My farm and therefore everything I grow on it is 100% USDA certified organic. What that means is that I follow all of the USDA standards for organic production and that I undergo an inspection every year to certify that I am indeed following the rules.
So what are the standards? At their most basic, they state that an organic farmer must not use or have used for the previous three years any synthetic chemicals of any kind on one’s farm. That means no man-made insecticides, herbicides or fungicides. A certified organic farmer can kill no organisms with manmade chemicals whether viruses, bacteria, weeds or insects; even rat poison is banned. To be certified organic, one must use no synthetic fertilizers, no hormones, no sewage sludge and no genetically modified organisms of any kind.
I have been growing vegetables since I helped in my parents’ gardens as a young child, and I have been farming for the past 20 years. So, I didn’t convert to organic farming. It is all I have ever known. I learned it from my parents and put that knowledge to work when I started out in my first year farming in 1993. In all those years, I have never raised food in any way that couldn’t be certified organic under the USDA rules.
But for me, a true definition of organic goes beyond a list of rules, a list of do’s and don’ts.
Organic farming is a philosophy and a way of life. Since organic food has become big business over the past decade or so, many farms, particularly corporate farms, are going organic for purely economic reasons. To them, the organic standards are simply a series of hoops to jump through in order to get their fingers on a piece of the organic pie—and organic premium prices.
To me, farming organically means farming in a way that is harmonious with Nature. It means realizing that Nature is the true expert farmer. An ecosystem is a master farmer, producing abundant food for all the living beings within it. Nature produces food for each organism without harming the environment for other organisms. My goal as an organic farmer is to learn enough about Nature and through Nature to be able to produce food for humans without despoiling and destroying the environment for all other living things. I still have a lot to learn.
Farmers should be able to raise food without polluting the air and water, without degrading the health and fertility of the soil, without destroying biodiversity and without leaving our children a less healthy planet. This statement is self-evident and no farmer, no consumer would argue over its validity. In practice, however, it is a radical notion, for most of our agriculture today does, in fact, pollute the air and water, degrade the soil, destroy biodiversity and leave the planet a less hospitable place for future generations. I see it my duty as a farmer to fight this trend.
In short, I’d rather have you rather than the USDA decide whether I am “organic” (or natural or sustainable) enough for you. You are welcome to come to my farm anytime. You can do your own inspection and conduct your own certification process.
So that is the short answer. To give a complete answer to what farming organically really means, I would have to write a book.
Wait a minute. Come to think of it, I already have. My booklet “Organic Matters” gives a fuller answer to the question of what organic farming is. You can read selections from it here or order the complete essay by emailing my sister Terra. And speaking of Terra, she has written her own book about organic farming on Henry’s Farm. It is called “The Seasons of Henry’s Farm” and can also be ordered by emailing her.
Full of bugs? No. Will you ever find an insect on your produce? Yes. You might find a corn earworm on the tip of your sweet corn one week for instance, or a cabbage worm in your broccoli now and again. But it will be rare. My philosophy is live and let live. I know some people are so squeamish that if they see a bug on a vegetable, they’ll throw the whole thing out rather than eat it, but I think that is silly and wasteful. Look at it this way. Say you have an earworm on your corn. Earworms come in at the tip of the ear and they eat the silks and the kernels at the very end of the ear. Now all you have to do take a knife, flick out the worm and cut off the tip of the ear. Voila! You have a perfectly good ear of corn.
The other alternative is to spray the corn with a toxin that will kill all the earworms in the field (and other life as well). As someone once said to me, "Would you rather have a worm that you can see or a poisonous chemical that you can’t?" Besides earworms and cabbage worms, few insects are dumb enough or slow enough to stick around after a vegetable is picked. Sometimes you will see the telltale signs of where insects have eaten a little of your produce before you got to it. Often the greens will have little holes in the leaves where flea beetles were munching or the beans will have some gnaw marks from bean beetles, but I see nothing wrong with sharing a little of our food with our insect brethren. Sometimes insects can feed so heavily on a crop that it’s no longer worth it to harvest or try to eat, but if the damage is only cosmetic I will go ahead and harvest and sell a crop with a little insect damage. I certainly won’t go out with insecticides (even organic insecticides) just to ensure the cosmetic beauty of a crop.
Remember, just two generations ago, before the rise of chemical farming, everybody dealt with insects and their handiwork everyday--and were healthier for it.
Absolutely not. First of all, most produce on the wholesale market doesn’t meet my standards for quality, taste or sustainability. More importantly, however, I would never sell you produce about which I know nothing. I am not a merchant; I am a farmer.
That said, for the past several years, I have asked two neighboring certified organic farmers (Larry and Marilyn Wettstein and Dennis and Emily Wettstein) to grow sweet corn and green beans for the CSA to supplement my own supply. Sweet corn takes up a lot of field space and I just don’t have enough room to grow enough to satisfy the demand and beans take so much time to pick that I can rarely get enough to give to all members. I have known both of the Wettstein families for years and trust them as much as I trust myself. Both farms are certified organic and have been so longer than my farm.