Andy Griffin and his wife Julia work a small farm near Watsonville, California. Each week they send out an online newsletter with info direct from the farm. This commentary originally appeared in farmletter #134 on June 21, 2002.
Newsletter subscriber Joanna C. writes "...there was a commentary on KQED radio last week regarding organic farming and this man stated that it takes more land to farm organically... The conclusion... was that organic farming would take over way too much land - and that conventional farming is less invasive...what do you think?"
Dear Joanna: I am enjoying the idea that organic farms are invasive. Better guard your lawn, baby, we're on the move. Here are some of the ways we are taking the land away from those who would manage it more prudently.
A. Besides planting out crops for commercial harvest, an organic farmer may dedicate some of the ground they cultivate to trap crops, which attract insect pests away from food crops. Conversely an organic grower may plant out strips of land in insectary crops with the objective of attracting beneficial insects and providing them with a habitat.
B. It is a standard organic practice to let a percentage of land lie fallow under cover crops in order to replenish the soil. Similarly an organic grower may follow a program of long rotations between crops, perhaps alternating food crops with forage crops to ameliorate or avoid the buildup of soil-born pathogens that occurs when the land is under the cultivation of a single crop for consecutive seasons.
C. Some organic growers may even be in the position to leave some of their land entirely untilled to serve as wildlife habitat. A vibrant riparian corridor attracts birds and bats, which in turn do a great deal to control rodents and insects. So there we go taking up land. And market share. Already organic foods constitute 1% of all foods being consumed in the U.S. Do you feel threatened yet? Your commentator does. For some reason he is emotionally or financially invested in the status quo, hence his faith in conventional wisdom. He'd really be wigged out if he understood exactly what is going on in the world of farming. We organic freaks don't want your lawns, we want your minds. And little by little we are challenging the conventional wisdom and even reforming it. Core organic practices I've outlined like crop rotation, encouraging biodiversity, integrated pest management strategies and cover cropping are all being adapted by conventional farms. Conventions change as people's understanding of the world and their place in it change. Organic farmers are on the forefront of creating a new ecologically sensitive agriculture. We are learning how to cooperate with our environment and there is absolutely nothing invasive about that.
The conventional wisdom is that organic farms are small hippie-run affairs of no economic importance. Your commentator might be interested to know that the largest organic farms are all now owned by the largest conventional farms. The organic sector of the food market is far more concentrated in the hands of a few big corporations than the conventional food business is. That's right. For little guys like me the struggle is no longer to convince people about the desirability of organic farming practices. Small farms have great difficulty gaining access in a market arena dominated by a few really big corporations. KQED would be wise to focus on this issue if they wish to really inform the public about a controversial topic. Thanks for your letter.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farms. Sign up for the newsletter at www.mariquita.com. It's great reading.