Got Organic?

The Abazs family raises organic produce and chemical-free small livestock on Round River Farm. Photo: Lise Abazs

The Abazs family raises organic produce and chemical-free small livestock on Round River Farm. Photo: Lise Abazs

Lise and David Abazs are co-owners of Round River Farm. They’re organic farmers, who live off the grid and have been practicing a sustainable lifestlye for more than 20 years. Lise’s thoughtful post first appeared in the Wolf Ridge Almanac, Volume 23, No. 2, May 2009. We’re honored to have Lise (and soon David) join us as a contributing writer at Blue Planet Green Living. Find out more about their organic farm and environmental services on their website at — Julia Wasson, Publisher

Walk down any aisle in the grocery store and you are faced with an astonishing choice of items to purchase. You may have apples on your shopping list, but do you want the red ones or the green ones, the big beautiful ones or the little pre-bagged ones, the ones from New Zealand or Washington State? More and more, we are now also being given the choice between conventional and organic food.

Ask people what organic means, and you’ll get words like expensive, natural, healthy, local, safe and no chemicals. Most people are thinking as consumers, but I am a farmer, so I think as a producer. I believe that knowing the more complete story behind the organic labels on the grocery shelves can help us be more aware of what we are choosing and why it matters.

Organic farmers focus on the growing and protecting the soil. Photo: Lise Abazs

Organic farmers focus on the growing and protecting the soil. Photo: Lise Abazs

British agronomist Sir Albert Howard was the first to define the philosophy of organic agriculture. He worked in India during the 1920-30s and applied scientific measures to traditional methods of farming, focusing on the importance of maintaining the fertility of the soil. The practical reason for this is that he realized that small isolated farmers couldn’t afford to rely on outside resources for their land’s fertility. There was also a scientific reason behind his ideology.

One hundred years earlier, the German chemist Justus von Liebig had identified the main components of plants by burning plant material and analyzing the ash. His measurements of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) became the foundation of our understanding of fertilizers. This methodology, however, effectively ignored the carbon (C) component that was burned away.

Howard questioned the effect of this on the future of farming. What happens when you use up the bank of carbon (also know as organic matter) in the soil? The NPK you apply as fertilizer becomes less and less available to plants when not in the proper ratio to C. Although his ideas were acknowledged as respectable, they were largely ignored.

Following World War II, war industries slid seamlessly into agricultural industries. Many modern pesticides and fertilizers trace their origins to the chemistry that created the poisonous gases and explosives of modern warfare. Organic ideology continued to spread quietly until the 1980s, when numerous pesticide scares caused a surge in public demand for healthy alternatives. Organics were pulled in from the fringe, and the popular movement became an economic one. This is where the story hits the grocery shelves.

The Organic Foods Production Act was passed by Congress in 1990 and called for enforcement and uniform standards of organic food.  The USDA was given the primary role, balanced by recommendations from farmers, processors and scientists on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The first proposed organic rule issued by the USDA in 1997 virtually ignored the NOSB input and allowed practices such as biotechnology, irradiation, animal confinement, and sewage sludge application. The public outcry forced a withdrawal and, in 2001, a new national standard was finalized covering the production, handling, and processing of foods produced using organic methods. The end result is that the word organic now has a legal definition.

There are many pages of regulations that determine what are allowable materials and methods for organically labeled products. The uniqueness and value of organic agriculture, however, is not really found in the list of prohibited substances or record-keeping requirements. The mantra of an organic farmer is soil management. It could be said that conventional agriculture focuses on feeding the plant, while organic agriculture focuses on feeding the soil.

The most common methods organic farmers use to maintain their soil fertility are composting and cover cropping. Composting speeds up decomposition to recycle nutrients, and cover crops are grown specifically to be plowed under. Both practices increase organic matter in the soil, putting the C back into the NPK fertilizer equation and providing the biological niche where nutrients are processed and stored. Naturally based fertilizers in the form of concentrated animal waste or rock minerals can be used in organic production, but they are only supplemental to the creation of a healthy soil structure to maintain those nutrients. The ultimate idea is that a healthy soil produces healthy plants.

Diversity is an important element in a successful organic farm. Photo: Lise Abazs

Diversity is an important element in a successful organic farm. Photo: Lise Abazs

An inch of soil that took thousands of years to form can be washed away in a single rainstorm. Water-soluble nutrients can be leached away and lost to the system. Organic practices focus on protecting the soil from the elements. Mulches, cover crops, and carefully timed planting and harvesting schedules are some of the things organic farmers do to protect the soil that they spend so much time nurturing.

Another important concept in organic agriculture is diversity. Natural ecosystems have a collage of plant and animal organisms working together to form a healthy and stable community. Farming ecosystems must balance crops’ needs with the needs of the natural community supporting them. Encouraging habitat for beneficial insects, rotating crops to avoid nutrient depletion, and alternating crops to confuse and disrupt pest populations are some ways that organic farmers use diversity to benefit their production.

A good organic farmer can create an amazing ecological economy. The tighter the system, the fewer valuable nutrients are lost and the fewer expensive inputs are required. Deep roots draw nutrients from subsoil savings banks, which are reinvested when cover crops are turned under or compost is spread. Beneficial insects willingly volunteer their services, and a flexible community and diverse portfolio of crops help to withstand the vagaries of weather and climate. It’s a stable long-term economic plan.

Public demand has even made organic farming profitable in the cash sense, not just ecologically. A new dynamic has developed where money is as much the motivator for organic growers as the underlying philosophy. Organics have made it to the mainstream.

I entered the organic agriculture scene when it was still considered naïve to think that farming productively on a large scale was possible without the use of chemicals. Much has been learned in the past two decades about the unintended environmental and health impacts of conventional farming practices. And much has been learned about the potential productivity of organic practices.

Growers such as myself who gross more than $5000 per year can no longer call ourselves organic unless we are certified by a governmentally approved agency, a costly and time-consuming task. I find this ironically annoying, considering that I have been an organic grower for over 20 years, but it really has little effect on how I farm. My customers are local, and I don’t rely on the word organic to sell my products. The certified organic label serves the important purpose, however, of providing a standard for all those products that sit without a farmer’s face on the grocery shelf.

Perhaps the next choice consumers will be given will go beyond organic and will measure the miles the food has traveled, the energy it took to produce, or the cost of disposing of its packaging. There are many, many angles that could be considered with every purchase. I can see the day when we’ll need a guidebook for grocery shopping.

Lise Abazs

Contributing Writer

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