I was recently honored by a request from the Iowa Organic Association to be part of a farmer panel during their virtual Annual Meeting on Deember 1st. I was able to join my good friend, Andy Dunham (Grinnell Heritage Farm and Tallgrass Prairie), and two other people I respect - Kathleen Delate of ISU and Nelson Smith of Springtown Ranch near Brighton.
Each of us was asked to speak for fifteen minutes, covering everything from a bit about what we do and how the year has impacted us to discussing why and how we "do organic farming." If you wish to view the whole meeting, you can go to this link. The nice thing about this recording is that you can look at the timeline and see that it is segmented to allow you to jump to different parts of the presentation. If you want to skip some of the business side of the meeting, you can - for example. It's recorded and available - your choice! Isn't that nice?
I felt compelled to talk about the good reasons WHY I feel it is important for our farm (and other farms) to grow crops with organic practices. And I realized - hey! I have a farm blog! We can use it to say more if we want!
This is a typical view of vegetable crops in one of our high tunnels (Eden in this case) for any given year at the Genuine Faux Farm. If you look carefully, you can see tomatoes, peppers, green beans, carrots, beets, onions, melons and maybe even the stubble of lettuce that has been harvested. There are even some flowers interspersed that are not readily apparent from the photo.
A significant part of the concept of organic agriculture is the idea that a healthy natural system is one that maintains a diversity of organisms. That is why importance is placed on crop rotations, integrated pest management, and natural areas.
Let's be honest now. Not every certified organic operation is as committed as every other operation in its pursuit of diversity. And, our farm is, in fact, probably more willing than many to accept the extra labor costs and potential losses that come with diversity at such a fine level. Part of this is our own personal choices and preferences.
And the rest has always had to do with our desire to try to find ways that we can achieve diversity without forsaking too much efficiency. We figured that we were willing to give up some of our bottom line in the hopes that we would find ways that would translate to other farms without hurting THEIR bottom line. Sometimes, I think we made a difference or two. Other times, I am not so sure.
I do know that we have made (and will continue to make) a valiant effort. And I am still convinced that diversity is a key to a healthy farm.
This is one of my absolute favorite farm pictures. I try to tell people that a successful field for a farmer is one they want to spend time in.
That is a successful field.
Ok, yes. If you are a row crop farmer or a veggie farmer that has more land than we do, it might seem small. The overall space is about eight thousand square feet. The area is dedicated to melon/watermelon production as our cash crops and the amount of space taken is consistent with the years prior to the one shown above (I think it was 2015).
We decided to intentionally reduce the number of melon plants put into the field space by 30% and use that space for more pollinator support plants. There are zinnia at the left and borage on the right. Not easily seen in the picture is buckwheat, sunn hemp, basil, calendula and... of course, more melons.
It looked great. There were all sorts of bees, toads, frogs and other useful critters. It felt great to go out there. I was proud of that field and how it looked.
And I expected to harvest about 1/3 fewer melons because we had that many fewer plants.
Instead. I harvest 30% MORE melons. Nature wins. Again.
Certified organic farms are encouraged to work with nature instead of in opposition to natural processes. We humans are sadly mistaken when we think we are able to do better in spite of nature. That moment when we think we are doing so is the one where we need to look carefully at where the hidden costs might be.
Once again - does every certified organic grower push this hard to support natural processes? Of course not. But, the culture of organic production encourages cooperation with nature and the services it provides (such as pollination services).
For those of you who are not familiar with the organic certification process. Each year, we are required to develop an organic system plan for our operation. That plan may be very similar to prior years, but we should review what we are doing each and every season and make adjustments. That plan is then viewed by an organic certifying agency (in our case it is IDALS - Iowa Dept of Ag and Land Stewardship). They will compare our plan with organic standards and highlight any possible problems in that plant.
Once that plan is approved, an on-site inspection is scheduled. And if you pass the inspection (or address any issues that arise as a result), you can achieve certification for the year.
The process supports a positive system for critical evaluation of how you go about growing. You have a structured opportunity to think about what you are doing and why. You are then forced to articulate it in some fashion to someone else who can give you feedback.
Please note - organic certification agencies WANT organic operations to succeed in achieving certification. This does not have to be an adversarial situation! Pure and simple - it is a fantastic opportunity to learn and refine your own processes with some built in resources for feedback. I have found that if I want more from the certification process - I can get it. And on years when I just don't have the energy to get more from it, well - we do what we must to earn certification and then find ways to improve the next time.
I have heard it said many times that record keeping for organic farms is a real trial. Why? Well, they do require that you keep track of things and sometimes it can get annoying when you are not convinced that a particular data point is worth your time to track.
Still, one of the biggest reasons certified organic products are often safer products is because we are required to track product carefully. If there is a problem with one of our lots of spinach, we should be able to rapidly (in moments) be able to trace that spinach from planting, cultivation, harvest, cleaning, packing and delivery - showing dates, involved workers and enough of the process to determine if there was a problem that needed addressing.
The simple act of keeping those records encourages us to follow safety protocols. Good enough.
The added bonus is that we are then blessed with data we can use to make decisions about future crops and future processes. You can't collect data after the event has passed. But, if you have a system that encourages consistent record-keeping, you will not have to bemoan the loss of important information that you could have used.
And here it is. The root of it all.
The Genuine Faux Farm uses organic practices and goes through the certification process because it is a key component to how we attain personal satisfaction in our farming. It is also an important part of how we maintain our own well-being.
I want more fields that I love being in - because those are successful fields.
It is important that we continue to improve from season to season - and the organic certification process supports that goal.
We want healthy soil and a diverse system of organisms on our farm. Sometimes, we fantasize that the migrating birds and butterflies see our farm as an oasis in a vast desert of corn and soybeans. Other times, we despair that our little patch is not enough to support them as they pause, exhausted on their way north or south. But, we still reap rewards when Mr. Bunting sings, the Bull Snake slithers by and Cucumber Frog jumps and startles us. We see the benefits when green beans taste fantastic and the fresh spinach is heaped on our plates.
Why do we grow organic?
We do it for us.
And we do it for nature.
And we do it for you.