Is Organic Farming Anti-Science?

I’m an organic dairy farmer, and this question–Is organic farming anti-science–has been weighing on my mind recently. Said another way, many people question whether organic farming is as advanced as conventional farming. This is an issue close to my heart as I’m a former conventional farmer.

Speaking for myself, and I believe for all the organic farmers who I know, I’m constantly on the lookout to improve our operation with new or improved farming techniques, often spending time online and on social media researching different methods of agriculture and interacting with and learning from other farmers and farming organizations, and not just those that support organic farming.

For the past several months, especially since I have become more active on social media, I have read multiple assumptions that purport to show that farming organically means that scientific knowledge and research is thrown out the window. I’ve also heard opinions that organic farming is not as innovative, efficient, or sustainable as conventional farming. In addition to this, I have seen consumers that choose organic products ridiculed as uninformed and unrealistic for buying into the latest scam or “woo” put forward by organic farmers and “Big Organic” and, subsequently, supermarkets’ motives are questioned when they source foods (supposedly) produced in a manner not supported by scientific research to supply these consumers.

Some recent examples

Some recent examples

Now, as an organic farmer, allow me to try to explain why I believe that these assumptions are neither accurate nor warranted. Here’s why:

When I take stock of our farm practices on our transitional organic dairy farm, I find that I can say with emphasis that I firmly believe that organic farming is just as science based and as innovative as conventional farming, especially in these three areas: sustainability, animal welfare, and technology. *Disclaimer: this is not an in-depth look at organic versus conventional farming, but rather a short, superficial analysis of how organic farming also utilizes science and technology. Technology and Scientific Research: Organic farms utilize much of the same technology that conventional farmers employ. Precision cropping equipment and high tech field mapping in crops are used by conventional and organic farmers alike.  Sometimes, organic farmers use different, but still advanced, technology, such as the new piece of equipment I came across recently that selectively weeds cereal crops. When it comes to dairy, my niche, I know that robotic milkers can be found on conventional and organic operations. Organic dairy farmers utilize the same milk testing regimen as conventional dairymen, and therefore know just as much about each cow’s production, milk quality, and milk components as their conventional neighbor down the road.  Organic and conventional farmers have access to the same breeding technology, and use the same bull proof sheets and information when finding an appropriate sire(s) for their herd. Similarly, crops fed to cows on organic farms are tested for nutritional value and the herd’s diet is balanced by a specialized nutritionist, just as is done on conventional dairies. On our farm, we have participated in scientific studies looking at different types of manure application methods and their impact on soil and crops. Being organic does not exempt us from trying to farm the best we possibly can by applying scientific research results to our operations. The one major difference in technology usage is the exemption of GM crops in organic farming. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not that is a positive or negative aspect of organics.  🙂

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New breeding bulls for our farm. We selected these bulls partly because their genetic background looks promising.

Sustainability: Both conventional and organic farmers try to ensure that their farm is sustainable. This can be done conventionally by using environmentally beneficial practices, such as no till cropping and cover crops. No or low till crops protect the soil from erosion and drought and also allow the farmer to grow crops with less passes of heavy machinery that burn fossil fuels.  Organic farming practices revolve around improving and feeding the soil and soil life rather than feeding the crop growing in that soil. Organic farmers believe that healthy, balanced soil full of organic matter and nutrients will grow good crops. This has proved to be true on our farm. Since we began farming organically three years ago (without the use of any pesticides), we have not noticed the slightest decrease in our crop yields. By utilizing natural fertilizers such as compost, animal manure and green manure crops, organic farming reduces its carbon footprint by not relying on synthetic chemical fertilizers, manufactured with fossil fuels. Both organic and conventional farms in Canada take advantage of Canada’s Environmental Farm Plan to certify that they utilize environmentally sound and beneficial practices. Also, many farms of each variety across Canada employ the use of Nutrient Management Plans, which, through soil and input tests, help a farmer make informed choices of how to best supply nutrients to their land and crops.

Our grass, cut and harvested as silage for winter feeding, is grown without the use of chemical fertlizers. We use animals manures and compost to fertilize our grass and corn crops.

Our grass, cut and harvested as silage for winter feeding, is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers. We use animal manures and compost to fertilize our grass and corn crops.

Animal Welfare: As a former conventional farmer myself, I know that conventional farmers do their best to ensure that their animals are well cared for.  All farmers know that animals that are cared for well will be more profitable, but beyond this, farmers provide the best care possible for the animals under their care simply because it is the right thing to do. In dairy, Canada’s proAction plan involves an animal welfare component, one that has been praised by animal welfare groups as being the best of its kind in the world. However, organic practices in livestock raising and housing go above and beyond this Code of Practice. For example, the Canadian Organic Standards have stricter animal stocking regulations and calf housing requirements. Animals on organic dairy farms must have access to the outdoors. For cows, this has been scientifically proven by animal researchers to result in better hoof health than being confined to the traditional concrete floored barns. Nutritionally, for cows, their diet is limited to a certain percentage of grain, which in turn limits the amount of milk a cow will produce, but, can, as we have noticed on our farm, result in a healthier cow with increased longevity and decreased vet visits and associated costs. Along with conventional farms in our area, we have participated in university studies surrounding the care and housing of dairy calves. We have responded to this research by adjusting our calf rearing habits to mirror the latest research-supported trends in dairy cattle care.  Again, being organic does not mean that we ignore the scientific evidence presented by researchers that point to the best way to care for our animals, but rather that we adopt these changes, just as conventional farmers do.

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Our cows on pasture last week. Cows enjoy grazing and relaxing outdoors, as can be seen in the way they eagerly rush out the barn door each morning.

 

Discussing calf care with researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Discussing calf care with researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Looking over the above paragraphs, it can be noticed that while some practices are different, both conventional and organic farmers have their farm’s best interest in mind. We may have slightly different goals and different methods of achieving these goals, but that does not mean that either way of farming is wrong, unscientific or less innovative .  It simply means that we are different. This is why I’ve found the recent interactions that seem to point to an “us versus them” mindset to be so troubling.  There is no need for any farmer to disparage a type of farming different from their own. Instead, farmers would do well to explain their own farming practices: what you do and why you do it, instead of attacking another’s ideas and way of life. When confronted with questions about what you do and why you do it, please try to explain your reasoning without deliberately diminishing another. I am of the opinion that when we rely on hearsay to form our opinions and then allow our stance on either type of farming to harden into ideological absolutes, we run the risk of losing the opportunity for discussion, balance and learning from one another. I personally believe that organic farming is here to stay, and I believe that we’ll see conventional farmers adopting organic principles, and vice versa. And this is a good thing: farmers working together to improve the entire agriculture industry. Together, we can achieve great things and combine forces to feed the population that relies on us for sustenance. There can scarcely be a more honorable occupation, and so, let us do our best to go about our daily lives with a willingness to support all farmers, regardless of practices employed.

(Please don’t feel that this is a rant against one specific group or individual; I’ve found this mind-set to be getting more and more common and pervasive and I have spent several weeks trying to find the words to express my feelings about this. If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I have also spoken out about organic groups shaming conventional farmers and their practices. I think it’s only fair to do the same now that the shoe is on the other foot. Comments are always welcomed, but please be respectful.)

Why Organic?

This week, September 20-28, is Canadian Organic Week, a time to celebrate organic food, farming and products across the country. The goal of Organic Week is to involve Canadians in organic agriculture and help them learn about the benefits of organic farming and its positive impact on the environment.

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Since announcing our plans to transition to organic farming, we’ve heard many interesting and humorous assumptions about this type of farming. When talking about our plans, it wasn’t uncommon to hear these types of responses: “Are you going to be growing a beard and sporting dread locks to fit into the hippie farming community?” or, “The only difference between conventional and organic farming is that organic farmers spray RoundUp at night.” or, “Organic? Are you sure? Your fields will soon be overrun with weeds and crop disease!” or, “Organic farmers aren’t allowed to use antibiotics, so instead of treating sick cattle, they leave them to suffer and die.”

Although these responses were sometimes humorous, we noticed that it really emphasized the lack of knowledge about the organic way of farming. We’ve learned a lot in the two years we’ve been farming organically, and we’d like to share some of the knowledge we’ve gained in that period of time with you. I think Organic Week presents an excellent opportunity to describe organic dairy farming and why we decided to make the transition from conventional dairying to organic milk production.

heifer and calves

Approximately two and half years ago, during a conversation with an organic dairy farmer friend, we were told about the demand for organic milk products, the opportunities for growth in the organic sector and the premium paid to organic dairy farmers. This conversation prompted us to seriously think about transitioning to this type of farming. After all, we already employed numerous organic practices: our cows were on pasture during the summer months, our cows were not fed large quantities of grain, and our antibiotic and fertility drug use was quite low. We researched the organic system and found that although the transition would be labour intensive and time consuming, it was a challenge we couldn’t resist accepting. This decision was originally made for mostly economic reasons but has transformed into a firm belief in the organic system’s merits.

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Our dairy herd enjoying a sunny early fall day on pasture.

So what does “organic” actually mean and how does it apply to dairy farming? Officially, the word “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Consumers can be assured that organic food is produced using environmentally and animal-friendly farming methods. Organic certification tells the consumer that the product they purchase has been inspected and verified to have been produced and processed according to the Canadian Organic Standard. This Standard is every organic farmer’s bible. It details the required production methods for any type of crop or livestock, and includes a list of Permitted Substances which are permitted for use in organic farming (eg manure, compost, vitamins and minerals, etc.). In organic dairying, both the crops grown and the livestock that are raised and milked must be certified to have been grown and managed according to the Standard.

The main differences between organic and conventional dairying can be divided into two categories: crops and cattle.

Crops:

  • No chemical fertilizer use permitted. We use a combination of cow manure and composted chicken manure to fertilize our crops.
  • No synthetic pesticide use permitted. Instead of using herbicides to control weeds, we utilize mechanical cultivation techniques and crop rotation to minimize weed spread and growth. Our corn crop is seeded later than usual (early June) to minimize wire worm problems. Wire worms move deeper into the soil as the soil warms, so seeding in June helps to prevent loss of corn plants to this pest, as well as ensuring that the corn grows quickly and doesn’t become choked out due to weed growth.
  • Crop rotation and cover crop seeding/mulching/integrating into the soil are integral parts of an organic farm plan
This year's organic corn crop

This year’s organic corn crop

Cattle:

  • must be fed 100% certified organic feed (GMO free)
  • must have access to pasture during the growing season
  • must gain 20% of their forage intake (dry matter basis) from grazing during the growing season
  • must have access to a walkout area during the winter months and if pasture is inaccessible due to inclement weather during growing season
  • can only be treated with health care aids listed in the Permitted Substances List
  • If these health care aids fail and other drugs must be used, milk withdrawal is 1 month or twice as long as the labeled withdrawal period, whichever is longer.
  • A cow can only be treated with antibiotics twice in one year before losing organic status
  • Organic farms in BC must also adhere to the Code of Care for the Handling of Dairy Cattle (which is mandatory for all dairy farms in BC starting next month.) The Organic Standard’s guidelines and rules with regards to the care and handling of dairy cattle are at least equal to, and, in some cases, more strict than the Code.

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Organic Certification Process.A farmer wishing to transition to organic must first become certified by an accredited certifying body. The certifying body collects all of the farm’s information:

  • a detailed list of land history and which inputs have been used in the past;
  • soil and water tests;
  • a farm plan describing all crops and livestock grown on farm, crop rotation plans, and pest management plans;
  • field maps;
  • water tests;
  • soil tests;
  • crop sample tests;
  • livestock density charts;
  • pasture log
  • herd treatment records
  • etc.

The initial application process is complicated and time consuming; subsequent yearly applications are much more streamlined and less labour intensive. Next, the certifying body arranges for the farm to be inspected by an independent verification officer. The verification officer visits the farm, inspects all fields and crops, livestock, and farm buildings and then meticulously combs over and audits the farms production records, input records, sales receipts, invoices, etc. Once the verification officer has finished the inspection, s/he prepares a report for the certifying body, identifying any problems or areas where the farm is non-compliant to the Standard, or any areas where the farm has an Opportunity for Improvement (OFI), and, finally, recommends whether the farm is eligible for certification. This process is repeated at least once a year; each farm is inspected once yearly with the possibility of extra unannounced inspections.

Our organic reference binder and organic records binder. I think they'll both be getting fatter as the years pass!

Our organic reference binder and organic records binder. I think they’ll both be getting fatter as the years pass!

Land to be included in the organic farm plan must be managed according to the standard for three years before being certified organic. Our land is currently in its third year of organic management, which means it has T3 status. The last prohibited substance (chemical fertilizer) was applied to our land in August 2012. Our land will be certified organic next August.

Cows beings transitioned to organic must be managed organically for a minimum of one year before the milk they produce is considered organic. Many farms considering changing to organic milk production choose to sell their herd and start over with certified organic cows, eliminating the need for a transitional period. We chose another route, preferring not to lose our years of crossbreeding to Brown Swiss and the superior (in our opinion!) cows and heifers this crossbreeding produced. Therefore, starting November 1, we will begin transitioning our herd to organic. During the herd transition year, farm raised crops can be fed to the cows. The first nine months of the transition, they must be fed a minimum of 80% organic/farm raised feed, with 20% conventional feed permitted. The final three months, all feed must be organic/farm raised. As soon as the herd is fully certified, all crops fed must be organic (no T3 feed permitted). After this lengthy land and herd transition, we’ll certainly be pleased to see the organic milk truck loading our first tank of organic milk in November 2015!

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In conclusion:

In our opinion, the organic industry provides valuable choices to consumers. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment resulting from our efforts to farm sustainably, utilizing environmentally friendly, traditional farming practices, while providing consumers with the opportunity to choose foods that best align with their personal choices and ideals. Although the organic way of farming is a good fit for our family and farm, this is not true for all farms, neither should it be. I admire and respect farmers who choose to farm as we formerly did; they also are good stewards of the land, provide excellent care for their animals, and are great examples of the types of people needed to feed the world. But I believe that the organic industry is vital to agriculture as well, so that all consumers can find foods that they feel best benefits their needs and wants, either conventionally grown or certified organic. And as a farmer, I believe that is our most important, most beneficial job: supplying the world’s population with foods to fit their dietary choices. Up until this point, we are pleased with our decision, and, as we travel further on this organic journey, we’re excited to see what the future has in store for our cows and our family!