The word “organic” is a buzzword in the whole foods/go natural movement. Prior to my interview with Erin Silva, associate director for the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, I had a narrow definition of what “organic” meant. I thought it was just food grown without pesticides typically found at places like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and the farmer’s market.
When I mentioned this to Silva, she said, “The first thing that people associate is no pesticides, but that isn’t necessarily the case. There are pesticides that are allowed. They’re classified as ‘natural.’ The compounds are limited in number and degrade quickly.”
Silva works broadly in organic cropping systems with vegetable crops, row crops, corn, soy beans, cereal, grains, pasture and livestock. In short, Silva heads the mission to continue to grow and improve organic. My mainstream notion of organic barely covers what the whole movement encompasses, which has deep roots in environmental stewardship beyond use of pesticides.
If organic farming is just more than limited use of pesticides, then what is organic?
An organic farm’s key job is to build soil fertility and quality.
“Organic producers have to include aspects of management and are constantly striving to improve soils,” Silva said. “When inspectors come onto the farm, which is a yearly event, there is oversight that the grower is using practices that prevent, or minimize, erosion and help build soil organic matter.”
Not only do farmers attempt to prevent erosion, but they also use tactics like crop rotation to help build organic matter in the soil. “All organic farms use a rotation [as required by the NOP [National Organic Program] regulations] that is at least a three-year rotation. This helps build diversity of the system,” Silva said.
When I mentioned to Silva that I was aware of some organic methods to reduce weeds, such as tilling, Silva responded, “Tilling is often a criticism of organic, because it circumvents herbicides, but it does use fossil fuels. It also can make the fields more susceptible to erosion issues.”
And erosion issues fly in the face of organic’s main cause, which is increasing soil quality. Organic farmers are now using a different method. They use cover crops to increase nitrogen in the soil, add organic matter into the soil and prevent weed growth.
Silva’s program heavily looks at organic no-till and relies on use of cover crop as a mulch. Cover crops work at a multiple acre scale; they prevent weeds from germinating and suppress weeds in the field without relying on tillage. In addition to its soil benefits, cover cropping also helps sequester carbon back into the ground. In the long run, this is beneficial to fighting climate change because climate change’s driving factor is too much carbon in the atmosphere.
There is an idea around organic farming that it is going back to a more primitive way of farming and runs contrary to conventional farming. However, Silva wholeheartedly disagrees.
“One of my pet peeves is when people say that organic is going back to the old way of farming,” she said, “I would argue that organic production isn’t that. I think it disregards the willingness or eagerness of organic to really progress and to continue to improve and support and adopt new research,” Silva said.
To make her point, Silva pointed to a poster behind me. This particular picture was of a cereal rye cover crop that was planted in the fall and rolled down the following spring to create a blanket of mulch. Then, farmers planted the soybeans directly into the mulch layer. She explained that this is some of the new technology that organic farmers are using.
On a broader scale, the interest in organic continues to grow, as evidenced by a yearly conference in La Crosse that has seen a growth in attendees.
“Organic is a very recognizable label to consumers, so whereas it’s been harder to capture a premium off some of the other sustainability labels, like grass-fed or healthy grown, organic tends to more reliably fetch an organic premium,” Silva said.
The upshot of organic is that people recognize and trust the label, which lends the movement teeth in actually making a dent in the food market.