Tough Days on the Organic Farm

organiccollageCorvallis is no stranger to organic farms. We see the fruits of said labor at our local markets and grocery stores. And while this is nothing new, the bog of defining exactly what constitutes the ins and outs of organic farming can be incredibly dense, and go far beyond just the simple concepts of doing away with harsh chemical treatments and bio-engineered seeds. But how deep and complex is this rabbit hole, exactly?

The first step of becoming certified organic is making sure that the property the crops will be grown on has no leftover chemicals in the soil. This is a transition process of around three years time. After the ground has had no disallowed products on it for three years time, the farm can then apply for a certification. They have to apply every year, and for a cost, their products can be certified organic. According to Denison Farms, “The initial transition was difficult, but now that our soil is healthier, and with decades of experience, it’s a great way to farm.” If the farms apply each year, a USDA-approved organic certifier must inspect the property, as well as fill out lots of paperwork and host one or more farm visits a year, which ensure they are keeping with organic processes. The cost is also important because it allows organic farms to be a part of a market that they otherwise would not be able to tap in to. If the farm goes through the local “Oregon Tilth certification”, the first year certification costs $674 plus an inspection fee that varies, depending on many factors including size of farm and the inspector’s accommodations. After the first year, the cost of being organic is based upon the amount of sales made. For example, a farm that makes a profit of $300,000 would pay $2,279. It’s not horribly significant, but it does take a chunk of earnings out of the hands of the farm.

Of course a main concern for every kind of farmer are the various kinds of pests that can take over a crop. Mainstream farmers can use chemicals and pesticides to kill off these insects, but because of the limitations that organic farmers face, they cannot use all types of pesticides. They are allowed to use a few types of insecticides but usually only do this under certain conditions, namely when it is a last resort. A common one is Pyrethrum, which is an insecticide that is made from the dried flower heads of chrysanthemum plants. This is usually used to spray on a crop where there are many negative insects and no beneficial ones. This is called a trap crop, and the idea is that all of the negative insects are just in this one area and the spray will kill all of them. According to the owner of Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, another, more preventative, practice is to use beneficial insects to eliminate the bad insects. They do things like planting one crop that attracts good insects next to a crop that is known to have pest problems. That way the helpful insects can eliminate the problem pests; and there is no need to use harsh chemicals.

Growing plants has proved to be more than just a lucky green thumb, it seems to be both a science and an art. Gathering Together Farm shared their strategy for getting the most out of their plants, and ensuring healthy crops for years to come. They don’t look at organic farming as a sacrifice; they choose to look at fertility of their crops in a holistic and long-term way. Organic farms use a lot of compost that is made on site, which is good for the microbial health of the soil and helps plants naturally fight off diseases. Gathering Together Farm also uses a lot of crop rotation to help prevent diseases. In the recent past, soil has become more than simply a medium in which to hold plants. Organic farmers have figured out how to harness the natural powers of the soil to help increase their plants’ fertility without the use of fertilizers. According to Gathering Together Farm, fertilizers can actually damage the microbial health of the soil, by not allowing the good bacteria to do their job as well.

Despite the challenges that organic farmers face each season, they continue to do it, so what is the draw? From what is heard throughout the organic community one can assume that part of the importance is the healthy lifestyle of having food which has no pesticides used on it. Denison Farms, however, also says that it’s good to know they are helping people stay local.

“Since about half of the produce that Americans eat comes from other countries, we like knowing that the food we grow is feeding people that live within 100 miles of our farm.” Owner Tom Denison also says that organic farming is a good lifestyle. “I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.”

By Kyra Young