Organic and conventional farmers have basic differences in methods used, but in the end they both produce food for consumers.
Organic farming is a growing business in the United States with over $39 million in domestic sales and an 11 percent increase in farm growth, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation. There are approximately 20,000 certified organic farming operations in the United States and nearly 30,000 in the whole world. According to the 2012 Ag Census conducted by the United Sates Department of Agriculture, there are 2.1 million conventional farms in the United States producing $394.6 billion.
“[Organic farming] is increasing in demand because consumers want to know where their food is coming from,” said Tim Reinbott, superintendent of the Bradford Research Center. “Most organic food is locally grown so consumers know the producer.”
Although the demand is high, it is difficult to produce large quantities of organically grown food. Farmers are not allowed to use fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and pesticides, as in conventional farming. Most products allowed in organic farming are naturally made. The majority of these products are insecticides and pesticides, leaving naturally made fertilizers and herbicides very expensive and usually ineffective. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances provides a list of approved substances for use on organic products.
According to Mike Moreland, Missouri Corn Merchandising Council treasurer and a crop and dairy farmer from Harrisonville, Missouri, conventional farming methods are starting to use less fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides, because of the prominence of genetically modified organisms.
The biggest problem in organic farming is weed control, according to Reinbott. However, new technology is being implemented to help manage the weed population. Besides the basic cover crops, crops planted to grow over original crop to block sunlight to the weeds killing them in the process, farmers are pouring boiling water on the weeds to kill them, burning the weeds with kerosene and using precision agriculture to weed-eat accurately. According to Reinbott, the latter will have the most effect and will have a better impact on the environment.
Another challenge for organic farmers is helping consumers understand why their products are more expensive.
“Growing organically is more labor intensive than conventional farming and labor is expensive,” said Brigitte Zettl, an organic farmer located in St. Genevieve, Missouri. “Yet, many consumers are unwilling to pay higher prices for organic products. I am often forced to sell my vegetables for the same price as conventional produce even though that is not their true cost.”
The health benefits of organic versus inorganic food have always been in question.
“It is traditionally shown that organic is higher in nutrients and that they contain no chemical residue,” Reinbott said.
Organic farming practices do benefit the environment, and it is considered a sustainable agriculture practice. D. Rigby, University of Manchester, School of Economies wrote about “the relationship between organic agricultural systems and agriculture sustainability” in his paper that was published in Agricultural System magazine. He mentions that “organic” can be classified as sustainable, but it is difficult to know exactly what that means because there are multiple definitions of sustainability.
Trying to produce large yields per acre is a struggle for organic farmers. The lack of fertilizers and GMO use make it difficult for organic farmers to produce as much food as conventional farmers on the amount of land that they use, but the amount of money per acre that is made from organically grown food is far greater than that of conventionally grown produce.
Conventional farming has its own challenges including regulations such as the proposed waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule..
“Regulations are a big problem for the industry,” Moreland said. “The new regulation being proposed, Clean Water Act, could really hurt farmers. We need to watch runoffs from our lands better.”
While the two types of farming practices focus on different things, those involved are proud of their products and love what they do.
“It can be extremely hard and stressful work, especially the greenhouse side of our business in springtime,” Zettl said. “But, when I look down at an 1801 flat of cherry tomato plants and think of the 18 different gardens that those plants will go to and the lives of the families that they will touch, and then I look up and see the hundreds of flats on the bench in front of me, I know it is all worth it!”
Moreland shares those same feelings.
“I am a third-generation farmer in Harrisonville, Missouri,” he said. “It is my business, livelihood and legacy. It is what I enjoy doing and will continue to enjoy.”
Ultimately, both conventional and organic producers are working to educate consumers, so that they can make the right choices for themselves and their families.