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Article by Gary Hubbell
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©Gary Hubbell 2009; all rights reserved.

The new buzzword in agriculture is “organic”, as any farmer can tell you. There are many facets to this ancient form of farming in a contemporary world, and the purpose of this essay is to give you my thoughts on how organic farming can be practical, efficient, and productive, and how it can also be inefficient, complicated, and expensive. Those of you who are involved in organic farming and have thoughts and opinions on it are welcome to email me, and I’ll try to include your comments in future articles.

First of all, let’s define the phrase “organic farming”. Most people would agree that organic agriculture is the practice of growing food for human consumption without the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and in the case of meat, dairy, and egg production, without antibiotics and artificial growth hormones.

Over the past 100 years, our farming practices have undergone massive and sudden changes through technological advances. In a very short time, we’ve gone from a horse-powered society using teams of animals to pull plows and disks through small farms to an agribusiness society where massive diesel-powered tractors use global positioning systems to farm exact rows of crops on massive tracts of otherwise empty lands.

Let’s go back to the days when our farms were settled. In the eastern part of the U.S., farms were carved out of the wilderness in the time period between the early colonists’ first landing at Plymouth Rock in the 1620’s and on through the Revolutionary War. Necessary services and protections had to be clustered within a half-day’s walk or wagon ride from the surrounding farms, and that’s why so many towns and villages in the Northeast are found within six or eight miles of each other. It was inefficient for farmers to bring their grain to a mill located 25 miles away; it was difficult for them to trade with merchants more than a day’s travel away.

As the Midwest was settled in the mid-1800’s on through the end of the century, the railroads began to advance across the continent, and the distance between towns was expanded somewhat. Railroads made it possible for farmers to market their grain to distant cities, and ranchers could ship their beef to markets hundreds of miles away.

However, farming was still done by horse, mule, and oxen team. In the days of horse-drawn farm equipment, a large farm might be 80 or 100 acres. If you have ever hitched up a team of mules and started busting sod with a single-bottom iron plow, you can only imagine how much work it would be to farm 40 acres.

With the advent of mechanized farm equipment, the acreage that one man could farm was greatly expanded. Cheap coal and cheap oil made it possible for a primitive tractor to get a lot more work done than a large team of mules. Consequently, farms grew larger. By the 1940’s, one farmer could handle farming a couple hundred acres of corn or wheat. As machines grew bigger and more powerful, farmers began to consolidate their properties until the turn of the new century, and our massive farms today, whereby one sophisticated farmer can grow crops on many thousands of acres, with the right equipment, knowledge, huge tanks of diesel fuel, lots of working capital, and the help of artificial chemicals.

Yes, that’s right, artificial chemicals played just as strong a role as mechanization in the development of modern farming practices. In the 1880’s, gangs of bone pickers scoured the Great Plains for the remnants of the North American bison that had been slaughtered by the millions on our new farm ground, and they piled up mountains of buffalo bones. They burned these bones and made them into our first version of artificial fertilizer. The nitrates and phosphates contained in these mineral-rich bones made crops grow.

As our farming methods evolved, we discovered that crude oil was a good source of nitrates and phosphates, and we’ve been sprinkling little white pellets of ammonium nitrate on the fields of America ever since. It works, too. Artificial fertilizers are very effective at increasing crop yields.

Of course, farmers have always fought off nature’s urge to consume their production before it gets to market. There have been potato weevils, cotton weevils, wheat smut, horn flies, grasshoppers, beetles, and any manner of insect pests, fungi, and blights to greedily consume or destroy a crop before it is harvested. Weeds have always found their way into our preferred monoculture of corn, wheat, soybeans, tomatoes, lettuce, grapes, barley, or alfalfa. Our innovative chemical engineers have conjured up all manner of chemicals to spray on crops to kill weeds and pests. In the case of meat, dairy, and egg production, they’ve come up with all kinds of antibiotics, growth hormones, and pesticide applications to keep massive quantities of beef, eggs, and milk flowing into the grocery stores, restaurants, and school cafeterias.

It’s gone so far that not only are farms growing ever larger, but several facets of our basic food production have shifted to China, where our flour is ground, our granola bars and candy bars are baked and poured, and we have very little control over what happens there. If you think about the absurdity of growing grain in the American Midwest, shipping to a West Coast port, putting it on a ship to China, making it into food products in a Chinese factory, and shipping it back to America, there’s no wonder that people are willing to pay more for home-grown organic food.
In this year, 2008, we find that we’re consuming flour and meal that has been tainted with melamine mixed into our food in Chinese mills. We learn about animals that are confined in what seems to us as inhumane circumstances. We wonder about the unexplained cancers that our friends and neighbors have contracted, and we think about the good old days, when Grandpa raised a dozen beef steers and picked apples off the trees in his little orchard. We think about the absurdity of importing apples from China, where we can have absolutely no guarantee of how that produce was grown, and we rebel. We think it may be worth more money to grow our own food without the use of artificial pesticides, fertilizer, hormones, and antibiotics. We want to eat organic food.

I was fortunate to spend three days this past autumn hunting bighorn sheep in the Colorado Rockies with my friend, Ian McLendon. Ian is an adventurer, an extreme athlete, and an intelligent, thoughtful person. Every food item that I saw Ian consume over a three-day period was organic. If there is a choice, his choice is always organic. Mind you, this is a guy who followed the peloton on the Tour de France; he has raced in the 24 Hours of Aspen downhill ski race; and he has summited 14,000-foot Pyramid Peak in the dead of winter so that he can ski down it. I asked Ian why he eats organic food. “Both my parents died of cancer by the time they were in their mid-50’s,” he explained. “It may be a genetic factor for me. I want to give myself every opportunity to live as long as I can. It’s expensive, but I think it’s worth it.”

The motivations for consuming organic food may be wide-ranging, but everyone who eats organic food shares some of the basic motivations. It tastes better, it’s more nutritious, it’s healthier, fresher, and you feel better about eating it. You may feel or know that you have more control over how your produce, grain, milk, eggs, and meat is grown, and you may also have the opportunity to participate in the growing or harvesting of foods that are grown on farms in your local area.

In this manner, organic farming is counteracting the shift toward massive agribusiness. People are rebelling against burning untold gallons of diesel fuel to ship commodities all over the world because the labor may be cheaper in a factory 8,000 miles away. They prefer to support local farmers, laborers, and suppliers who may only ship a couple hundred miles from their farms. The size of the farms is again shrinking. Some organic farms may be only two or three acres of truck farm vegetables or a half-dozen acres of greenhouse herbs and vegetables. While Chinese orchards can afford to ship apples halfway across the world for a wholesale price of 10-15 cents a pound, organic apples from local growers might bring 50 cents a pound, making it worth it for the time and effort of running an apple orchard. A truck farmer may net $10,000 in profit from working a 5-acre patch of tomatoes, squash, corn, and beans for the summer, then go back to teaching school the other nine months of the year.

Click here to keep reading—“GOING ORGANIC”—WHAT DOES IT TAKE?

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