Why would a grower not operate an organic farm?
There are many perfectly valid reasons why a commercial grower or a home gardener might choose NOT to operate an organic farm, NOT to incorporate any organic practices, and NOT even consider transitioning to organic farming.
There is even more reasons why it might NOT be a good idea to completely eliminate all chemicals and practice chemical-free natural farming, regardless of whether the chemicals are labeled synthetic or organic.
Often going completely organic or chemical-free is too risky, cost-prohibitive, or not economically feasible.
There are many variables involved. The decision depends on the climate, the soil, the crop being grown, and the business model, as well tolerance for risk of loosing a crop.
Sometimes the decision simply comes down to the labor shortage or labor being too expensive.
All the factors can be summarized into two big reasons why growing organically or naturally (without any chemicals, whether organic or not) might NOT be a good idea:
Organic and naturally grown food is challenging to produce and to sell, compared to “conventional” or “chemically-induced” agriculture.
If we look purely at the financial equation of the economics of producing organic or chemical-free food, we will see no financial justification to pursue the organic approach.
The only motivation to tackle the challenges and uncertainties of natural or organic farming is a deep commitment to the health of humanity and our planet.
Let’s take a look at the reasons why it is so challenging to grow and sell organic and chemical-free food and explore them in detail.
Reason #1: Organic or chemical-free food is difficult to sell.
Most growers are selling their harvest to make a living. It is often their one and only source of income. They need to make sure that there is demand for their product. They need to have certainty that the crop they are growing will sell.
The first factor that makes non-organic “conventional” produce is easier to sell, at least in the USA, is that in this country we have been conditioned to buy pretty looking “Instagramable” food.
We are drawn to fruit that is large (often abnormally large), shiny (often unnaturally shiny), with beautiful smooth skin (often artificially smooth). Unfortunately, a lot of that abnormal artificial size, color, smoothness, and shelf-life comes from using synthetic chemicals.
Most people want to buy large beautiful fruit. Produce that grows naturally, without extra chemical boosts, does not look that pretty.
Perfect-looking food is what sells. Beautiful food is what a typical consumer wants to buy and what grocery stores wants to order. Therefore, there is a lot of pressure on the grower to deliver what buyers want.
The second factor that makes non-organic fruit easier to sell is that, understandably, most people want to save money on groceries.
For reasons we will describe below, Organic and Grown Without Chemicals food is more challenging, labor-intensive, and expensive to produce.
Majority of people cannot afford to worry about the taste or nutritional value of the food they buy, and especially about environmental impact. Their primary concern is being able to put food on the table for their family.
A small percentage of people are intentionally choosing organic or chemical-free food for health reasons or because they want the best for their family and they can afford it.
Even though the number of people looking for organic or chemical-free food have been gradually increasing over the years and is expected to continue to grow, it still remains a very small percentage of the population.
Most people operate on a limited budget and look for the lowest cost option on food. Organic or chemical-free food is not the most affordable.
The third factor that makes non-organic food is easier to sell is that it can be produced and treated to not get damaged in shipment, and to not be perishable for extended periods of time, much longer than food that is organic or grown without chemicals.
Organic produce and food grown without chemicals is perishable and might not ship well.
What does this mean to the grower?
In order to have best chance of selling their crop, farmers are under a lot of pressure to produce abnormally and artificially large and perfect-looking fruit that does not go bad for long periods of time at minimal cost.
This makes organic and chemically-free naturally-grown food harder to sell and puts organic farmers and chemical-free farmers at a significant disadvantage compared to “conventional” agriculture.
Reason #2: Organic or chemical-free food is more challenging to produce.
In many parts of the world and specifically in the Southern United States where most of USA-based agriculture is taking place,
growers face intense pressure from weeds, insect pests, parasitic nematodes, and plant-pathogens, as well as extremes of summer heat, drought, and flood.1
Many native soil types have inherent fertility limitations. Moreover, long or year-round growing seasons, such as avocado or lemons, can make it hard to rebuild soil organic matter, especially during intensive crop production.
To make matters even more challenging for the farmers, soil types vary widely even over very short distances. Chemical-free or organic farming practices that benefit productivity on one soil type may fail or backfire on another.
What works in clay soils of the Tennessee Valley is very different from the Black Prairie region of Mississippi and Alabama, the Mississippi Delta, and parts of Oklahoma and Texas.
Non-organic gardening offers a straightforward algorithm to tackling a lot of pest problems and soil limitations.
“Conventional” or “Chemical-Induced” agriculture promises a straightforward solution to growers.
Just like we go to the doctor to get a prescription for a health problem, a commercial grower or a home gardener can walk into any garden center for answers to specific problems, such as pest, disease, or fertility, and walk out with a whole list of prescriptions for a wide variety of chemicals, the dosage, and the frequency of the application.
Typically these prescriptions are provided without anyone having to step into the field or garden, look at the soil, evaluate the microclimate, the water, or the health of the plants.
Applying chemicals prescribed by the “experts” gives farmers a peace of mind that they are tackling their challenges in most-efficient and practical way.
In contrast, each organic farmer is faced with the complicated task of developing they own unique farming approach for their specific crop, soil type, and microclimate.
They have to develop tailored organic or chemical-free farming practices that work for their unique crop in their specific environment. Natural and Organic Farmers have to utilize extensive trial-and-error strategy which could take many seasons or even decades. There is significant time, money, and labor investment and risk involved because farmers might or might not be successful in this endeavor.
Most farmers do not have the financial runway and the luxury of taking years to figure out a way to farm their land organically or naturally.
In addition, organic farmers are at a disadvantage because they are faced with a challenge of translating conventional soil test recommendations into optimum rates for organic nutrient sources.
How much do you fertilize? Non-organic farmers who use soluble synthetic nitrogen fertilizer prescriptions can “spoon feed” precise amounts of nitrogen at critical developmental phases. Organic farmers don’t have this precise calculation.
Organic fertilizer management depends on many biological processes that depend on many variables and are not readily predicted by simple formulas.
Unfortunately this “prescription” approach to farming has many drawbacks.
The benefits are short-term with a lot of long-term problems being created in the process, such as drastically negative effects on climate change, pollution of the waterways, depletion of soil health, and detrimental effects of chemicals on humans and wildlife.
For example, unutilized nitrogen from over-fertilization may be lost to leaching (adversely affecting groundwater) or denitrification into the powerful greenhouse gas Nitrous Oxide (N2O). High levels of soluble nitrogen, whether from synthetic fertilizer or organic sources, can also suppress beneficial soil organisms.
Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides are a big business. They play an important role in improving yields and providing fresh food to people who would not have access to it otherwise.
However, the marketing tactics of companies that sell agricultural chemicals often revolve around fear, uncertainty, and doubt, by painting a lot of scary scenarios of what is going to happen if farmers don’t spray, or don’t fertilize.
Non-organic gardening reduces Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.
Those farmers who can not afford the uncertainty of growing completely without chemicals but still want to utilize organic chemicals, might find themselves limited financial resources:
Organic fertilizers often cost more, have to be applied more frequently and manually, which makes them highly labor intensive and expensive.
Often farmers cannot afford to apply sufficient quantity of organic nutrients and organic matter to sustain fertility. Innovative farmers and rural communities have met this challenge by utilizing locally generated organic “wastes” such as cotton gin trash, rice hulls, litter from poultry houses, food waste, municipal leaves, and chipped brush. However, this is not often feasible as it still requires significant labor to haul and spread by hand over a large area.
No single management practice addresses all the needs of organic soil management. A multi-component strategy is needed. It is often most practical to add new practices one at a time, fine-tuning each to integrate with your existing system before moving on to the next step. Adopting a whole suite of new practices at once can be overwhelming, especially for a small family-owned farm, and economically unsustainable.
According to Organic Farming Research Foundation: “The cost of organic food is higher than that of conventional food because the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food: substituting labor and intensive management for chemicals. These costs may include cleanup of polluted water and remediation of pesticide contamination.”
In Summary – The challenges of operating an organic farm:
Organic and chemical-free farming is very complex and requires significant investment in time and money. It also creates a lot of uncertainly for the farmer about their yields. In addition, any cosmetic defect or smaller than desired size of the fruit, will make it un-sellable through most chains such as supermarkets and grocery stores. This puts a lot of risk and pressure on the non-“conventional” farmers.
Those farmers who do chose to operate organic farms despite the challenges described above, do it because organic farming can be profitable, delivers more environmental benefits compared to commercial agriculture, and is healthier in terms of increased nutritional benefits and reduced dietary pesticide exposure.
Join the Conversation:
What are your thoughts, experiences, and challenges with operating a chemical-free or organic farm?
We would love to hear from you.
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