Saturday, 10 September 2011

No Farms No Foods: Is Organic Farming Always Sustainable?

The more we learn about what our foods go through to be bigger, better and stay fresh, the more convincing it is for us to buy organic. However, due to high social and economic costs, organic certification is not always a viable option for small-scale farmers. In this blog I want to address a popular question, how do we support local farmers and still make healthy and environmentally conscious decisions?

To do so, I would like to introduce you to a family of pecan farmers who are health and environmentally conscious, but not certified organic.

I first met George and Becky this summer at the Auburn, Alabama Farmers Market. What caught my eye was their pecan honey granola. Before taking some home, I inquired if their products were organic. Here is what they told me:

“We prefer to use the word sustainable…”, George kindly explained. He added that they don’t feel that there is anything wrong with organic farming, but the costs of starting and keeping a certified organic farm are steep; these costs are often unrealistic for small-scale farmers. Instead, George and Becky explained to me, the sustainable farming practices they follow allow farmers to make a living while being as environmentally sound and as healthy as possible. Let me give you an example.

Becky and George started with a pecan farm. They did not want to use chemical fertilizers to keep the soil rich for their pecan trees, so they came up with a sustainable solution, planting clovers! Clovers provide nitrogen to the soil; therefore these plants serve as a natural fertilizer (the biology of this is a little more complicated). But the story does not end there. Clovers do not grow without pollination. To use clovers as fertilizers, Becky and George decided they would need a healthy population of bees. Conveniently, Ben, the head of the local beekeepers association, was able to help them start a small beekeeping operation. Now, not only do they have a fertilizer-free pecan harvest, but honey as well. 

The story is more complicated still. Wild grasses often take over in fields, meaning clovers have trouble growing alongside them. The easy way to get rid orchards of grasses is to use a weed killer. Instead, Becky and George looked for a sustainable solution. This time it was cows, which roam through their orchard while foraging (and cleaning up) the wild grasses. Since these farmers do not spray with pesticides, they also produce pesticide-free, grass-fed beef.  I’ll stop here because Becky and George’s story goes on, but, in a nutshell, this is what they meant by sustainable farming.

After hearing this story, I asked, if you are so careful to practice environmentally sound farming, why don’t you advertise as organic?

C. Leopold (Flickr)
George explained to me that although they do their best to be sustainable, there are still many challenges for farmers. For pecan farmers it is the “pecan scab”. Pecan scab is a hard-to-control fungus that attacks pecan trees with the potential to decimate entire pecan harvests. For now, these farmers spray pecan trees once a year to protect trees from this pest. If these farmers were to become organically certified, they would be required to have a pesticide-free farm for minimum three years (among other hurdles). Because there is no effective organic control of pecan scab, trying to go ‘organic’ may mean drastic losses on their orchard and drastic losses means big hits to their income.

Although Becky and George would like to eliminate all use of pesticides one day, for now they are satisfied with sustainable small-scale farming. As Becky told me, sustainable cannot only be defined in relation to the environment, there has to be something in it for farmers too. If not, there is little motivation to continue these practices.

Although I talk about pecan farming here, this story is not unique to George and Becky. After speaking with many farmers on this topic, I’m encouraged to look a little further past a label in order to best support innovative and sustainable farming practices.

Certified organic is an excellent choice when we are trying to reduce the amount of chemicals in the environment. But, there are many benefits to buying local as well, including supporting small-scale farmers engaging in environmentally-sustainable practices. As always, the best way to find out more about the food you eat is by talking to the people who grew it.

A great way to meet them is by purchasing your vegetables at farmers markets or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks. Here are a couple links that allow you to search for farmers markets near you in Canada or in the U.S.A. 

For more information on the health and environmental effects of pesticides: 


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