Monthly Archives: March 2008

agritourism: put the fun back to in farming

hay buff

Another good post from Howstuffworks, this time on agritourism. This is really growing in Illinois. There seems to be a growing number of city folk looking for a farm-type experience. The options are many. Here’s a website of Illinois agritourism operations.

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another unscientific assumption

organic seed

I ran into a corn researcher in the hall. We started talking about organic. He’s all for it if that’s what people want to buy. But honestly, he says to me, we both know that we can’t feed everyone with organic. It just doesn’t yield enough. That’s an assumption still held by many — organic yields are too hopelessly low to ever think that it could meet the world’s growing food needs. There have been several studies looking at this issue and the conclusions are always surprising. Here’s the latest published study. It’s out of Wisconsin and is based on a 13 year comparison, published in none other than the prestigious Agronomy Journal, the official journal of The American Society of Agronomy. From the abstract…

“The results of 13 yr at one location and 8 yr at the other showed that: (i) organic forage crops can yield both as much dry matter as their conventional counterparts and with quality sufficient to produce as much milk; and (ii) organic corn (Zea mays L.), soybean [Glycine max (L.) Merr.], and winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) can produce 90% as well as their conventionally managed counterparts.”

90% is still lower, but I always think about the billions we have spent on research and technology to get conventional yields where they are today. I have to wonder what the yield potential of organic might be if we devoted real resources to it’s development. Resources to overcome issues like this…

“Combining Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trial (WICST) data with other published reports revealed that in 34% of the site-years, weed control was such a problem, mostly due to wet spring weather reducing the effectiveness of mechanical weed control techniques, that the relative yields of low-input corn and soybean were only 74% of conventional systems. However, in the other 66% of the cases, where mechanical weed control was effective, the relative yield of the low-input crops was 99% of conventional systems.” [emphasis added]

OK, so in normal years organic can produce yields equal to conventional. A big part of this is farmer management skill levels. When a farmer converts from conventional to organic it takes time to learn the system. Over time, as the new organic farmer becomes more proficient, yields climb. From the Organic Farming Research Foundation‘s FAQ section, they answer the question, “Are organic yields lower?”…

“Based on 154 growing seasons’ worth of data on various crops, organic crops yielded 95% of crops grown under conventional, high-input conditions (Liebhardt, B. “Get the facts straight: organic agriculture yields are good,” OFRF Information Bulletin #10, Summer 2001.). This was by using organic farming methods developed and refined by years of grower experience, independent of the billions of dollars of support provided the agrichemical industries through USDA and the land grant system. If USDA would increase the small proportion of its research funds currently directed toward optimizing organic farming practices, organic has the potential to produce yields fully matching or surpassing those of conventional crops. Growers who go through the 3-year transition period from conventional to organic management usually experience an initial decrease in yields, until soil microbes are re-established and nutrient cycling is in place, at which point yields return to previous levels.”

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Major review of recent research confirms organic food more nutritious

State of the Science Cover

The evidence continues to mount — organically raised plant-based foods are more nutritionally dense than conventionally grown food. A newly released, major review of research conducted over the last six years, concludes…

“Yes, organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious in terms of their nutrient density for compounds validated by this study’s rigorous methodology.

“The significant margins in favor of organic food in several of the most important nutrients, and modest margins in favor of conventional samples for less important nutrients, strengthens the evidence supporting this conclusion.

“The average serving of organic plant-based food contains about 25% more of the nutrients encompassed in this study than a comparable-sized serving of the same food produced by conventional farming methods.”

The State of the Science Review (March 2008) New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods, is published by The Organic Center. The Organic Consumers Association put out a nice summary of the report.

The scientific momentum is definitely building to confirm what most people would naturally suspect — that organic food is healthier for people. It is now getting more and more difficult for the critics of organic food to wave it off as a trend or purport that “there’s no evidence.” I’m sure Mr. Junk Science will find a way to spin it off. The evidence though is growing and it’s scientifically valid.

There’s an interesting saying that applies here — “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” No one should understand that more than a scientist, yet the vast majority of ag researchers continue to scoff at organic and dismiss it out of hand, with the seemingly legitimizing excuse, “there’s no evidence.” Sometimes absence of evidence means absence of looking, a most unscientific methodology. Now that someone is actually looking, it appears there just might be some evidence after all. Go figure.

Seeing this attitude first hand at a major ag university never ceases to amaze me. The lack of willingness to challenge one’s own pre-conceived notions should be antithetical to a publicly funded research institution, a place where people are paid and protected in their pursuit of unconventional thinking for the sake of the public good. Now that evidence is mounting, research dollars devoted to organic from our health and ag research coffers should be liberally increased. As the public learns more, maybe people will start to wonder why this has remained such an understudied area for so long, and demand some common sense be returned to our food production system.

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interactive video conference on hoophouses and high tunnels

hoop house

URBANA – The first in a series of interactive video conferences being offered is entitled, Introduction to Hoophouse/High Tunnel Production Systems.  It will be presented on March 20 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 pm.  The program is available via live streaming video (must have a broadband, high-speed connection) on March 20 but will also be available for later viewing.

Click HERE for information about how to connect to the conference.

The video conference is free and can be viewed by anyone with access to a high-speed Internet connection on a computer at mms://video.dis.purdue.edu/agcomm.

“Building a hoophouse or high tunnel can be a way for farmers with a small vegetable enterprise to extend their growing season by four to six weeks,” said Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant, University of Illinois Small Farm and Sustainable Agriculture Extension Specialist. The structures are fairly easy to build using metal, plastic pipe or wood and covered with a skin of heavy greenhouse plastic.

Speakers and topics include:

Matt Kleinhenz, Ohio State University Extension vegetable crop specialist, will give an introduction to high tunnel systems and the opportunities they provide, considerations for implementing and getting a hoophouse certified for organic production.

Adam Montri, hoophouse project manager for the Michigan State University Food and Farming System, will discuss the different types of hoophouses and their characteristics, as well as purchasing considerations and installation for maximum efficiency.

Susan Houghton, co-manager of The Giving Tree Organic Farm in Michigan, will highlight how her farm maximizes production to meet the demand of various markets that depend on food grown in the hoophouses.

Mike Roney, co-owner of Tuttle Orchard in Indiana, will share how he secured his market with a cafeteria in Indiana and maximizes production by using high tunnels.

Time will be allotted for questions and answers.

The University of Illinois is joining Purdue University, Michigan State University and Ohio State University to offer this interactive video conference series presented by researchers, organic farmers, and Extension educators. The series is sponsored by Cooperative Extension Services at University of Illinois, Purdue University, The Ohio State University, and Michigan State University, and also supported by funding from USDA’s North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

The program will be archived for later viewing at http://tristateorganic.info.

For more information, contact Deborah Cavanaugh-Grant (217- 968 5512; cvnghgrn@uiuc.edu).

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is organic a religion?

organic zealot

Environmental News Network’s post — Greed in the Name of Green — is tongue-in-cheek, but there are some on the outside looking in (non-believers) who will see something between the lines that goes beyond environmental/health concern in its perception of organic. Call it “holistic world view”, or Gaia, or tree-hugging, but for some, organic is much more than chemical-free…

Congregation of the Church of the Holy Organic, let us buy.

Let us buy Anna Sova Luxury Organics Turkish towels, 900 grams per square meter, $58 apiece. Let us buy the eco-friendly 600-thread-count bed sheets, milled in Switzerland with U.S. cotton, $570 for queen-size.

Read the whole thing. It’s not long, but the message is pretty clear — the fantastic growth in organic is somehow sullied by companies who have jumped on the bandwagon and started making money from it. And all these “rich” folks buying these expensive organic products aren’t really doing so out of pure motives. They’re doing it because, for the moment, it’s “cool.” For the True Believer, it’s not enough that a more environmentally friendly farm system is being accepted and adopted on more acres across the nation. It’s not enough that people are ignoring the “experts” and waking up to the potential harm farm chemicals pose to our health and that of our environment. These purists are, for some reason, disgusted by commerce and consumers. Commerce has ruined organic, somehow stolen its soul.

Back in the 1990s when I was working closely with farmer organizations in Illinois promoting sustainable agriculture to other farmers, we used lament the slow progress we were making. Why weren’t farmers catching on? Why wouldn’t they all want to be more sustainable, deal with fewer chemicals, protect their soils, etc??? Then we started realizing that one way to shift the behavior of farmers would be for consumers to start demanding products produced in more sustainable ways. We reasoned that if the Almighty American Consumer stood up and said, “no more chemicals in our food!” and started buying only food produced in environmentally friendly ways, why, farmers would respond to the market, change their ways to fill the demand, and in the process, change the world. If only.

Unfortunately, people (even farmers) don’t readily change unless they are, (1) forced to do so by some crisis, or (2) they have a strong financial incentive. Well, thank goodness we now have a strong financial incentive through organic. People want it. They want more and more of it every year. They want it so bad they are willing to pay a premium for it. And farmers are switching to meet that demand. And all those acres are acres NOT receiving chemical pesticides and fertilizer. Isn’t that a good thing?

OK, so mass consumerism and materialism are bad. I agree, but I never thought organic was supposed to solve that problem. Now we see that consumerism and materialism is the engine driving organic’s success in the marketplace and on the farm. And I doubt it’s going away. To live is to consume. And we are materialistic creatures. That seems to be in our nature. We are seeing it in developing countries as well. The more people get, the more they want. Seems to be how we are wired. Thankfully, we are figuring out ways to feed these bottomless pits of need and greed with less impact on the earth. And this is true not just for food, but for so many of our consumables, including energy. We should be celebrating.

Not the true believers. Not the self-righteous zealots of deep ecology. Because it’s not just about changing our behavior. It’s about much more. Much, much more. It’s almost like…a religion.

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here’s an idea — grow food for people

Last week I put up a short post on the New York Times, Op-Ed piece written by a farmer who discovered that due to farm payment policies, he couldn’t switch from growing corn to growing vegetables. Now Dan Owens at the Blog for Rural America has picked up on it and done a great job of expanding on the issue…

If getting rid of the planting prohibition increases the production of fruit and vegetable in the Midwest, we could also see another positive benefit: an investment in local/regional food infrastructure. That is a topic near and dear to us; infrastructure investment is perhaps the most important issue facing local and regional foods today.

Read the whole thing HERE.

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what’s going on in woodbury county?

That’s what I found scribbled in my notepad from the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference. I heard a rumor about this town in Iowa that has totally re-jiggered its economy around local and organic food. Now I find this…

woodbury county

“The Organic Opportunity: Small Farms & Economic Development” tells the story of Woodbury County, Iowa’s innovative economic development campaign centered on the development of local, organic agriculture. And it’s not just about organic food—it is a great story that demonstrates how local communities can create a different food system which provides its citizens with wonderful food, makes it possible for young farmers to remain in the community and farm, while simultaneously improving the communities economy. And Woodbury County in Iowa did it all without any help from Washington DC.

Go to the Local Harvest website to learn more and order a copy of the film.

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