Five Compelling Reasons to Support and Commit to Organic Farmers

Five Compelling Reasons to Support and Commit to Organic Farmers

My grandson Blake and I were lounging in thick grass, eating the yellow petals of dandelions, and I said, “When you eat this, the nutrients and minerals in its cells become part of the cells of your body.”

His face lit up. “Oh, it’s like recycling.” He got it instantly — a four-year-old — lying in brilliant sunshine in a dandelion meadow: nutrient recycling.

And not only do we recycle nutrients and minerals, but plants also have the ability to store the sun's energy. When we eat a dandelion — or any food — the sun's stored energy is transferred to our blood vessels.

Five Compelling Reasons to Support and Commit to Organic Farmers

Food was once relatively uncomplicated. All life on the planet needs it; all species eat. We all come from the same earth; our bodies consist of the same minerals and elements as the plants and birds and insects. Soil also teems with life, and it too must be fed or it will die. And yes, it consists of the same minerals and elements as we do — and we are utterly dependent on the microbial life in it. We also are utterly dependent on complex ecosystems and biological diversity. This is as true for the gardener and farmer as it is for those who live in a world of man-made structures and concrete streets. Every one of us has a relationship to land and soil and nature through our food — every time we eat. What a gift! And what a responsibility!

Our well-being is connected intimately to that of all other life on the planet. What we do in nature, we do to ourselves. This basic truth was completely evident to me as I watched the hundreds of guests at the 30th anniversary celebration of our farm. They ate corn as holy manna; melons were cut, and the fruit had a connection to and ceremony of our most essential relationship with the earth.

Food is the force that sustains us and the starch that binds a community — all life shares in the sacrament of being. Humans have known this for millennia, yet we seem to have lost touch with this simple truth. Why have we given away the power to sustain our own lives? Why is the vast majority of our food supply controlled by multi-national corporations, most of which are dependent upon industrial fertilizers and pesticides?

When my husband and farming partner, Martin, was a boy growing up in the 1950s on fourth-generation, extended-family land, his community’s farmers still were operating small, diverse farms. They had dairy cows, hogs, and poultry, hay, mixed grains, and fresh market vegetables. The richness of the soil was preserved by returning organic matter to it and by protecting the land from erosion — methods and understandings that had been passed down through the centuries. Martin’s family taught him to preserve the land not just as a farm but also as a community and ecosystem. They stayed out of chemical agriculture because they saw the death that it spreads — and not only because many pesticides are toxic to life. Across the nation, commodity monoculture and corporate farming operations had served to decimate human communities.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as industrial agriculture rushed in and pushed farmers to get big or get out, early pioneer organic farmers asked the old-timers how they farmed without the chemicals — and they began experimenting and improving on age-old systems, ignoring the universities who said organic was impossible.

Thanks to them and our ancestors, today’s organic farmers know how to work with the soil, the sun, and plants to manage fertility, pests, and disease through soil health and biological diversity. This is security. This is the future. It is our resiliency and redemption.

The Beginning of a Food Revolution

Martin was fortunate in 1973 when his uncles turned to him and said, “It’s your turn now to take care of this land.” They owned the land, but he had a home there, fields for growing, and eco-based advice.

At the same time, the natural food co-ops in Minneapolis and St. Paul were starting. Local organic farmers wanted to grow food that was good for the land and the community. The food co-ops wanted affordable, organic food, as well as economic and ideological independence from the monopolies of giant food conglomerates. They both started small, and the farmers and co-ops grew up side by side, supporting and influencing each other. That’s how revolutions begin, and today, the Twin Cities has a mature local organic food co-op economy, with over 60,000 members who are fed by and, in turn, support hundreds of local organic farmers.

Similar local organic food systems have developed all around the country —people are standing up and choosing the love affair: a relationship with food and all related life. And it’s not a backward-looking movement to old-fashioned methods. It is moving forward — forward to an agricultural system that builds rather than destroys, one that protects health and biological diversity, soil, air, and water quality. Forward to a food system based on economic stability and security for farmers and consumers. Forward to a food system designed on principles of renewability that is reliable, resilient, and decentralized.

Organic farming is so much more than just a set of standards and a marketing label, more than just a way to make money in a competitive industry, more than just a growing system that doesn’t use chemical inputs. Organic farming has the potential to be solely based on renewable energy: the sun.

As long as the sun rises every morning, organic farming systems will remain viable. It is the only form of agriculture with the potential to be completely renewable. But knowing is not enough. We must commit, and we must engage others. Why? There are five compelling reasons:

1. Climate Change

Organic agriculture provides solutions to many of the major challenges facing humans and the planet today — foremost, climate change and peak oil.

In the last decade, a growing number of scientists specializing in climatology and atmospherics have become increasingly concerned that the world has entered an era of rapid global climate change, much of which is attributable to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity. Agriculture (and the food we eat) is a significant contributor to this problem.

Conventional agricultural systems reliant on off-farm inputs require enormous amounts of fossil fuels to mine, manufacture, transport, and apply fertilizers and pesticides. These processes release greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that agricultural land use contributes 12 percent of global GHG emissions. The EPA estimates that once on soils, synthetic fertilizers generate over 304 million tons of GHG emissions each year.

Data from the Rodale Institute’s 30-year, side-by-side organic and conventional field research trials shows that conventional farming systems emit 40 percent more GHG emissions than organic.

Organic systems do not use synthetic fertilizers; they build fertility on-farm through soil-building practices (soil incorporation of nitrogen-fixing legumes and high-carbon biomass grasses), reduced tillage, and the use of composted animal manures. Off-farm pest control inputs are minimized by relying on practices such as crop rotations to break up pest cycles and on habitat to attract beneficial insects.

When organic farming practices are coupled with local production, we can further reduce the carbon footprint impact of long-distance shipping. Local and organic food economies are capable of creating true food security.

2. Food Security

Climate change has brought with it erratic shifts in temperature and precipitation and increases in violent storms — a serious threat to agricultural production. Organic fields have the advantage of improved hydrology; they are better equipped to capture, store, and use water. For every 1 percent of organic matter sequestered, the soil can hold roughly 16,500 gallons of plant-available water per acre of soil.

At Rodale, organic corn yields were equivalent to conventional in an average year. In years of drought, organic yields were 31 percent higher! A 13-year side-by-side comparison at Iowa State University confirms what has been demonstrated at Rodale —organic fields consistently produce higher yields than conventional during droughts and extreme conditions.

Organic systems and yields can nourish the world population, and they are the only approach that will be able to do it in the face of climate change, natural resource scarcity, and growing demand. Today, the world’s farmers produce 4,600 calories per person per day, enough to feed twice the present world population. The challenge is not yield, but access, affordability, and stability.

To create world food security, we need decentralized, organic systems that support local economies. To solve world hunger, farmers in developing countries need economic freedom from dependence on external inputs, such as genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides, and fertilizers that destroy their already fragile soils.

3. Ecology

Environmentalism is about respect. To understand nature is to realize that we live in relationships — all of life is connected. We must be conscious of how our decisions affect other forms of life. We hear often about the importance of protecting biological diversity, but it’s not just about pandas and eagles or exotic Amazonian plants; it’s not just a question of habitat and species protection. It’s also about us and our food supply.

Loss of biodiversity is a huge threat to food security and, ultimately, to the continued existence of the millions of plants, animals, and bacteria that share the planet with us.

I didn’t know the phrases “biological diversity” or “ecosystem services” in 1985 when I joined Martin in farming. The land we farmed still had intact ecosystems — wild hills with vegetables nestled in the fertile valleys. The fields were small, part of the landscape. Much of the land was in grass, native herbaceous plants, mixed hardwood trees, and brush. Berry brambles, crab apples, plums, flowers, and chokecherries filled any niche. Unmowed grass provided safe nesting and seed for birds, animals, and insects. Wildflowers provided pollen and nectar for beneficial insects and native pollinators. Pests and crop disease largely were managed by the diversity of the ecosystem and rotation. I took these ecosystem services for granted. I thought organic farming was “simple.”

But our city had left no land zoned for “agricultural purposes,” and the day came when a portion our property was condemned to build a school. Bulldozers came, and the trees and grasses, the flowers and forbs, the fruit and bushes all were torn out — and then burned or buried. We could still rent the rest of the land, and we continued to farm, but it was in fields surrounded by land devoid of any life at all.

With the commotion so near, our crops experienced ecological collapse. Rain could not soak into the adjoining land; there was no life to hold water, and it ran off into our fields. After a heavy summer storm, our potato field was covered with fourteen inches of silt and gravel. Pests and disease, previously a non-issue, became a losing battle. There was no habitat or food for the parasitic wasps that controlled cabbage loopers and great-horned tomato worms, or for birds, frogs, spiders, and predacious mites, consumers of multiple pest species. Our allies disappeared, and the pests were left dependent on our crops.

But most frightening of all, without a living, breathing community of diverse life, there was no morning dew on our crops. Dew is a crucial part of the process of nutrient cycling and the life-support system of beneficial insects, especially in times of drought. We found it devastating. Eventually, all of the land was destroyed. Fortunately, we found a way to purchase our own land and transition it to organic, beginning anew.

Surprisingly, habitat loss through agriculture, not development, is the leading cause of extinction and causes 66 percent of the soil degradation in the United States. Is it any wonder that fertilizer use rose from 14 million metric tons in 1950 to 185.1 million metric tons in 2008?

Organic farmers understand that biodiversity is the cornerstone of the farming system and provide “ecosystem services” to society.

4. Health

Currently, agriculture in the United States uses an estimated one billion pounds of synthetic pesticides each year, many of which are toxic to humans and animals. But the EPA has required the testing of less than 1 percent of the chemicals in commerce today. Why so little testing? And why is there only an estimate of pesticide use when a hailstorm of toxicity is released into our food and environment, impacting our health? We know that the consequences are severe.

Atrazine herbicide exposure at time of conception has been linked to lower math and reading skills in children. Glyphosate-based herbicides (Monsanto’s Roundup), currently legal in our food at low levels, have been shown to cause DNA damage, infertility, low sperm count, and prostrate or testicular cancer in rats. The University of Minnesota study “Pesticide Appliers, Biocides, and Birth Defects in Rural Minnesota” found the birth defect rate for all birth anomalies was significantly increased in children born to pesticide appliers. Research has found that certain agricultural chemicals can alter our DNA, meaning the effects can be passed on through the generations.

Even the president’s Cancer Panel 2008–2009 report recommended that Americans consume foods grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and growth hormones; it warns that our lackadaisical approach to regulation may have far-reaching consequences for our health. Martin’s favorite adage is relevant here: “If we don’t change direction, we’re going to end up where we’ve been going.”

But we don’t have to wish and wait for someone else to do something. We are able to be the change, and life is inherently capable of healing and regeneration. We have a great deal of power in our daily relationship with the earth through the foods that we choose. This is a food revolution.

5. Relationship

It is no mere coincidence that the words “economy” and “ecology” come from the same root word, oikos, meaning “house.”

We cannot separate ecology from economy. It is not possible to have one without the other; all life shares this dwelling, our home, earth. We all are related. Our nourishment is of the earth; we are made of earth; to the earth we will return. Everything we do to ecology, we do to all life and to our economy and to ourselves.

Martin and I have another grandson, Chase, who runs up to us, singing, “Do you want to go farming?” Like it’s an invitation to come outside and play. In the innocent freedom of childhood, there is nothing he wants more than to be in connection with the source of food and life.

I take him up on his invitation. We wander the fields and meadows and woods together and eat whatever is in season. Whether it is crops we’ve tended or plants given freely by nature, he enjoys them all equally. He is there for the relationship.

Chase and I invite you to join us — to come “farming” with us. We invite you to enter a relationship with all of the life on the land that feeds you, by supporting local organic food systems, wherever you are, as if all life on the planet matters — because it does. Take responsibility for your food relationship with land and nature. Eat local organic. Buy from organic farms in your community or grocers who purchase local organic. Speak to your legislators about agricultural policy. Insist that local organic foods be served in your schools and hospitals and workplace. Invite your organic farmer to talk with your friends and family over a local organic dinner.

You make the difference. Come on home — oikos is depending on you.

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