Every parent likes to brag about their kids! And even though mine are all grown and married, I still enjoy every opportunity to share in their accomplishments. My son, Adam, is a senior studying food science at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. He recently wrote the following article, which was published in one of the university’s school newsletters and I thought he captured the topic quite well. Enjoy!
ORGANIC FARMING: A MODEL FOR BEST BUSINESS PRACTICES
by Adam Quinn
Americans are eating organic food more now than ever before. In a survey conducted by Pew Research, in the past 30 days, 68% of households reported purchasing food that was labeled as organic. This impressive trend is less impactful though since, according to BFG (a brand consultancy), out of the 70% of shoppers who buy organic food, only 20% were able to define the meaning of the term “organic.” Although we as Americans are purchasing organic food more often, we are largely ignorant to what differentiates these products.
The organic system of farming has been developed to combine the best practices of the past with emerging knowledge and technology of the present. These best practices are not only based in good science, but also great business strategy.
An organic farming system applies best business practices by diversifying to minimize risk, increasing control of inputs, and investing in current assets. All of these activities help to ensure the sustainability of the food that we eat.
Diversification of Activities
All industries face a certain level of risk from economic uncertainties and changing consumer demands, but farming often deals with the addition of natural problems such as pests, disease, and unpredictable weather patterns. Crop rotation and diversification are age-old ideas that can decrease the chances of a total crop failure. Crop rotation is practiced by changing what crop is planted in the same area each season. Diversification comes by increasing the variety of crops that are grown. The combination of these two principles has been used in the past to hedge against the unique risks that farmers face.
Diversification and crop rotations are fundamental principles within organic agriculture; the main body of current research has this as its focus. In the last century, advances in technology and industrialization have shifted the common practices of farmers so that these methods are not a focus. In a comparison study of farming systems, Barbieri et al. reported, “Crop rotations have been dramatically simplified over the past 50 years (e.g., through the reduced number of crop species in crop rotations…) due to the advent of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”
The 20th century saw a rapid adoption of these new technologies that farmers accepted as the silver bullet for their problems. But like many things that seem too good to be true, these “advances” were a step in the wrong direction, one case being weed management. Similar to the way modern medicine now faces the threat of “superbugs,” or antibioticresistant pathogens, chemical agriculture has led to the development of “superweeds” and pests that are resistant to pesticides.
Instead of participating in a chemical arms-race against weeds, organic farmers have maintained their focus on the concept of diversification. Diversification has several other key advantages in agriculture:
- It decreases the risk of total crop failure.
- It increases the overall yields of the crops.
- It keeps farms flexible to the changes of consumer preference.
Clearly, the phrase “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” has not been forgotten by organic farmers.
Organic farming is sometimes called low-input farming because it prohibits the input of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic farmers compensate for the lack of these inputs through greater labor and management expenditures.
Farmers can use several different methods to reduce expenditures on external products. Instead of buying synthetic fertilizers, they can grow legumes that build nitrogen in the soil (this is known as green manure). Careful observation and crop management can replace the need for chemical pesticides. The organic system also encourages farmers to save their seed from harvest to harvest. This way the crops can adapt to the local environment, and farmers can avoid everchanging costs from seed suppliers.
If farmers can increase their control over inputs, they can then better control expenses.
Investing in Current Assets
For farmers, the soil is their greatest asset. The Organic Trade Association states that organic farming begins with “practices to help build healthy soils, which nurture the plants and help decrease the incidence of plant disease.” The principle behind this is that if you feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants and the plants will feed you. Chemical agriculture focuses on delivering as much nitrogen as possible to the crops through the use of synthetic fertilizers, in effect attempting to feed the plants directly, rather than the soil. The practice of building healthy soil is more expensive, but it can pay great dividends in the future.
In normal conditions, the high availability of nitrogen in chemical farms results in higher yields when compared to organic farms. However, in times of great stress in the crops (e.g. drought) the results are reversed. The Rodale Institute, which conducts agriculture research, explains in their published research why this is the case. Several factors can explain this change, one being that organic farming focuses on increasing organic material in the soil which leads to greater water retentions and increased microbiome health.
While the organic farming system is not perfect, we need to be able see its power. An article in the Huffington Post comes to this same conclusion:
“Organic agriculture shows significant promises in many areas. We would be foolish not to consider it an important tool in developing more sustainable global agriculture.” – Huffington Post
The success that the organic industry has seen attests to the soundness of the business practices that it follows.