Organic farming is going mainstream, but not the way you think

One of the biggest blows to the organic movement was that it began to emulate conventional agriculture, embracing the latter’s monocultures, relying on purchased inputs and industrial processes.

“Big Organics” is often derided by advocates of sustainable agriculture. American food authors Michael Pollan and Julie Guthman, for example, argue that as organic farming grew and became more widespread, it lost its commitment to building an alternative system to deliver food, instead of “replicating which she intended to oppose”.

However, new research suggests that the relationship between organic and conventional farming is more complex. The flow of influence begins to reverse.

Conventional farming practitioners are now borrowing “organic” techniques to reduce the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizers and excessive tillage, and to increase on-farm biodiversity, beneficial insects and soil conservation.

Suddenly, many conventional vegetable farms are starting to look organic.

Organic goes mainstream

Almost nothing has been written about it. A rare exception is a 2016 article in the New York Times which profiled conventional farmers in Indiana who had begun using “cover crops”.

These non-cash crops accumulate organic matter in the soil, fix atmospheric nitrogen and add biodiversity to an agroecosystem, while allowing farmers to reduce artificial fertilizer inputs.

A tractor sprays pesticides on a field.

As organic farming has developed, it has gained credibility in the marketplace as well as on the farm. Organic farming has its roots in market gardens and smallholdings, but nothing prohibits organic production on a larger scale.

This often means larger farms, hundreds – or thousands – of acres.

This move towards the mainstream has caught the attention of many conventional farmers, who either switched to certified organic production or began integrating organic practices on conventional plots.

Market share is not the whole story

Even with the move upmarket, the market position of organic farming remains limited.

In Canada, sales of organic products are increasing by nearly 10% per year, and the total value of the organic market is approximately $5.4 billion. Yet the reality is that the industry is still overshadowed by conventional agriculture.

There are over 4,000 certified organic farms in Canada, totaling 2.43 million acres. But this is only 1.5% of the country’s total agricultural land.

Moreover, apart from the two organic heavyweights – coffee (imported) and mixed greens (mainly imported) – the market share of organic grocery products is quite low, at around 3%.

Yet the influence of organic is felt far beyond its own limited market.

Test the market

Many growers divide their farms into separate conventional and certified organic zones. This “split production” is a way to learn about organic farming, test the market and guard against yield issues.

In 2017, as part of an organic transition research project funded by Canadian Organic Growers (COG), I traveled across the country and conducted in-depth interviews at farms that had recently transitioned from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture.

Half of the 12 farms I visited practiced fractional production. What is significant (and totally unforeseen) is that all of the split production farms had also introduced organic techniques into the conventional parts of the farm.

With familiarity came confidence.

Adopt organic techniques

These are not family operations. The list includes the largest organic vegetable farm in Canada — Kroeker Farms/PoplarGrove in Winkler, Manitoba — and many other large vegetable farms across the country.

They used compost, manure, and/or cover crops, reduced toxic and persistent pesticides, reduced tillage, and adopted longer, more biodiverse crop rotations. In doing so, they had also protected and promoted pollinators and predators of beneficial insects.

Kroeker Farms, a mega-farm with 4,800 acres in organic production and about 20,000 more in conventional production, is leading the trend toward a more organic conventional system.

“We try really, really hard to use organic or biological type pesticides. [control agents] in our conventional because once you spray with more deadly spray it’s broad spectrum [pesticide]parasites erupt after that,” company CEO Wayne Rempel told me.

National trend

Similar trends are found across the country.

In Prince Edward Island, Red Soil Organics has started planting fall rye – a classic organic cover crop – as part of its conventional side rotation, much like these farmers in Indiana.

Another PEI farm, Square One Organics, uses cover crops, manure, and tine weeding (a common low-impact mechanical weeding technique used on organic farms) on its conventional plots.

Potato fields in Prince Edward Island.
(John Beales/flickr), CC BY-NC-SA

Cover crops and manure have allowed the farm to reduce its nitrogen fertilizer use by about 10%. This reduces nitrogen runoff into waterways, which can cause algal blooms and kill aquatic species.

The combination of tine weeding and perennial cover crops has also allowed the farm to reduce or eliminate herbicide use on the conventional side of the farm. “We manage the organic matter in our soil in totally different ways,” says owner Matt Ramsay.

It is impossible to know the cumulative ecological benefits of this growing trend. Organic techniques, such as composting and the use of cover crops, are not closely tracked by Statistics Canada. With more research, we might get a better idea of ​​the benefits.

Reasons for action

Motivations are easier to define. Farmers made it clear that organic techniques work well, organic inputs are generally cheaper than conventional ones, and organic practices have a beneficial impact on the agroecosystem.

Yet until a conventional farmer begins the transition to certified organic farming, he or she often knows or cares little about organic practices. Currently, the best way for a farmer to learn organic farming is to read manuals, attend lectures and take courses.

Big Organics may have started to look like conventional agriculture. But it seems that, at least on some Canadian farms, the Big Conventional is starting to look like organic.

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