Friday, July 17, 2009

Organic Crop Production – Part 3 of 3

I will be glad to conclude this topic of organic production myths. I really started this blog to share what we are doing on our farm-but as I said in earlier posts I just felt I needed to correct these myths, primarily because many of my non-farming background friends were asking me why I was not organic and repeating many of these myths to me.

The final two myths I have to cover are that conventionally grown food hurts the environment and organically grown food is better for the environment and the myth that organic production is more profitable.

I could give example after example of how organic food production is not as friendly to the environment, but for the sake of brevity I will just give three examples.

1) Land required produce the food.

A recent study concludes that organic potatoes use less energy in terms of fertilizer production, but need more fossil fuel for tillage. An acre of conventionally farmed land produces 2.5 times more potatoes than an organic one. Similar numbers are found in corn and other crops. We simply do not have enough land to grow everything organic, and even if we did the fossil fuel and labor required would be prohibitive.

2) Erosion loss, increased fuel usage due to increased tillage.

Without the tool of chemical control of weeds the only reasonable method of control is mechanical. On my farm we practice what is called “no-till farming”. This means that I seed my crops directly into the residue of the previous crop. If I did not have the chemicals to control weeds I would be forced to work the ground to control weeds. It is not uncommon for organic farms to be fall plowed, disked, and field cultivated once or twice to get a good seedbed. Then after planting crops may have to be cultivated as many as three times just to control weeds.
All of this tillage requires tremendous amounts of time and fuel. Additionally the benefits of carbon sequestration from no-till farming is lost and the soil structure is highly compromised and much more venerable to wind and water erosion.

Ironically many of the people who support organic production are many of the same ones pushing no-till farming methods.

3) Increased Pesticide Use

By using crops that have insect resistance built into them we do not need to use pesticides to control yield robbing pests such as corn rootworm beetle and European corn borer. Without these traits we would have to spray pesticides-these pesticides also kill beneficial insects (such as honeybees and lady beetles) and in concentrated doses can be harmful to the farmers who apply them.

The independent had an excellent article on environmental impact of non-GMO crops which can be accessed at the following links:

Genetically-modified crops have benefited the environment, says IL entomologist Mike Gray, quoting .

1) Since 1996 global farm income improved $21.8 bil. from beans & $7.2 bil. from corn.
2) In 2007, 12 mil. farmers used GMO technology, 90% of them in developing countries.
3) Pesticide use has dropped 8.8% (359 mil. KG of active ingredient) since 1996.
4) Herbicide and insecticide use has dropped a total of 17.2% since 1996.
5) Because of less pesticide use, 2007 tractor fuel savings totaled about 100 mil. ga

Final Myth: Organic Agriculture is more profitable

Farming is a very low profit margin business, and when I say business I mean that in every aspect. Even my very small farm must spend over $200,000 to produce a crop that I hope will make yield $220,000 in grain in a good year. I know the farmer image for many involves overalls, a hoe, and slopping pigs, but that just hasn't been accurate for more almost 1/2 a century. Many average sized family farms invest well over a million or two million dollars or more every year.

If organic production offered even a 1% increase in overall profitability every farmer I know would jump on it, I know I would. It is profitable precisely because it is a niche market with dramatically higher labor costs. This niche is the reason that stores like Whole Foods and various others that sell organically grown crops must charge so much more than regular stores, often as much as 500% more for comparable products. But if every farm somehow began to grow organic production I would say the niche would disappear-but in reality the food shortages would be so dramatic that no-one would notice because all food would have to be selling at the levels now only seen in the organic stores.

Some groups have been honest and acknowledged these facts, but insist that we should move to organic production-or more often the codeword “sustainable agriculture”. While many in the U.S. would be able to absorb a large increase in food prices I believe the impact on those elsewhere in the world just make it not acceptable for mass food production, and that organic should be left to those who choose to produce and consume it rather than being forced on all.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Central, IL Crop Condition Update

I am going to take a week of from heavy subjects and get back to what this blog was created for this week.

I am going to start a new habit of taking pics of crops every 4th of July to compare progress year to year. Here is where we are at on corn and beans as of July 5th, 2009.

Actually that corn at the top is the early corn-the little bit we got planted at the end of April-it looks decent. The later corn is below about waist high, and doesn't look quite as good.

Crops look pretty good-for mothers day-not so great for 4th of July. I still have hope-little later than even last year but that turned out pretty good. If we get a late frost it could be average or even above average thanks to the rains, but if we get an early frost this harvest won't be pretty. No use in worrying about things we can't control.

Next week I will finish organic production opinions and the last week in July I will be a Farm Journal Corn College for a few days and report back on some of what I learned there.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Organic Crop Production – Part 2 of 3 (Food Safety)

I have 3 main beefs (pun intended) with the false information many in the organic groups are spreading:

  • Myth #1-Conventionally grown food is unhealthy and can make you sick, organic is healthier.

  • Myth #2-Conventionally grown food hurts the environment

  • Myth #3-Organic Agriculture is more profitable.

    This week I will dispute the myth that organic food is somehow healthier, next week I will discuss environmental impact and profitability of organic farming.

    Myth 1 - Organic Food is Healthier

    According to the American Dietetic Association: “Research has shown that nutritionally there is no evidence that food grown organically is no better or safer than conventionally grown produce. Organic foods differ only in the way they are grown and processed”.

    There is a good article at the Mayo Clinic’s website that does a good job defining organic production. The Mayo article states: “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn't claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.”

    Corn syrup used as a sweetener instead of sugar is one that has gotten a lot of negative press and really bean spread by many anti-farm groups. Many studies have shown that the sugar molecule from corn sweetener is basically no different than a sugar molecule from sugar cane and your body can not tell a difference nor treat them differenrly.. Oh, there is one difference-the one from corn is much cheaper to produce. Why anyone would want to make food more expensive I can not understand.

    The extent that some will go to spread this falsehood is maddening, and sometimes just plain sad. The most tragic example of this is the group that convinced the government of Zambia to reject 10,000 TONS of corn given in aid to that country because it was GMO corn-and that it was poison. This is a country where people are starving to death-literally-and they convinced them to turn away perfectly safe food that is eaten every day in this country. To read more on this tragic story follow this link:

These same groups are the ones that are now going after local school systems and universities and state legislatures lobbying them to purchase a percentage of the food to be organic (at often much higher prices) than their existing sources.
If individuals for whatever personal reason they have choose to buy organic food I have no problem with that, but to ignore the science and require me to do the same, or institutions that I support either with my tuition dollars or tax dollars is not right.

Food scares are always good news for the organic food industry. Some groups have tried to use recent e-coli outbreaks such as the one on the spinach farm in California and others to make claims that “industrial” agriculture is somehow less safe. There is absolutely no research showing that organically produced food is any safter, and in many cases it seems to me would be much less. The ecoli outbreak on spinach was caused my animal waste washing into the irrigation system and getting spread onto the spinach. It seems to me that organic farms which must use natural fertilizers such as animal waste would be much more likely to cause ecoli than one using synthetic fertilizers.

Those who chose to grow organic or purchase organic products I am fine with that, if you perceive they taste better or it makes you feel better then by all means you should. But please don’t try to force others to follow more these expensive options that would result in more expensive food for those who can least afford it without the science to support it.