For folks who want to put our family farm "in a box", we are a conventional farm.
For folks who are of broader minds and philosophies, or can conceptualize that conventional does not equate to "bad", then we are a "synergistic" farm.
If you have followed me for any length of time, you know I talk a lot about farming systems, sustainability, conservation, and biotechnology. The practices that we use are a melding of various techniques often credited to one type of farming system or another. Rather than holding ourselves to a certain set of "rules" or limiting the tools we are able to use, we choose to practice and maximize the synergies from taking the best of organic, conventional and biotechnology in order to make our family farm as sustainable as possible.
First, let's look at what I mean by farming systems:
The chart provides a brief illustration about the "main" concept behind each farming system. There is certainly broad overlap between these main "concepts" within each of the 3 farming systems. All 3 systems can use precision agriculture, the latest technology to reduce inputs and be more prescriptive toward each crop. All 3 systems can use modern plant breeding to enhance desired traits in plants however "genetic engineering" or "GMO" are restricted from use in organic agriculture. Conventional and organic plant breeding takes place either by traditional crossing, hybridization, or radiation or chemical mutagenesis. All 3 systems can use techniques that address and enhance soil health.
Typically what you hear in the media is that one system has cornered the market on "soil health" or another system has cornered the market on "precision agriculture".
Today, family farms use the synergies that each farming systems offers to maximize sustainability.
Today, those "farming system" lines are far more blurred.
Today, there is significant cross over between the 3 farming systems. This is what I mean by "synergistic" farming, a melding of the best each system has to offer. The chart about shows what our family farm practices. When we had about 100 acres certified organic, we did not change the way we farmed because we have been using cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, conservation tillage, and IPM for decades. To us, these are just standard operating procedures, they aren't "organic" practices. We followed Rodale's no-till organic recommendations by rolling our cover crops with a buffalo chopper and then no till seeded corn into the residue. It was a mess. The corn yielded 47 bushels per acre as compared to 110 bushels per acre in our conventional corn that same year, both dry land or unirrigated. Other years we would rotary hoe and cultivate numerous times to control for weeds but soil disturbance is soil disturbance and not something we like to do here in our Chesapeake Bay watershed. Disturbing top soil encourages erosion. Wind and rain take sediment away from disturbed top soil. Phosphorus is adsorbed to sediment so when sediment moves, so does phosphorus. The extensive tillage and yield loss in our organic field led us to choose to be synergistic rather than purely organic for the sake of being certified. For us, it was the most sustainable choice we could make.
By doing what's best for our fields, we are focused on soil health, enhancing the soil profile without excessive tillage, practicing more conservation not less, choosing the safest most effective pest control as possible whether its "natural" or "synthetic". Just because a product is organic or natural, does not make it nontoxic. Sometimes, a synthetic product is safer than an OMRI approved product. Again, that's determining for our family farm, the synergies that work in our environment and in our soils.
There is no "one" system that is "best", There is no "one" way of doing things that should be done carte blanche by every farmer, everywhere. There is no "cookie cutter" system that should be applied to every farm. What we farmers should be doing is maximizing the synergies of all best management practices that meld together the best for our soils while preserving our inputs and natural resources.
Family farms continue to move along the sustainability continuum and are fundamentally changing "farming systems" so that the synergies of each best management practices mean we do not fit into a cookie cutter mold of a certain "type" of farm.