6.16.17 / Amy Erlandson
Organic or Conventional? Let’s Celebrate Choices!
By Kellie Blair
As a farmer, I’m proud to play a role in growing food that is both safe and sustainable. As a mom, I face the same choices you do when it comes to food … What’s for dinner? How can I get my children to choose healthful options? And, most importantly, is the food I put on the table safe?
Some moms prefer organic groceries while other moms think they’re too trendy or too expensive. I say, let’s celebrate these great choices we have! I’ve grown both organic and conventional crops on my farm and fed both to my family, and you might be surprised how similar (and how safe) they are.
Not Better … Just Different
Quite a few years ago, my husband, A.J., and I decided to plant organic soybeans. Not because we thought they were better; it was simply a business decision. You see, organic crops require a little extra work (to verify them as organic and to separate them from non-organic crops), and farmers are rewarded for that work with a premium on each bushel harvested. In years when crop prices are low, this can add up nicely. In addition, we look at what seeds are available and doing well in our area to ensure we are planting the best seed for our environment. That year, an organic option was doing quite well.
Weeds were the biggest challenge we faced with our organic soybeans. There’s a misperception that organic equals pesticide-free, but that’s not true. Farmers can use pesticides and herbicides on their organic crops; they just have to contain natural ingredients as opposed to man-made compounds. We chose to manage our weeds mechanically. You might use a rotary hoe in your home garden – similarly, we have machinery that turns, or tills, the land to keep weeds from growing. This was effective but time-consuming.
In addition, we also rotated our crops frequently. This means that instead of always planting one crop in our field, or switching between corn and soybeans, we rotated corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. The variety is good for soil quality and acts as a weed and pest deterrent. We were fortunate not to have extreme pressure from pests when we grew organic soybeans. We monitored often but didn’t have to address them.
The other time-consuming aspect of growing an organic crop is the record-keeping required to verify it as organic. There’s also a three-year transition period per field before a crop can be certified organic – so patience pays. However, we harvest organic soybeans just like conventional beans, only we must keep them separate to ensure they do not mix.
Conventional – A Better Fit for Our Farm
We learned a lot growing organic soybeans. For example, for our specific farm, conventional practices were a better fit. We appreciate the labor we saved from not making the extra passes across the field to till for weeds. We actually plant into the stubble left from the previous year’s harvest, leaving the ground undisturbed. This is good for the soil quality.
We do use herbicides on our conventional soybeans, but we are very careful never use more than the small amount it takes to kill the weeds. Herbicides and pesticides are expensive, so minimizing their use is a prudent financial decision as well as an environmental one. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates how many days we are required to allow between applying pesticides and harvesting beans, so you can rest assured that you are not eating residual pesticides. (You can visit www.safefruitsandveggies.com to learn more about such regulations and safety measures.)
We also keep detailed records for our conventional crops, not because it’s required by law, like with organics, but because it’s a best management practice that is beneficial for our environment and our business.
Conventional farming practices are a better fit for our particular farm. But only you can decide whether conventionally- or organically-grown foods are a better fit for your home. On our farm, our children have played in the bean fields and eaten beans right out of the pod. And I’m 100 percent comfortable that this is safe for them to do, whether that pod grew in an organic field or a conventional one. I celebrate the choices I have when it comes to planting crops as well as the choices we all have when it comes to planning meals for our families.