Where organic farming has succeeded wildly in marketing itself, it failed just as wildly at explaining itself. Most Americans, when surveyed, say they would buy organic products if they cost the same as conventional. This reveals a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of organic: it will likely always be more expensive.

The biggest reason? Weeds. Conventional farmers have generally controlled weeds with synthetic herbicides for over 50 years. But in 2024, forty years after organic farming first got started, not a single effective organic herbicide has been developed. None. Zero.

It’s not for lack of trying. “Organic Roundup” would have a huge market, not just for farmers but for gardeners and landscapers as well, and many companies have tried to find the magic formula. But it appears that a non-synthetic compound does not exist that will do the trick.

In the meantime, organic farmers rely on a “quiver” of old-school techniques: tractor-driven equipment that cuts, slices, chops or buries the weeds; open flames that burn or dessicate them; hand-held hoes; or if all else fails, human fingers to pull the weeds from the ground.

Technology may eventually a find a better way kill weeds without synthetic chemicals. Two companies now produce “laser weeders“, and others have robot weeders that use optical sensors and tiny knives to kill weeds without damaging crops. For now, though, these high-tech solutions are very expensive, painfully slow, and highly specialized — the companies marketing them are focused on the largest organic farmers. (If you want to start a Go-Fund Me to purchase one for TFF, please let me know — j/k).

And even then, these high-tech solutions cannot overcome a common problem that currently renders all organic weed control methods useless: rain-saturated soil.

Conventional farmers have a variety of ways to apply herbicides to fields when the ground is too wet to drive a tractor. The most common is to use lightweight ATVs pulling small weed sprayers at a high rate of speed. This is a cheap and efficient way to kill weeds in between rainstorms across large areas.

Organic farmers, even the ones with the expensive (and very heavy) laser-weeders, have to wait until the ground dries out enough to drive a tractor on it and not get the tractor stuck or make a mess of your field.

The short break in the rain we had this week did not allow the ground to dry out enough to do any tractor work, but luckily it did allow us to to get a crew out pull and hoe weeds in our Strawberry, Garlic and Carrot fields.

But weeds are not just a problem in fields that are already planted to crops. They also must be controlled in fields prior to planting. And killing weeds the “organic way” is both slower and less effective than using herbicides. An herbicided weed will die as long as it doesn’t rain for a few hours after it is sprayed, but an uprooted weed will readily re-root itself if the weather is cloudy and wet — it takes sunshine and dry air to kill a weed the natural way.

That is a huge challenge for organic farmers in a wet winter like this one.

At Terra Firma, we have not had a single day since December that has been dry enough to cultivate weeds with a tractor and just a few days it’s been dry enough to use a hoe. Our overwintered crops desperately need to be weeded, and the fields where we had hoped to plant new crops this month have 8″ tall weeds growing in them. That presents several problems. Instead of one pass with the tractor to kill baby weeds before planting, we’ll have to deal with a mass of vegetation that will plug up planters and possibly regrow. And soil that is covered with vegetation takes longer to dry out than bare soil that is exposed to sun and wind.

And there’s nothing a farmer can do to speed up the drying of the soil.

All this means that in wet years like this and last year, we are at a huge disadvantage compared to conventional growers. And yet, people wonder why organic produce is more expensive than conventional produce. Consumers wonder why so much food is grown in arid regions without sufficient local water resources.

But since the invention of irrigated agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, farmers have known that the best places to farm are dry regions located just downhill — and down river — from places where it rains a lot.

Thanks,

Pablito