When the Fringe becomes the Cutting Edge

Even just a few years ago, there weren’t many places for an organic farmer to turn to for advice or guidance.  I remember having to explain to a USDA employee the difference between manure and compost.  County farm advisors focused their research projects exclusively on the problems of conventional farmers.  And farm publications, if they covered organic at all, might have a small section in the back with one short article in each issue.
The other day I had a spare moment to skim through the pile of farming publications threatening to topple my inbox.  But instead of quickly skimming the pages for important news, I found myself having to stop and read a number of articles with the word “Organic” in the title.
One of those articles offered a clue.  It was titled: “Demand for Organic Products Outstrips Supply”.  While this has been true for at least ten years, it has also been true that conventionally grown crops have still represented 98% of all food grown in the U.S.  Now, however, organic looks to be capable of approaching 5% of the market, with over 50% of consumers now making purchases every week.  Those are numbers that no one can ignore.  Even publishers of farm magazines.
So organic food is mainstream now.  But do farmers and the research establishment still see it as fringe? Apparently fewer and fewer of them do.  There’s a new generation of farm advisors in California, some of whom are very familiar with organic farming practices and are factoring them into their research.  They are doing side-by-side comparisons of yield, plant health, and nutrient content of organic and convention crops.  And their findings are confirming what organic farmers have known for decades:  healthy, biologically rich soils grow happier plants that produce higher yields.
For many organic farmers, this is the moment of redemption.  For decades the general public has been told by the experts that “organic farming can’t feed the world“, that the yields are lower and that synthetic chemicals are necessary to fight pests and disease.  But these studies are also going beyond the results, to show why organic farming methods work.
This is exactly the type of information that organic farmers need to make decisions.  We can’t afford to do controlled experiments on our farms to see which practices have the best results, under which conditions, for which crops.  Our “research” is trial and error.
For example, over the years at Terra Firma we have identified which heirloom tomato varieties produce well for us and which do not, but other than simple observation, we don’t know why.  Now, a farm advisor in our county is beginning a project to identify how disease resistance differs between heirloom varieties in order to provide farmers with more information they need to make their planting decisions each year.
From the point of view of consumers, the organic movement has been leading the push towards better, tastier and healthier foods in the supermarket.  But the agricultural community has continued to see organic farmers as a fringe minority.  Now it seems we are finally “cutting edge innovators”.
I think it’s about time.


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