Archives for category: organic farming

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The problem is that there is no money in it. We’re struggling to find effective treatments for the various six-legged monsters that attack our fruit trees. We vehemently refuse to consider ‘standard’ agricultural poisons. Left to our devices, and the blessings of the internet, we are making progress. It’s slow, but we’re in no hurry.

Last year we suffered a plague of rose chafers. It wasn’t just us, the entire county was inundated with them. They are an annual problem–but not like that. We used our standard, herb-augmented, insecticidal soap–but they are beetles, and thus, armored. The soap helped, but was not fast enough to prevent them from damaging our trees. Though all the trees were affected, the plums were the worst. I was beside myself–and for weeks, visited the orchard up to five times a day–to hand crush the bastards between my fingers, by the hundreds. All over the county, farmers were alarmed by the onslaught. Most fought back with pesticides as deadly as the bugs themselves. I won’t do that, on principle, and because I keep bees. I know the costs of indiscriminate pesticide application. Bees are insects, too.

From an organic perspective, we do not want to coddle our trees. There’s wisdom in allowing some predation. The trees will respond by growing foliage that is less delicious, even bitter–at least from a bug’s perspective. And that change carries forward, year to year. Most of our trees are young, and too delicious for their own good. Modern fruit has been bred to be sweet. It’s its attraction and its Achille’s heel. Last year, two plum trees were completely skeletonized–defoliated. Though they did leaf out again after rose chafer season–it’s not a performance they can repeat year after year. So, we were curious, after last year, to see how the trees would respond this season to the annual rose chafer offensive.

This year, we are armed. If things get too bad, we have purchased the tree netting, which is the ultimate in protection. And we’re refining our organic spray options. But first, we are trying to be observant, to learn from the bugs and the trees.

The infestation is not as intense as last year. We have no insight into that–it’s a ‘too-many-variables’ situation. Last year was the thing that inspires nightmares and horror movies. This year, not so much. But, I was talking to a clerk at our local farm and garden store–and he was reporting rose chafer levels like we experienced last year. He had that overwhelmed tone to his voice. He reported that his wife wouldn’t even go outside. Perhaps our trees are not so delicious as before? Also, though the plums are still the favorite victims, this year the rose chafers are also going after the apples, and even the pears. Are the plums learning to defend themselves?

rose chafer

In my research, I seen suggestions that intense garlic applications may make a difference. The theory is that the sulfurous elements in the garlic are absorbed by the leaves, and after a couple of days, become a systemic–discouraging the fine palates of our insect predators. Although I’d already done my pre-season mint and light garlic spray, once the rose chafers arrived I decided to give intense garlic a go. It’s working. That doesn’t mean that the pests are gone–but, since the spray three days ago, the levels have dropped to about a quarter of what we were seeing before. Of course, I have no way of knowing if weather, or seasonal variations, or even astrological influences are a factor. We are only one small orchard–with no control group. But, anecdotally, it’s working. We may try one more application in a week or so–if the numbers go back up.By the first week of July, the season ends and we can breathe a sigh of relief. Given that conventional farmers confronted with such an infestation will spray weekly with really toxic compounds, I’m feeling pretty smug about the garlic. Unfortunately, there’s no economic incentive to research the impact of garlic. There’s no patent…no way to milk money out of the bug-traumatized gardeners.

Next year, we’ll remember to start the intense garlic before the rose chafers arrive, to give the trees advance protection. I’m always perusing the internet for solutions–and I note that there is a product, ‘Garlic Barrier,’ offered to combat beetles. It’s probably much easier to use than my messy process of pulverizing heads upon heads of garlic, filtering it and then mixing it in water and a carrier oil. But my method was a lot less expensive.

We’re also looking at applying beneficial nematodes to the soil in the area. These microscopic warriors seek out underground larvae and eat them from the inside out. It might be of limited use, because, after all, rose chafers can fly. Who knows how far they come to eat our orchard? That plan would be for next year–to minimize their numbers, even before they leave their winter homes. It would also limit other forms of grubs, which can be pests in the garden. Every little bit helps.

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving the Planet, One Molecule at a Time

Today I’m re-posting an article from the Northeast Organic Farming Association on rebuilding carbon mass in soils. Though written for the layman, it’s dense reading. I apologize, but if regenerative farming is to make a difference in saving the planet, we need to be willing to expose ourselves to some complex concepts. For the gardeners among my readers, this may challenge your concepts about “what’s good for the soil.” Especially for row-crop people, this pushes our image of how farmers manage their soils and their land.

Studies are beginning to show that regenerative agriculture has the ability to sequester the excess carbon built up in our air. As gardeners and farmers, we can contribute to that process. As a planet, we must curb our appetites for fossil fuels–or we will fry in the very heat we generate. Though some throw their hands up in futility, we are learning that our soils may hold the solution to climate change–if we learn to respect our soils and stop killing them with the chemicals of “conventional farming.” It’s a two-pronged solution, cut carbon emissions and return carbon to the soils. As gardeners and farmers, we can build healthy soils and grow healthy food, at the same time we harvest the carbon in the air.

For most of the planet, it is a win-win proposition. We have healthier soils. We sequester carbon in the landscape. We slow and stop climate change, all while producing more nutritious foods for consumers. But don’t think this will be easy. It requires a complete re-thinking of the “how-to” of agriculture. The monied interests, purveyors of agricultural chemicals–pesticides and fertilizers–will be the big losers. Conventional farmers will resist change. If we’re lucky, and diligent, we’ll make change in time to avert catastrophe, and I say “we” in the most inclusive of senses. It will take all of us to make it work. Even consumers play a part, because they can vote with their dollars to buy foods that don’t kill the planet. Consider it to be shopping like your life depended on it. Finally, there is some proof that cheap food ain’t cheap.

Here’s the article. Enjoy if you can. Learn what you can.

Click to access 2015_White_Paper_web.pdf