Monday, March 12, 2012

The Similarities of Organic & Traditional Farming

I love it when I’m struggling for a blog topic and the media hands me something on the morning news. This morning Tony Pann, a meteorologist on the Baltimore station WBAL TV Channel 11 was responding to an interview by fellow meteorologist Ava Marie at a restaurant that was serving “local, organic, and sustainable” menu items. When the Ava tossed it back to the station for the morning forecast, Tony said “I’m a big fan of organic… people are so used to processed foods when you taste the organic, it tastes completely different in my book.” Below is the link to the video clip.

One of the most common questions I get is “what is the difference between organic and conventional foods?” To answer that, I need to explain the difference between organic and traditional farming methods, what some call “conventional” and we have farmed both ways so I am speaking from experience.

The USDA consumer's guide explains organic foods as “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”  That describes our farm perfectly, which is not organic, but rather a 3rd-generation, traditional family farm.

Organic farming includes practices such as crop rotation, fertilizer in the form of animal manure or “green manure” in the form of nitrogen containing plants, integrated pest management, mechanical cultivation, and natural or biological pesticides. Yes, pesticides. Organic does not mean chemical free. It means choosing to apply pesticides from an approved list called the OMRI list (Organic Materials Review Institute). This list of chemicals are naturally or biologically-based pesticides. There are over 2,300 pesticides listed with OMRI as approved for organic agriculture. Sulfur, copper, and Bt are all examples of organic pesticides. We use all 3 of these chemicals but are not organic farmers. Oxidate is a form of peroxide which is also organic and which we use as a fungicide in our vineyard to treat mildew. Some people will call these “soft” chemicals, other farmers will say they only use “natural” chemicals. Either way, their purpose is the same: to treat or prevent a pest from destroying the crop.

Our traditional family farm includes all those same practices. We do however, choose to use some synthetic chemicals as well as some organic ones. We base that choice on what the problem is we are trying to treat, how far away from harvest we are, how effective our choices are, and what the economic impact of our choice is going to be. That is why we use A LOT of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). IPM means we scout our crops frequently, determine what pests if any exist, determine if there is a economic reason to address the pest, determine if there is a cultural practice such as cultivating or leaf pulling that will help alleviate the pest pressure, and determine what our options are if we need to spray something. We give much thought to this process. Why? Because our family eats what we grow in addition to earning a living from the land. I’m not going to serve something to my kids that isn’t safe. 

Spraying is something we do to bring quality, safe, and healthy foods to harvest using BOTH organic and synthetic chemicals as the situation warrants. We do not apply any chemicals that are not needed.

In some instances, synthetic chemicals are less toxic than their organic equivalents. In other cases, organic chemicals are less toxic than synthetics. With pyrethrins which is an organic insecticide derived from chrysanthemum plants and their synthetic pyrethroid counterparts, they are equal. As Paracelsus said in the 16th century “All substances are poisons, there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.” Essentially, the dose makes the poison.

So let’s look at the nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a systematic review in 2010 which looked at data published between 1958 and 2008. That’s 50 years worth of data. Of the studies that were evaluated, 55 were determined to be of satisfactory quality in terms of the way the research was conducted. These 55 studies showed no significant difference in vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, copper, and phenolic compounds. The authors concluded that there was no difference in the nutritional quality of organic foods over conventional foods. The two were essentially equal. (Am J Clin Nutr 2010; 92:203-10)

So where am I going with this? Tony Pann’s comments this morning made me think about the perception of organic and traditional foods. He used the term “processed” but processing is an entirely different subject.

I know that the way I raise the crops I grow on our family farm are safe and nutritious. You as the consumer have the wonderful choice of abundant foods whether organic or traditional. I applaud you if you choose organic. You are supporting a family farmer. I applaud you if you choose traditional. You are supporting a family farmer. But understand that both farming methods that are used to grow food are safe because they, like me, are feeding it to our families. I as a farmer, have the consumer’s health in mind because we, as farmers, are consumers too.

So maybe some day Ava Marie will do her morning broadcast from my family farm and Tony Pann will have a positive comment to say about what this Maryland farm family is doing to grow healthy food for Marylanders.


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  3. This post made me think about my research I am about to do with my comparison and contrast about non organic and organic foods.
    I support organic foods straight from the farm.


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