Organic Farming

Reprinted from July, 1998 U.S. Beltie News

About Organic Farming

We’ve often heard the term used, but most of us don’t know precisely what is entailed in organic farming. We solicited the assistance of Marlin Sherbine (PA) to offer some information on the subject.

Organic farming at one time was considered the total opposite to conventional farming, but is now by public demand (and more importantly, by profit margin squeeze) gaining acceptance by traditional agriculture. Organically grown food products in the United States have increased in recent years to approximately 3% of total crop production.

Organically grown food products will never replace the traditional type production, however more and more of the consuming public is purchasing organic products. This growing segment of our population is willing to pay extra because they believe the products are healthier, or it is the politically correct thing to do, or it is the ‘in thing.’

Examples of recent pricing on conventionally grown products vs. organically certified are soybeans at $7 bu. vs. $22-$25 bu., and buckwheat at $4 bu. vs. $16-$18 bu. Freezer beef sales for an 1150-pound animal nets $700-$800 vs. $1100-$1200.

To become a certified organic producer it is necessary to join an organization capable of making rules, inspecting growers, and monitoring purchases of products by members as well as installing a tracking system for member production and sales. These functions are funded by dues, inspection fees and user fees.

Certifying organizations now consist of numerous national, state and local groups with common standards of no herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. Certified farms must demonstrate and follow rigid standards covering the use of off-farm imports and carry out approved soil enrichment programs using only organically produced roducts.

Variances between organizations do occur as to length of time procedures must be followed before crops or meat products may
be certified. In addition, the integrity of ‘certified organic’ has been violated by non-certified growers attempting to capitalize on the higher market prices. For these reasons, Congress in 1990 enacted the Organic Foods Production Act directing the United States Department of Agriculture to write regulations and enforceable standards governing products labeled ‘organically grown.’

Seven years later (despite the fact that regulations were to be in place by 1993), they were presented for public comment on December 15, 1997. Representatives of organic grower and consumer groups had spent countless hours helping draft these regulations, but to their dismay found the final draft so ‘watered down’ that products grown under the new standards could no longer be acceptable by the true ‘organic consumer.’ This led to over 200,000 formal verbal and written unfavorable comments on the draft, and has led to a rewrite by USDA, timing unknown.

In the meantime the various certifying groups will continue to operate under their current standards.
For beef cattle, this means:
1. No weaning before 3 months.
2. No veal production as organic.
3. No synthetic growth promotion.
4. Breeding stock, if purchased, cannot be beyond the last third of gestation, unless purchased from a certified livestock producer.
5. Slaughter stock must be raised from birth.
6. Vaccinations (other than legally required vaccinations) permitted only when diseases exist which cannot be controlled by other techniques. When recourse to prohibited drugs is required to insure animal health, that slaughter animal may not be sold as ‘certified organic.’
7. Embryo transfers are not permitted.
8. No physical alterations are permitted.
9. An audit trail covering all feeds, supplements and medication is required.
10. Animals must be fed all organically grown forage and grain, minerals may be purchased.

The Up Side of Organic Farming

1. We are doing our best to stop additional degradation of our land, air and water through additions of phosphates, nitrates and various long-term harmful chemicals and providing a safe and healthy product.
2. Per-acre costs of production are much lower since we are not buying fertilizers or spray materials.
3. Moisture retention in the soil is much better since organic matter in our soil has risen from less than 1% to 5% through the lack of leaching from chemicals, green manure plowdowns, the return of earthworms, and change in type of earth disturbance equipment.
4. Vet bills on animals (at least short term) have been cut by 85%.
5. It is very satisfying when a good crop or animal proves that it can be done the way grandpa did it (but without the horses).

The Down Side of Organic Farming

1. There are few proven handbooks or study courses to help beginners, similar to those provided by ag colleges for traditional farming methods. Help and advice must come from those willing to truthfully share experiences, suppliers of certified organic products, or mainly by trial and error.
2. Crops are much more weather-dependent, since weed control is a function of tillage at the proper time vs. spraying to last all season. There are no approved sources of a high nitrogen product to ‘jump start’ crops, so a late planting of grain may not mature.
3. Record keeping is much more time consuming.
4. Material costs are lower, but labor costs are higher because of added ‘bush- hogging,’ planting, plowing down green manures, composting manure from barns, and additional mechanical cleaning of grain.
5. Yields per acre cannot match those of land heavily fortified with synthetic fertilizers.
6. Fast-acting dewormers and chemical fly control not permitted on cattle.