Organic agriculture is a way of farming that relies on good soil, clean water, sunlight, and the wit and wisdom of the centuries to grow crops year after year. Organic methods have been used successfully for the past 5,000 years. In the last 70 years or so, traditional inputs have been largely replaced by synthetic chemicals. Early on there were questions about the ability of synthetic manures to produce the same quality of crops as traditional manure and compost based systems. Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour and J.I. Rodale were some of the high profile early naysayers. It the late 1960s and early ‘70s questions of sustainability started to crop up and the current boom in organic production began.
All farmers need to replace nutrients and minerals consumed or lost while producing a crop. Organic farmers use cover crops, green manure crops, compost, and mined minerals as inputs. Organic methods are closer to the way that natural systems work. For example, living plants and compost are much more common in nature than anhydrous ammonia or 10-10-10 fertilizer.
Our soil is teeming with soil microbes that are busy breaking down the compost and plant residues to release nutrients that plants can use. All of our food crops evolved in this system and it works perfectly for them. Nutrients from artificial manure is available all at once and is applied in large doses once or twice a year. Enough has to be applied to last the crops all season. Chemical fertilizers have to be water soluble to be taken up by the plants. And since the plants can’t use that much food all at once, some of the fertilizer washes out of the soil and into the ground or surface water. Herbicides and pesticides suffer from some of these same defects.
Our weeds are killed through cultivation, crop rotation, and competition. Conventional agriculture has tried to use chemicals to kill weeds, forgetting that weeds are weeds because they are adaptable to adverse conditions. The weeds have responded by becoming resistant to herbicides. If chemical herbicides were really effective, we would not have found any weeds growing here. But, there were plenty. No weed has figured out how to become resistant to being uprooted and left to dry out in the sun.
Insects are usually controlled by letting the predator bugs do their job. For Colorado Potato Beetles and cabbage worms we use specific strains of soil bacteria to control them. We try not to kill all the insects. There are only a handful that eat vegetable crops. There are thousands of bugs that eat other bugs. Some insects like bees neither damage plants nor eat insects, instead they pollinate many of our food crops. They are very susceptible to insecticides. We go as far as leaving strips of the field untilled to provide habitat for beneficial insects. Some research shows that organic produce with insect damage has more antioxidants than conventional crops. Plants produce polyphenol antioxidants in response in insect damage. Agricultural insecticides have been a bust. Every year the use of pesticides increases along with crop losses due to insects. How herbicides and pesticides interact with our endochrine system is another topic entirely. Most results indicate that it is not a positive interaction for us.
Genetically modified seeds (GMOs) are not allowed in organic agriculture. They too are a hoax perpetrated on farmers and consumers. Problems in the field range from yield loss to spreading herbicide resistance to weedy relatives. They are completely untested for safety. They were approved for human consumption on the basis of a philosophical argument – if it looks like corn, it is corn. If it looks like a soybean, it is a soybean. That’s it. Bon appétit ! Results from feeding studies are not exactly positive here either. The EU is currently considering a ban on GMO corn based on Monsanto’s own data. Anecdotally, the deer seem to prefer our corn and soybeans to the neighbor’s GMO varieties. GMO sweet corn tastes foul.
We are farming in a cycle, there is no real beginning or end. Our growing season is from about the middle of April, when the soil is warm enough for some seeds to sprout, until the end of September, when the days are so short, nothing grows anymore. Planting begins in the greenhouse in March. Onions and eggplant are the first crops seeded because they take so long to grow to transplant size and the onions can be set out quite early. Field work usually starts in early to mid April. Once the snow is off the fields, the ground thaws and dries out very quickly.
Vegetable crops are planted in beds that are 36 feet wide and between 250 and 300 feet long. Between the beds is a six foot wide unplowed strip of winter rye and hairy vetch that provides habitat for beneficial insects. Our largest crops are bunched salad and cooking greens, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, winter squash, summer squash, potatoes, muskmelons, and onions.
Our markets are Twin Cities food co-ops, independent restaurants, and our CSA. We have enjoyed growing markets every year for the past ten years. Recently, the interest in local food has grown dramatically. Everyone is ready for something fresh and local by the middle of May so early demand is very strong. Last year the demand continued through the entire season. Sales of greens increased by 25% and sales of radishes increased by 50%.
Each year presents new challenges and opportunities. It is obvious that the climate is changing. The summers are increasingly hot and dry. Fifteen years ago, we did not need to water regularly. Since then summer dry spells have stretched to four, six, and last year, ten weeks. 2007 also featured quite a few windy days with 90° temperatures, making irrigation less effective. Yields of some crops were down by 50-75%
In 2008 we tried an innovative mulching method developed by The Rodale Institute’s New Farm project. A winter rye cover crop is rolled and crimped when it is just starting to flower. The rye is killed and lays on the soil surface creating a layer of mulch. This should work well with transplanted crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and even winter squash. Using drip tape instead of overhead irrigation will conserve water at the expense of a few hundred pounds of plastic. I hate throwing away the used drip, but it can not be reused. Between the emitters plugging up and leaks, it is just not practical. There is a pilot program to recycle agricultural plastics, but drip is not currently part of it.
2009 was a funny year. The summer was cool and dry until the middle of August. Then it alternated between rainy and warm. Tomato production was terrible. I had a lot of dry beans planted and it took until the very end of November to get them out. The Allis Chalmers All Crop Combine worked well. The crimped rye was a bust. It dried out the soil and turned out to be very hard to kill. The variable weather has made me reconsider the green manure program. One year of it may not be enough. Soybeans do not germinate very well in hot dry soil. If they are a failure, the nitrogen that the next year’s crops need won’t be there. Oats and peas can be planted very early in the spring when there is still moisture from the snow melt. They complete their lifecycle in in early summer. They will be followed by sorghum and soybeans the next year. That will give me two chances to capture the nitrogen that I need. The two years of green manure will also increase the amount of soil organic matter.
Spring in 2010 started a month early. The first greens and radishes were planted on April 2nd, two weeks earlier than normal. The season was hot and wet. It seemed like it rained every other day for a month. Crops that count on bees to pollinate them did not produce very well. The hot humid still weather lead to lots of bacterial spot diseases. This was the first year that we ran out of greens and radishes in the summer. The bacterial spot would spread from older plantings to the new ones. Disking all of the greens and radishes under and starting over was the only solution. Tomatoes also suffered from the bacterial spot. They were planted on a sandy hill side and, thanks to the crop mobs, they were staked and mulched. Both of which helped contain the disease. The comparison between the areas where rye and vetch and oats and peas had been planted the previous year showed fewer weeds in the oat and pea area and the sorghum and soybeans in that area looked better. Winter came in with a heavy wet snow fall and put an end to trying to combine dry beans. 2010 was a year when I think that I have reached the limit to what we can do. Continuous growth can only go on so long and then limits start to appear. Since nothing is constant, achieving steady state appears to be tricky.
2011 turned out to be a very challenging year. We had a cool wet spring that made it hard to get in and do any field work in a timely manner. It rained a lot. When it did warm up it continued to rain making effective weed control impossible. We have been doing more with crop mobs since Tracy at the Birchwood Cafe is so well organized. She set a once a month schedule, organized the volunteers and even provided lunch. Our onion planting crop mob got rained out but a crew from the Birchwood Cafe came out on Monday and put them all in. It was still wet in late May when the crop mob set all of our tomato plants. None of them were set in standing water, but there was water in the wheel tracks between the rows. The season was so wet that the river never went down until August. Willard Krietlow, a 90 year old neighbor, who has lived on the river his whole life said that he has never seen the water so high for so long. The bacterial spot on the greens was devastating again. We lost about a months worth of production. It was enough that I decided to stop growing greens and radishes on a large scale. They are a low margin crop and when something goes wrong they quickly become a no margin crop, something that I simply can not afford. I’ll still grow some, but not nearly as many as in the past. Some of the disappointing crops were a self inflicted injury. I did not want to continue using Entrust against Colorado Potato Bugs and risk making them resistant to it. I used the other organically approved insecticide that is labeled for CPB, neem, and it was very much a failure. Next year I’m going to plant an early trap crop and plant the main crop of potatoes a month later than usual. The hot wet summer was also hard on tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers. The tomatoes recovered to do pretty well, but the season was brought to an early end by a killing frost on September 15th. It was 24 degrees in the field that morning. Tomatoes were frozen solid. We had a great year with winter squash. The yield was good and the flavor was excellent. Since the season ended early I got the chance to build a root cellar. It is a project that I had wanted to do for a long time, but it was always too cold to do cement work when the season ended in mid November. Farming is a risky business.
2012 was the year without much winter. It was warm early and often. Many records for daily average temperature and daily highs were set. We were not in position to take advantage of it as it was completely unprecedented. One memorable feature was the warm spring weather caused all the fruit trees to blossom early. Then there was a hard freeze April 9th and 10th that killed a lot of the apple blossoms. The spring was wet with heavy rain at the end of May and into early June. The wet field conditions kept us from doing cultivation and planting at a critical time. Everything is planted in late May and early June.
I had high hopes of growing a three sisters garden with corn, pole beans and winter squash planted together. By the time we could get into cultivate the corn it was 6-8 inches high. Right after cultivation we set winter squash transplants and seeded beans. The weather turned hot and the corn took off. In two weeks it was three feet tall. The corn shaded out all the squash and beans. It did produce a tremendous corn crop.
The main part of the summer was very hot. More temperature records were set. It quit raining in late July. Peas just burned up. Broccoli and cauliflower hated it. Even the potatoes did poorly. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant thrived. Melons were the best ever. The weeds did pretty well also. The dry weather persisted into early winter. The ground froze before the subsoil moisture was replenished. That could be a problem if we don’t get very timely rains in the spring and summer. We will see.