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Organic farming not ready for prime time

You have to admire the persistence of the Rodale Institute of Kutztown, Pa. The organization, which runs a 330-acre organic research farm near the town, has called for an organic cropping revolution to depose conventional farming in developing countries.

Rodale cites replicated research “which shows that the latest scientific approaches in organic agriculture offer affordable, immediately usable and universally accessible ways to improve yields and access to nutritional food in developing countries.”

The report also cites a paper from the United Nations Environmental Programme, which claims that organic agriculture can actually feed the entire world with its production techniques and, get this, “without increasing the agricultural land base.”

UNEP states that its “extensive study challenges the popular myth that organic agriculture cannot increase agricultural productivity. In an analysis of 114 farming projects in 24 African countries, UNEP reported that organic or near-organic practices resulted in yield increases of more than 100 percent.”

Rodale says the same practices can be adopted by U.S. farmers, and not only would crop yields be the same or higher, but individual returns for farmers would be higher thanks to a premium paid for organic crops.

Of course, U.S. growers have already established themselves as the most efficient agricultural producers in the world. If there is something out there that would provide even a 1 percent improvement over what they’re doing now, they would already be doing it.

I put a few thoughts together on the Rodale study and sent them an e-mail. After a few minutes, I got a call from an enthusiastic fellow who worked in the media relations department.

He told me that the whole idea of the organic farming revolution is to replace extensive farming with intensive farming. This has a nice ring to it until you realize that intensive is simply another way of saying “using more labor.”

Rodale sees thousands of large farming operations replaced by millions of small organic operations.

But where are the new farmers going to come from? And why would they be willing to invest in organic farming?

I’d like to see Pennsylvania organic methods applied to a few pest-infested hillsides in the Mid-South. The fellow from Rodale said weeds in organic cropping are controlled with a roller/crimper device which flattens weeds into a mat of residue rather than killing them. A special planter finds enough dirt to plant a seed.

I don’t doubt the system works in Pennsylvania, but in many parts of the Mid-South our weeds are so prolific that you might have trouble finding your crimper/roller if you let it sit in a field too long.

That’s not the only problem. I asked the Rodale fellow how an organic cotton farmer might defoliate a crop for mechanical picking, and he couldn’t come up a good answer for that either.

Organic farming proponents decry the loss of a simpler time and place, when a strong back provided power for the task, not the battery in one’s laptop. I have to admit, it has its appeal. But many a strong back has failed pulling a cotton sack through the field. For sustained longevity, I’ll take technology, thank you.


TAGS: Management
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