Eating organically is on the rise in the U.S., but many consumers don’t understand exactly what it means to farm organically.
“I prefer to eat organic because I think it’s healthier, but with college I don’t really have a lot of money to buy it,” said Kailey Elbert, a student at the University of Missouri.
So what makes organic healthier, and why is it more expensive? Elbert said she thinks organic food is fresh and has less preservatives, but it’s much more complex than that.
Mary Hendrickson, assistant professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri, said organic farming is a step in the right direction to farming sustainably. To farm sustainably, farmers must use practices that are ecological, economical and that also help the community.
“It’s a journey, not a destination,” Hendrickson said.
Whether any one farm is considered “sustainable” will depend on the situation, she said.
While it’s unclear if organic food is actually more sustainable than foods produced conventionally, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration. Using these “natural processes” to produce food could possibly be healthier for us and the environment. Without the use of many chemicals or bioengineering, there is little guesswork on the possible effects these foods will have on the body.
Most people know the basics when it comes to organic production, but the complex rules and regulations mean often there is more about it they don’t understand. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set guidelines farms must follow to be certified organic, and the process is complicated. According to the USDA, just to apply to be certified organic, farmers must have a list of all the chemicals that have been applied to the soil in the past three years, and must already be operating under their guidelines. Farmers also have to avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering. Organic producers use “natural processes” to produce the food that they make. Following the USDA’s guidelines can be time consuming and difficult, and inspectors check farms to make sure that they are operating under these guidelines.
Sondra Pierce, a farmer working towards organic certification of her alfalfa in Boulder County, Colorado, said one of the biggest headaches in the process is the documentation.
“You document the last time that you sprayed, or put synthetic fertilizer on, or used any chemical,” Pierce said. “Then from the following day for three years, you document what you’ve done to the ground, what you’ve planted, what you’ve harvested, what tillage you used, that kind of thing just so they can make sure that you’ve done nothing that is restricted.”
Many also believe organic is strictly for produce, but this isn’t true. The USDA has regulations for four categories including crops, livestock, processed products and wild crops. Each of these categories have different sets of regulations that must be followed, but almost anything from an egg to a bag of frozen peas can be organic.
While the price jump seems high for organic foods versus conventional, it’s actually rather small once all factors are taken into consideration. Not only does the USDA charge a fee for the application to be organic, but also the farmers pay annual charges, as well as inspection fees. The restrictions on organic production make it more labor intensive, no matter what product is produced. All farming work, but organic producers don’t get to use many of the innovations traditional farmers do. Not using synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals can be a challenge. New forms of pest control must be used, often requiring more manual labor.
Even though farming organically is physically demanding, it is worth it, according to Pierce. She started farming organically because there was a large market for it, and she was able to get a center pivot, a piece of machinery used for irrigation. Pierce said she loves the knowledge that came with this new process.
Being an alfalfa farmer, the biggest change in her farming practices came in her planting methods. In the past, she would harvest her barley or wheat, and then spray for weeds. After that, she would drill the alfalfa seed into the residue that was left.
The organic process takes longer, and requires more work. Now to get rid of the weeds, she disks the field, then plows it, then disks it again and then levels the field out and plants it. Any machinery used for conventional farming must be washed before it is used for organic farming, so they use some pieces of equipment only for organic farming.
As of now, Pierce is certifying only her alfalfa, but plans to certify some of her other crops, such as barley and wheat in the future.