Organic farmers work with nature instead of fighting against it. We're masters of ecology and soil science, using techniques that build healthy soil and incorporate environmentally friendly alternatives to the toxic synthetic chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
Organic farming avoids serious long-term issues like groundwater pollution, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and health problems caused by exposure to chemical residues.
Building Healthy Soil
Creating rich, healthy soil is the cornerstone of organic farming. It’s what makes it possible to grow crops without relying on the many chemicals used in conventional farming. In addition, building healthy soil full of microorganisms can prevent disease by preying upon other, disease-causing organisms.
Every time crops are harvested or weeds pulled, nutrients and organic matter are withdrawn from the soil. If they're not replaced, the soil is eventually depleted of the resources plants need to flourish. So we have to think about how our crops will be nourished well in advance of planting time. The tools and strategies we use include:
- Compost — Quality, organic compost, which recycles plant and animal waste materials into nature's best plant food, containing high-quality organic matter and beneficial microorganisms.
- Cover crops — Whenever possible, we plant cover crops like Austrian field peas, bell beans, and vetch and till them under. These cover crops replenish the soil with nutrients like nitrogen and organic matter.
- Natural minerals — We sometimes add natural minerals to improve our soil's consistency and pH balance.
- Crop rotation — Planting one type of crop over and over in the same location depletes the soil of nutrients needed by that crop; for example, corn depletes nitrogen. Rotating peas and beans with corn helps add nitrogen back into the soil.
"A number of studies show that when nitrates, a common element of artificial fertilizers, are converted to nitrosamines, they may be carcinogenic. The nitrate content of organically grown crops is significantly lower than conventionally grown products." - UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Controlling weeds without synthetic herbicides takes a lot of time and money. Where conventional farmers spend about $50 an acre on herbicides that knock out every weed in sight, organic farmers may have to spend up to $1,000 an acre to keep weeds under control. We try to prevent weeds from growing in the first place by limiting the germination of weed seeds; then, we do all of our weeding by tractor or by hand. Other ways we control weeds include:
- Pre-irrigation — We may irrigate fields ahead of planting our crops to germinate any weed seeds already in the field, then we till them under before they mature to reduce the quantity of seeds remaining in the soil.
- Cover crops — Cover crops do us an additional service by keeping sunlight away from weeds, which prevents them from reaching maturity and setting seed.
- Mechanical solutions — We sometimes use a flame weeder, a propane device that directs flames toward the ground to kill newly germinated weeds without damaging the soil itself.
Organic farmers use fewer, less-toxic pesticides than those used by conventional farmers, and we rely on a variety of other methods to keep pests in check.
- Beneficial insects — Beneficial insects help us by eating adult pests, eating pest eggs, or by becoming parasites inside pest insects themselves. Check out our Beneficial Insect ID Chart to learn more about these farmer's friends.
- Host crops — We build populations of beneficial insects by planting borders around our fields with host crops, flowering plants that the beneficials particularly like. We generally use plants such as buckwheat, alfalfa, clover, radish, yarrow, coriander, dill, carrot, vetch, baby’s breath, California poppy, bachelor buttons, and alyssum. The borders also distract pests from crops by providing them with an alternative food supply.
- Crop rotation — Thoughtful crop rotation disrupts insects’ food supplies. We try to anticipate where and when different pests will threaten our crops and strategically adjust our planting schedules to avoid the likelihood of a serious infestation.
- Approved insecticides — When a pest outbreak can’t be handled by beneficial insects, we sometimes use insecticides approved for organic farming. These organic insecticides must have low toxicity for people and other animals, low persistence in the environment and low toxicity for beneficial microorganisms in the soil.