What Makes Organic Farming Organic?

organic apples in cart

Take a mental walk through your favorite grocery store. You’ll probably see several items labeled “organic”, from fruits and vegetables to meats, bread made with organic grains, and even beauty products made with organically grown plant extracts.

We’ve been trained to equate “organic” with “better”, often without fully understanding why. Looking at an organically grown and conventionally grown apple side by side, you probably can’t see a difference between them. So, what makes one apple organic while the other isn’t? And how does this affect you as the consumer?

Conventional vs Organic Farming

The difference between conventional and organic farms comes down to one major difference: chemical use. But the use or non-use of chemicals leads to very different farming practices.

Conventional farms are typically regulated using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, designed to maximize the farm’s crop yields and protect against numerous plant and animal pests. While these chemicals get the job done, they also have concerning consequences when it comes to the environment, wildlife, and our own health and wellbeing. The chemicals don’t go away when the crops are harvested—they can remain in the environment, affecting native plants and animals. And, they can remain on and in the foods we eat, entering our bodies and potentially causing harm.

farmer applying pesticides to crops
A conventional farm may use equipment like this to apply pesticides or fertilizers to a wide crop area.

On the other hand, to be a certified organic farm, no such chemicals can be used on the land or the crops. But switching from conventional to organic requires more than just dropping those chemicals. It’s a total rethinking of how to run your farm—what to grow, where to grow it, and frequent experimenting with the best ways to do so.

A major principle of the organic movement is the awareness that what you put into the soil impacts what comes out of it. Farmers who opt to grow organic believe that there are ways to enjoy nature’s bounty while giving back, making the land and soil safe and productive for years to come.

How Does a Farm Become Organic?

Here’s a definition of organic farming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): Foods featuring the USDA organic seal are grown and processed following a set of regulations, which include using only approved pest-control methods, such as eggshells or crop rotation, to act as natural deterrents. Synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, and artificial preservatives, flavors, or colors are not allowed. Certified farms are regularly inspected for compliance.

A fully organic farm starts with the soil. In order to create a clean slate, a farm applying for organic status must have no prohibited substances used on it for a minimum of 3 years. Even if a crop is harvested during that 3-year period using entirely organic methods, it cannot be labeled as organic.

Each year, farmers who wish to maintain their organic status must submit a farming plan to the USDA National Organic Program. This plan shows how the farm intends to operate throughout the year and how they are adhering to organic standards. Organic farms also undergo annual inspections to verify the documentation. These reviews are completed by Accredited Certifying Agents approved by the USDA.

Common Organic Farming Techniques

organic vegetables on white table

In the process of creating a truly organic farm, famers test out and adopt several different practices, including:

  • Crop Rotations: This refers to growing a different crop in an area of soil from season to season. Different plants pull different nutrients from the soil as they grow. Crop rotation allows the soil to replenish those nutrients, increasing its lifetime productivity.
  • Companion Planting: In this process, different plants are planted close together, so that one field contains multiple varieties of plants. This helps to maximize available space, control pests that may be attracted to a specific plant but not others, aid in pollination, and promote beneficial insects, like bees.
  • Use of Natural Fertilizers (such as compost)
  • Maintaining Habitats for Beneficial Insects/Organisms
  • Biological Pest Control: This can include introducing certain organisms that prevent the growth or emergence of pests.
  • Buffer Zones
  • Cover Crops: Certain crops, like wheat, may be planted between growing seasons to limit soil erosion, replenish the soil’s nutrients, and keep weeds from growing.

What’s Prohibited on Organic Farms

  • Use of any synthetic or chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides
  • GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), including in the feed provided to livestock
  • Use of sewage sludge
  • Irradiation
  • The use of hormones and antibiotics on livestock farms
Piglet in barn
Livestock on organic farms are raised without the use of hormones or antibiotics.

Why Is Organic Beneficial for the Environment?

Farming organically limits the introduction of chemicals into our environment. But its practices help the Earth in other ways, as well.

Natural Fertilizers

Nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are used on small lawns and big farms alike, have been shown to run off into water sources as nitrates. These nitrates not only pollute the water, making it unsafe to drink, but also kill many of the plants and animals that live in these water sources.

man holding fresh compost in hands
Compost is full of organic matter that helps to build nutrients in soil and improve soil quality.

In contrast, using manure or compost to fertilize crops builds up nutrients and organic matter in the soil. This helps to increase the water retention of the soil and encourage the growth of microbes that retain nitrogen.

Protection from Pests

Many conventional farms practice monocropping, growing one crop in all their fields year after year. This can be an issue if a certain pest or disease begins to affect that crop. Should a blight pass through, the entire crop can be affected, to the detriment of the crop and the farmers alike. Practices like companion planting and buffer zones help to reduce the spread of pests and disease by placing barriers between each section of similar crops.

Limiting Antibiotic Use

Antibiotics have long been used on livestock. However, they are often overused as a preventative measure. Over time viruses and pathogens become resistant to certain antibiotics. And again, anything that goes into the soil, or into a chicken, can end up on our plates. If animals and the people who eat them develop large-scale immunity to the effects of major antibiotics, we’re in for a problem.

Protecting Wildlife & Natural Pollinators

bee pollinating flower

Bees have gotten a lot of press recently, for unfortunate reasons. There have been large population die offs due to disease and contact with certain pesticides. Bees are responsible for pollinating many of the food crops we know and love, including apples, blueberries, almonds and hemp. Bees are just one example of a natural pollinator that makes farming possible. By creating habitats where pollinators can thrive, farmers help their business and nature at the same time.

Hemp Helps

Hemp Field

Speaking of hemp, it’s a crop that can be grown with many organic principles in mind, even when not grown certified organic. In addition to providing food for bees, hemp plants can be planted closer together than crops like cotton, allowing farmers to grow more per acre. Since the plants are growing very close together, there is limited space for weeds to form, meaning fewer pesticides are used. Hemp is known to clean contaminants from soils at the same time it returns nutrients to them. And, hemp also requires less water to grow than cotton!

Keeping soil productive for longer periods of time, maximizing growing space, protecting against entire crop loss by companion planting…these are all positive benefits of organic farming.

They’re especially important as we look to the future. Population estimates predict that by 2050, we’ll have nearly 10 billion people living on planet Earth. Food security is already an issue around the globe and will be of critical importance as our population continues to grow. Now is the time for us to be determining the most efficient, productive, and environmentally positive farming methods to ensure a food filled future.

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