmers should avoid demonizing one another. U.S. food is safe. Scare tactics make for poor marketing. This market is big enough for all.

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