Pages from a Popular History of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press, June 1976/Reprint

A West Michigan Farmer

Explains  His Farming Philosophy

Why I am an Organic Farmer

By Joe Carmody

-From a speech on World Food Day [1976]

One view of organic farming that is circulated these days is that it means "Don't fertilize, don't spray, and then whatever crop you manage to get--sell it at a fat price to the local health food store." That may be the view that some people hold about organic farming but it's not my view. But rather than talking about what organic farming isn't, I'd like to say a few things about what organic farming is and what it tries to do.

First of all, organic farming's prime concern is with living soil. I'm often told by long time organic farmers, "Feed the soil, not the plant." In modern research there have been attempts to determine exactly what nutrients a particular crop will remove from the soil. A fertilizer can then be mixed to fill those needs. Plant the crop. Apply the fertilizer. Input, output. That's feeding the plant. The organic farmer, on the other hand, looks to the needs of the soil, determined through a soil test and applies the nutrients that the soil is lacking. The soil with a full supply of nutrients will then feed the plant--whatever crop is grown. Organic farmers would use different sources for the nutrients (many of them recycled materials) but would agree with the conventional farmer that nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash along with many trace elements are necessary in crop production.

However, organic farmers go another step in feeding the soil and that is in regards to organic matter. Humus content or the decayed remains of plants and animals is of the utmost importance to the organic farmer for several reasons. First of all it affects the structure of the soil. Hard, compacted soil having the texture of cement is seriously lacking in humus. Supplying the soil with sufficient organic matter will bring it back to life. Incidentally, bean farmers in the Thumb area the past few years have run into a bad problem of soil compaction causing a reduction in bean yields.

Another benefit of organic matter is that it makes the soil more porous enabling it to soak up rain more easily and hold that moisture for crops. As a result it helps prevent soil erosion. Organic matter helps to hold nutrients in the soil for use by crops. Below 2 1/2 per cent humus content, nutrients tend to leach out and nitrogen is the first to go. We then end up with nitrates in our drinking water and the aging of our  water systems. But maybe the most important function of organic matter is to provide food for the micro-organisms of the soil, the bacteria. In a living soil, there can be as many as 20 million bacteria in a single gram of soil.  Most bacteria, fungi, and other soil organisms are beneficial or at least not harmful to crop production. Feeding the soil organisms is  only part of a cycle, the continuous cycle of birth, growth, death, decay, and rebirth. Bacteria are involved in the decay process, a very necessary step in the cycle. Imagine our situation if nothing ever decayed! We would be more than neck deep in organic matter, no doubt. In the decay process of organic matter carbon is released back to the atmosphere to continue its own cycle.

That's the importance of organic matter. At one time the maintenance of the humus content of the soil was an easier matter. In the past most of the population was involved in farming. Farms were small, fairly self-sufficient units. Little left the farm, little was brought in. There was a diversity of crops and livestock that blended together. Crop wastes and animal manure were following crop in rotation. The cycle was completed within the boundaries of the farm. Humus could be maintained. But the scene has changed now. Instead of diversity, farms now tend toward specialization. Most of the products are shipped off the farm. The nutrients and humus consumed in the production of those crops leave the land--for the cities, for export to other countries. They leave the land and are not returned. As a result, fertilizers are manufactured to make up for he loss of nutrients. But humus is neglected. the organic matter of our farmlands ends up in our water systems and the landfills of the cities. The loss of the farm is the headache of the city. Where to put all the waste? Hardly a day goes by without mention in the news of the disputes over the Plainfield Township landfill. We must begin to return the "wastes" of the city to our farmland. The cycle again must be completed.

The condition of the soil is also directly linked to the problem of insect pests. In the case of insect problems, the organic farmer again looks to the soil for the answer. A healthy living soil will feed the crop making it strong enough to resist the attacks of insect pests. The organic farmer deals in preventive medicine. As was true of bacteria, the majority of insects are beneficial or harmless to crop production. In addition, there are natural checks on pest insects, including other predator and parasitic insects. Michigan State University has researched beneficial insect controls for the cereal leaf beetle, the alfalfa weevil, and European red mite to name just some of their successes. On the other hand, the use of toxic sprays to control insect pests has had the effect of killing off the beneficial insects as well as the pest, thus upsetting all  natural controls. And, after a time, pest strains evolve that are resistant to the insecticide sprays so that new sprays have to be developed. A booming business for the chemical companies, but a constant drain on the farmer's pocket book.

About the effect of these chemical sprays on the environment and health, there is much concern and controversy in this area. I leave it to others more versed on it than I to speak on that topic. But, I will say that as soon as one chemical spray is removed from use, another spray is introduced. Studies are conducted on individual chemicals to determine whether or not they are safe. DDT, chlordane, heptachlor, dieldrin, aldrin--the list could go on. They are scrutinized individually. But the big unknown is--what happens when a number of these chemicals are placed together in a living, changing soil? The combinations are many. The possibilities are awesome.

. . . Farmers have traditionally been concerned with quantitative yields--bushels, tons, etc. per acre. Rather than measuring yields in tons or bushels, my feeling is that the real productivity of the land should be measured by how many animals or humans an acre can feed adequately. It's possible to increase the yields of a crop and yet have no increase in total food nutrients.

So much for the theory of organic farming. Lots of nice sounding ideas for Food Day. But what about the practice? Many people would say, organic methods are fine for the backyard garden but they aren't practical on a farm scale. Or, it wold be OK for a rich hobby farmer, but too expensive for the ordinary farmer. Or, it's just plain unproductive. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz has commented that if we switch to organic farming, the decision would have to be made as to which 50 million people were going to starve to death.

Needless to say, I reject all of those arguments. I'd like to mention a study that was completed last year by Washington University of St. Louis, MO. The study shows that organic farming is both possible and practical. In a survey of some corn belt farms--mean size as over 400 acres--matching organic farms with conventional farms, the group's findings were that:

  1. There was no significant difference in production between the two groups.

  2. Both groups made about the same amount of money.

  3. Organic farmers produced their crops with one-third as much energy as conventional farmers.

Not one-third less, but one-third as much. A pretty staggering figure. Some of the reasons for his tremendous savings on energy are:

  1. Primarily, the non-use of petroleum-based fertilizers and insect and weed sprays. Ninety per cent of all pesticides used today are petroleum based.

  2. More easily worked soil because of better soil structure. Instead of being forced to buy larger and  heavier equipment to work problem soils, organic farmers found that as their soils improved they were able to work their land faster and easier with smaller HP tractors, thus saving gas.

  3. Lastly, grain crops on organic farms tended to dry down naturally in the field. There was much less need for the use of natural gas to reduce the moisture content of grains so that they could be stored safely.

(For a free copy of the corn belt comparison study, write: Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri 63130.)

The results of this study were a real shocker to some people. It should be noted that the study by Washington University was a preliminary study and concentrated on one area of the country--the corn belt. However, the University of Missouri at Columbia has now undertaken a study of organic farming in general. Their statement in doing the study reads, in part, "This interest in organic farming is a result of concern over the impact these chemicals may have on the environment, health, and food quality. We are also interested in the economic viability of organic farming in the face of increasing costs of energy as it affects the price of fertilizers and pesticides. We feel that the uncertain future of the prices of these chemicals makes organic farming a subject of growing importance."

Organic farming is practical--and becoming more necessary all the time. Figures from Cornell University recently indicate that if all the farmers in the world used chemicals as we do in the U. S., the known world reserves of petroleum would last only 13 years.

I don't mean to imply by this that organic farming has all of the answers. That it is the panacea to all of our food problems. Certainly not. There is a long way to go in our efforts to learn how to feed ourselves in a safe, efficient, and permanent manner. Farming is admittedly an interruption in the natural processes. There is a great need for research into how best we can work with those natural processes, disturbing them as little as possible. With the cooperation of all groups concerned, there is great potential. Just one example. Nitrogen is a very important factor in crop production. About 80% of the air is nitrogen, in other words about 35,000 tons (!) over every acre of land. For plants to be able to tap this source directly would take care of plant nitrogen requirements. This is already the case with legumes and nitrogen fixing bacteria. It is my understanding that research is under way to develop the ability in other plants to do the same.

Regardless of whether we are organic farmers, conventional farmers, or consumers, we must all realize that we are dependent on the soil for our welfare. In order to gain a perspective of the situation let's remember that about 71% of the surface of the earth is covered by water, only 29% by land. Only 3% of the surface of the earth is farmland. On that farmland only a few inches of top  soil will support our life.

There have been areas of the world that have been farmed for centuries with an increase of fertility. Other areas have been changed from fertile lands to deserts in part by poor farming practices. Where are we  headed? In our short 200 year history--and I emphasize short--our top soil has been eroded from an average of nine inches to five inches. The humus content of our soil has gone from 10-12% on the average in our virgin land to an average now of only 1 1/2%. Every year over one million acres of farmland are lost to competing uses, putting an ever greater burden on remaining farmland. This trend cannot continue if we want to be assured of a future food supply.

As a farmer, I feel great responsibility to provide others with a supply of nutritious food. I also feel a great responsibility to produce that food in a way that will not deplete the soil for future generations. The instruction has been given to me, "Leave the land far better than you found it."  Whether you are a farmer directly involved with the land or a resident of the city indirectly involved, I pass that instruction along to you today, Food Day, "Leave the land far better than you found it."

This is what Joe Carmody thinks.

Do you have a response?

Write New River today!

As many as 10,000 farmers are

practicing organic agriculture on

commercial size acreages throughout

the country, according to Rodale

Press, a Pennsylvania publishing

house of organic gardening and

farming literature.

You have been reading

A New River Free Press Reprint/June 1976

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Posted on Thursday, July 7, 2005 at 06:34PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment