Definitions and questions in organic farming

Definition of organic

rouge d' hiver lettuce, HVFarm

Fundamentally, organic production reduces our harm to ourselves and to the world.  Organic farmers do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides—herbicides, insecticides, fungicides—that pollute our shared air, water and soil. According to the National Organic Standards Board, "Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony."


All farming depends on sunlight, water, and soil. Organic farming builds soil by controlling erosion, adding compost, and growing cover crops that enrich land. Decomposed plant and animal tissues compose the "organic matter" crucial to soil fertility, and increasing that organic matter is the fundamental goal of organic practice.

The incorporation of compost--created under strict USDA guidelines--and cover crops builds soil organic matter most rapidly, to a target 3-4 percent of soil. By rapid I mean in farming terms--at least two-three years. At this increase, soil biology and chemistry support not only healthy plants, but also a healthy ecosystem where competition tends to keep pathogens in check. Healthy soil equals healthy plants; healthy plants better resist predators, thus reducing the need for pest control.

Discouraging pests

The use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in conventional agriculture is a tradeoff:  their use allows cheaper production and thus cheaper food in the short run, at the long-term cost of possible harm to ourselves and the rest of the world's life. This harm is hard to measure and detect, but we all understand it, because we no longer swim in the creek; we don't walk on the lawn barefoot or let our pets out after the landscaping firm treats the lawn and leaves their warning signs; frogs and fireflies disappear; the embryonic development of many species goes haywire. I acknowledge that synthetic pesticides have helped diminish human hunger and increase our immediate wealth. I wish all farmers well.

But organic farmers try different tactics. Sheer fabric placed over small crops allows entry of light and water and screens out insects. We plant cover and food crops for predatory insects--ladybugs and other predators like some nectar in their diet. Clover planted between rows prevents weeds from taking over, and adds nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Insect parasites kill harmful bugs. Patience works often, since a few cucumber beetles will cause negligible harm, and the predators may eat them. Your chard may have more holes than you are used to seeing, but I think it better to eat a hole, even an occasional aphid, than insecticide. We control weeds by hand or plow, by planting competing crops, and by mulch. There are some herbicides labeled for organic production. I have not had use for them yet. Plant diseases seem fewer or less harmful on land that has been under organic practice. Again, intense management and smart land use help. We place susceptible crops where air flows freely, and promptly bury diseased plants.

Although vegetables under organic production have not been treated with synthetic pesticides, a few naturally-occurring pesticides are permitted as a last line of defense.The insecticides allowed by organic programs tend to be short-lived, selective, or dependent on microbes (BT-bacillus thuringiensis-for example).  Because of their derivation from naturally-occurring sources, these substances are not as widely harmful as the chemicals synthesized the last century. Plants, animals, insects, and microbes have, over many generations, evolved with natural/organic substances.  

In contrast, synthetic chemicals are foreign to the environment and organisms’ evolved defenses. These substances are widely effective and cheap. Generally, they interfere with organisms’ biochemical processes. Since humans share much of the genetic material and live by the same life processes as other organisms, we are susceptible to these pesticides, although at prescribed application rates, adult humans are not usually affected in the short term. Organically grown food lacks the residue of synthetic pesticides.  Or to be precise, organic foods are only contaminated by the modern, universal bath of chemicals we all receive constantly from air, water, and soil.  There is, in other words, now an inescapable background contamination of our environment.  But organic food is not further contaminated by direct application of synthetic pesticides. See references for further discussion, or pesticide residues for a quick list of worst vegetable offenders from conventional farming.


I also recognize the higher price of organic produce as an issue. The seed and materials used in organic farming are usually more expensive, partly because they generally need organic certification, and partly because they are not locally available. The organic certification process for products and farms requires time and expense, with lab tests or on-site production verification. The Knoxville organic supply infrastructure is in its infancy--you can help by asking store managers for organic products, or better, for certified organic products. Given local scarcity, shipping costs for single buyers is crazy: shipping may cost more than the product. Yields in organic production may be lower, especially in a soil-building phase. The application of organic practice on a large scale demands multi-disciplinary expertise and intense management. This problen has not been solved on a broad scale. If we cannot produce as much food per acre as conventional farming, we negate our mission.

I hope you, my reader and hoped-for customer, will think of organic farmers from a larger perspective than price. What part of all our income goes to food, as compared to transport, or housing, or entertainment? What are the long-term costs of pesticide pollution? I hope the quality of my vegetables will convince you to keep me in business, and that we can together expand the organic market.