Many years ago, I visited Rodale Institute. It seemed at that time the terms sustainable and organic were used interchangeably and denoted a range of meanings from a very strict personal farming philosophy/lifestyle to a marketing strategy and everything in between. It was also a time of some discord between organic and conventional agricultural philosophies at many land grant universities.
To begin exploring these terms today we need to first define what the terms sustainable and organic agriculture mean. I believe most people would agree today that sustainable agriculture is a type of agriculture system that focuses on producing crops and livestock for the long-term while having minimal effects on the environment. Sustainable agriculture searches for a balance between the necessity for food production and preserving the ecological system within the environment. To me sustainable agriculture encompasses organic vegetable production. When the term sustainable agriculture first came into vogue, I was somewhat confused as my initial thought was that of course every farming enterprise wants to be sustainable and continue to exist well into the future.
Organic vegetable farming may be defined as an agricultural system that uses ecologically based pest controls and biological fertilizers derived largely from animal and plant wastes and nitrogen-fixing cover crops. Modern organic farming evolved as a response to the environmental harm thought to be caused by conventional agriculture’s use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
The benefits often stated by those farming organically compared to conventional agriculture is that organic farming uses fewer pesticides, reduces soil erosion, decreases nitrate leaching into groundwater and surface water, and recycles animal wastes back into the farm. These benefits are often counterbalanced by higher costs of food for consumers and generally lower yields. The challenge has been for modern organic agriculture to maintain its environmental benefits, increase yields, and reduce prices while meeting the challenges of the potential climate change and an ever-increasing world population.
It is important to emphasize that the USDA regulates the use of the term “organic.” To become certified organic, a grower must use production and handling practices in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP) and becomes certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency.
The two areas that represent the backbone of an organic production system is management of soil fertility and use of pesticides. The goal of soil fertility management is to maintain or improve the condition of the soil and minimize its degradation. This is accomplished by using sound crop rotations, green manures and cover crops, plant and animal matter, and fertilizers or soil amendments allowable according to the National List of approved materials. Soil testing should be practiced to determine pH and levels of phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Composted materials should be tested to determine their nutrient value in the amount of nitrogen, phosphate and potash. The nutrient values found in different types of animal manures and green manures can be readily found in many commercial vegetable production guides/publications throughout the country. It is important to be aware that the regulations for using raw manure will most likely be affected by the Food Safety Modernization Act.
Fertilizers and soil amendments allowable according to the National List are available to complement other fertility practices. Mined materials such as rock phosphate and greensand
can be used to supply plant nutrients. Plant or animal ashes can also be used to improve soil fertility if they have not been combined or treated with a prohibited substance and are not themselves a prohibited substance. It should be noted that some fertilizers and soil amendments labeled as “natural” or “organic” may not be allowed in organic production. If in doubt check with your certifying agency before applying any material to your fields.
One of the limitations to using organic fertilizers is that allowable fertilizers are sometimes difficult to find commercially, although this is improving as the industry continues to grow. In addition, allowable fertilizers generally cost considerably more than synthetic fertilizers. They also tend to be low in the amount of nutrients they supply and therefore may need to be applied in larger amounts to be effective. Lastly, organic fertilizers can be difficult to blend and I remember trying to apply fish emulsion through a drip irrigation system. It is best to use them to complement other primary fertility practices such as compost, cover crops and animal manures.
Pest management is the other major pillar in the organic system and must be approached using various management tactics to avoid the pest problem rather than using pesticides to kill them. Preventive pest management options include use of cultural techniques, physical barriers and biological controls. Any grower, not just organic, should determine the potential common pests of vegetable crops they are going to be growing before planting. Cultural techniques, physical barriers and/or biological controls can then be selected to effectively manage potential pests. Cultural techniques include good site and cultivar selection, proper moisture and nutrient management, sanitation, rouging, vector management, manipulating harvest schedules, crop rotation, using cover crops and green manures, mechanical cultivation, hand weeding, using trap crops, encouraging beneficial insects and mulching. Physical barriers include plastic or organic mulches, row covers, low tunnels and high tunnels. If these strategies fail, allowable pesticides can be used but I believe that more research on and evaluation of these materials needs to be done to ensure their efficacy.
Consumer demand for organic produce has been increasing and production has expanded significantly in recent years. According to the 2019 Census of Agriculture conducted by the USDA there are 16, 585 certified organic farms in the U.S. with a sales value of over $9.9 billion. According to the survey California is the leader in both sales and acres of organic production. The survey listed the top five states by sales as California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Texas.
There are many ways in which a vegetable operation can work toward various aspects of sustainability. A systems approach to production is necessary to identify and understand the significance of linkages between grower practices and implications on crop growth, productivity and the environment. In vegetable production systems, the diversity of the enterprise, size and scale of the farm, market and labor demands and climatic conditions provide unique opportunities or barriers to improving the overall sustainability of the production system. It is evident that more research and extension programs are needed to help growers develop and adopt production practices and strategies that increase the productivity of their cropping systems without compromising economic, social, and environmental sustainability of their communities. Many vegetable growers already employ various organic practices in both soil fertility and pest management but are not labeled certified organic growers.
I have had the opportunity over the course of my career to work with many growers and growing systems, from pure organic to conventional and everything in between. In the end, I believe that the goals of everyone involved in agriculture, regardless of terminology applied, should be maintaining good soil health, further refining and minimizing pesticide usage, and preserving the environment for future generations.
You can contact me with feedback or ideas for future columns at email@example.com.
Information obtained from Penn State Extension’s “Agricultural Alternatives Organic Vegetable Production” by Elsa S. Sánchez, Jayson K. Harper and Lynn F. Kime at file:///Users/wjl1/Downloadsorganic-vegetable-production.pdf and the 2019 Census of Agriculture at nass.usda.gov/Publications/Highlights/2020/census-organics.pdf
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