Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Expert Found: Organic Farmer

One objective of Retracing My Steps is to find experts to trust, and learn what they know. Here is the first of its kind, "New Expert Found," in which we will learn something new (or rediscover something lost over time, now news to some of us) by delving into the mind of someone who has proven they know what they're talking about.

Sometimes these experts (like in this case) will have to remain nameless due to the perhaps unpopular nature of their truth, but that doesn't mean you can't ask them questions! Please put any questions to our new expert in the comments below and I will do my best to have them answered.

WHO? Hear from a first-generation farmer from Georgia who grows more than 80 varieties of certified organic fruits and vegetables for local farmers markets and restaurants, as well as a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture).

1. Can you describe why it costs more to grow organic food? Do organic farms require more manual labor and maintenance? If our farm subsidies were paid to organic farmers, how much more competitive would organic food pricing be?
"It costs more partly due to lower yields, and partly due to higher labor requirements especially for weed control. Definitely requires more manual labor especially for weed control. It is hard to quantify a good answer to the subsidy question, my best attempt follows. It should be more about reducing subsidies to grains and increasing subsidies to fresh fruits and vegetables including infrastructure to shelf stabilize fresh foods such as small scale canneries and freezing operations. As an organic farmer I would love to see organics get their fair share of the subsidy pie regardless of crop type, but USDA's food goal for 70 years has been "An abundant, affordable, safe, food supply". Unless USDA begins to rank nutritional content of food as important as the cheapness and abundance we will see little change with subsidies IMO. And I think those who seek the real truth about food realize how dubious "food safety" is in our nation!"
2. Do conventional crops better withstand the things that endanger an organic crop? How do you increase and protect your yield without using the petrochemicals that conventional farmers use?
"I do not believe this to be true, they just have more gee-wiz petrochemical silver bullets in their gun to stave off pest disasters. We succeed by growing a huge diversity of crops on our farm, over 80 currently, so that any failure is largely isolated to one or a few crops not our entire harvest. And also by investing in unheated greenhouse structures (called high tunnels or hoop houses) that allow us extend seasons and protect crops from extreme shifts in weather."
3. Do organic farmers use alternative approaches to watering their crops? For example, do you filter out chlorine and other contaminants from local tap water?
"We use water from a deep well, 400 ft., to irrigate our crops and we filter for particles to keep drip systems from plugging. Our water policy here has been focused on conservation which means a lot of drip irrigation is in use. We are proud of the fact that we have reduced our water consumption by 75% by switching to drip and mulch sytem from an early point in our farm's growth!"
4. Do companies that patent genetically modified seeds encroach upon your ability to farm organically?
"Indirectly very much so yes. The genes they have released on the globe are slowly destroying 'foundation' species from which all current crops were selected. Many times in human history these species were relied upon to rejuvenate agriculture when new diseases popped up. We could start from scratch so to speak and develop new hybrids with resistance to whatever the newest problem was. It is basically extinction, they [foundation species] can't be brought back."
5. In his keynote speech at Georgia Organics' 2009 conference, Michael Pollan said, "Can we feed the world organically? Can we feed the world sustainably? Well, the honest answer is:  we don't know because we haven't tried. We have reason to believe we can do it. But, we need to keep in mind we’re not feeding the world the way we’re growing food now. There are a billion hungry people in the world, even with this system that is spewing grain. Half the food we’re [growing] is being fed to animals or to our cars. Twenty-five percent of food grown in this country is wasted. So there’s plenty of slack. And if we reorganized our diet, there’s no question that we could feed the world sustainably. As I said, if we can get enough people on the land."

As an organic farmer, what do you say to the proponents of our current agribusiness model who claim that conventional farming methods-- which rely on genetically modified seeds, paired with petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides -- are keeping our nation well fed? Would we be more susceptible to famine if the majority of our food came from organic farms, or do organic farmers have modern methods of ensuring their crop's success?

"What I say is that our nation is not well fed! We have more calories than we need but that is a far cry from well fed. Again I must say that as long as USDA food policy is:  'An abundant, affordable, safe, food supply' with no mention of adequate nutrition we are doomed to get fatter and less healthy as a nation.
     As to famine I would argue that we are driving that bus off the cliff now. Our current industrialized food system is only sustainable with cheap fossil fuels powering it. Every day more people are added to the globe, partially due to the availability of cheap calories thanks to our current food system. What happens to all these people when fossil fuel really starts running out? How affordable and abundant will that food supply be at $8 per gallon gasoline and diesel? $12 per gallon? There is a finite supply of fossil fuel to use, we should be able to see this disaster coming from a mile away!
    I have no doubt that organics can feed the world, just not as it is fed now. It would require many more small farms and farmers to operate them, and way less mega farms. In a lot of ways it would eliminate our unemployment issues! It would also require nations to grow more of their own food, which is as it should be, how did it ever become our responsibility to feed the world by destroying the future of our own soils in the first place?! As Michael said if we can get enough people on the land it would work."
I am so grateful that farmers like this one exist. THANK YOU newfound expert - for answering these questions, and for what you do!

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