Friday, December 9, 2011

Do we farm organically?

   Not very many years ago, farming exactly as we do now, we could have answered this question with a straightforward yes.  What's changed is that farmers can now only legally use the word "organic" to describe their farming practices if they're part of the USDA program that the government recently set up to regulate the definition of "organic."  So if, by "do you farm organically?" you're asking whether we take part in the USDA-regulated program, the answer is that we don't believe in and don't take part in that system, but if you mean to ask about how we actually farm -- what things we do and don't use, how we maintain fertility, how we deal with pests and diseases, etc. -- then the answer would be yes, except that farmers like us aren't allowed to say so any more.  We'll save the question of what we have against the USDA program for another week, but we'll address the question of how we farm here.
   As far as not using pesticides or synthetic fertilizer or genetically modified crop varieties on our farm, we would fully meet and exceed all the USDA requirements for organic farmers.  We never use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers or grow genetically modified crop varieties.  Just generally speaking, perhaps the most important thing we do instead is to accept some losses.  For example, if some strawberries have holes chewed in them, we'll cut the bad spots out and save those for our own family.  On a family farm like ours, it's not a bad thing to have some strawberries that we can't sell!
   We never use any herbicides; instead we manage weeds by mechanical methods (hoeing, hand weeding, mowing, discing, etc.) and by use of mulch (mainly straw or hay) to suppress weed growth.
   Instead of using fungicides or antibiotics to control disease organisms, we mainly just avoid problems by selecting crops and varieties not prone to problems.  With some crops we also use trellises or pruning or mulch to improve air circulation or increase exposure to the sun or reduce leaf contact with the soil, although we don't find it necessary to even go that far with most crops.
   Avoiding problems and simply accepting marginal losses are likewise the main ways we deal with insect problems.  We keep our eggplants in pots in the cold frame until they're big enough to simply outgrow the flea beetles when we put them in the garden.  We grow squash mainly in the first part of the summer before the squash bugs get very bad.  Potato beetles are one insect problem that often threaten to get out of hand.  We deal with them by squishing them between our fingers -- yes, it's gross at first (and labor-intensive), but when the only other way to produce a crop would be to use insecticides, it's a simple choice.  We deal with earworms in sweet corn by telling our customers there will be a worm in the tip of almost every ear and that they'll need to cut the tip off.  We do sometimes use a "natural pesticide," dipel (which is OMRI approved for use on USDA-certified organic farms) on some cole crops (e.g. cabbage, broccoli.)  Even though it's officially organic, it's our last choice for dealing with insects.  It's the only purchased product we use for insect control, and we only use it on cole crops.
   For maintaining fertility, instead of using synthetic fertilizers (e.g. 10-10-10), we depend on manure from our own cattle and chickens and goats and also horse manure from a neighbor, lots of leguminous cover crops, and ashes from wood and bones that we burn in our stove (for potassium and phosphorus.)  We recycle crop residues and leftovers like corn cobs back to the soil, and we recycle other surpluses through our animals like the sweet potatoes that are too small for our own use.  Using natural hay and straw mulches also helps to improve the fertility of our garden spots.  We never use amendments like oilseed meal from genetically modified soybeans or cotton for fertilizer (although USDA-organic rules allow the practice and a lot of organic produce farms do.)  We try to scavenge a lot of nutrient-dense things (manure and other organic waste) to bring back to the farm, but we don't actually purchase anything to use as a fertilizer or soil amendment, except for the hay and straw we use mainly for mulch, and lime (ground limestone) to reduce soil acidity.
   The way we maintain our pastures and the way we grow corn or forage crops or hay crops to feed our animals is no different (in terms of pesticides and fertilizers, etc.) from the way we grow our vegetables or anything else, but we also typically buy hay and small grain (wheat or barley) from other nearby farmers in order to fill some gaps in our feed system.  The feed we buy often doesn't fully meet the standards we follow ourselves, but at a minimum it's all locally grown and non-GMO (not genetically modified.)  Ultimately our goal is to see our community exercise full control of what it grows and how that's grown -- meaning people in our community would be making informed choices about how to grow their own food -- and we feel like dealing directly with other local farmers does the most to get us to that point.  Meanwhile we're doing a lot to provide for our own animals.  We're able to raise our goats pretty much exclusively on forage and garden surpluses (like greens that have turned bitter or gone to seed), and between the heirloom corn we've grown and our own surplus dairy we have all we need to raise out our two hogs without purchased feed either.  We still buy most of the hay that we need for our cattle, but we're increasingly cutting and putting up our own hay by hand.  Our chickens are fed largely on forage from free range -- we only "top them off" with grain at the end of the day -- and much of the year the grain we're using is the heirloom corn we grow ourselves.
   We don't give any pharmaceuticals to any of our animals.  That doesn't just include the kinds of growth hormones and antibiotics used by the largest producers, but it also means we're not using heat synchronization hormones (used with dairy cattle) or the de-worming chemicals that a lot of small farms depend on (especially with goats, but also with hogs and cattle.)  In order to avoid the need for de-worming medications we rotate our animals frequently, give pastures more rest between rotations, and we graze the cattle ahead of the goats so that parasites don't find their way back to their specific hosts.


Asheville Foodie said...

Impressive dedication to keep it 'real' - thank you for walking the rest of us through your process. Spreading the word of how to do this is important!

Anonymous said...

This was fascinating reading. It is very helpful for us ordinary gardeners who have the same pests, etc. to see how you handle them...sometimes we do the same thing. Also, so refreshing to read someone who has a brain and doesn't feel like they need to do what everyone else does. I am in an herb guild, and you sound like a great person to have for a speaker.