High Input Organic Agriculture

At the beginning of this publication, organic farming was described as a system that uses a minimum of off-farm inputs. While that describes most of organic agriculture as it is currently practiced in the U.S., certified organic farming can also entail much greater reliance on off-farm inputs.

Intensive annual strawberry and vegetable systems under plasticulture are good examples. In these systems, traditional rotations and soil building practices are usually employed, followed by clean cultivation and the laying of plastic mulch and drip irrigation tape on shaped beds. During the season, large amounts of soluble organic fertilizers — typically fish-based — are fed to the crop through the drip system (i.e., organic fertigation). At the end of the season, all plastics must be removed from the field, and it is returned to more standard organic management. Ideally, an off-season cover crop will be planted. Such systems are often exceptionally productive and economically attractive, when organic premiums are good. The high cost of soluble organic fertilizer (typically hundreds of dollars/acre), however, plus the marginally higher cost of pest controls, make such systems largely non-competitive in the conventional marketplace.

The labeling of such high-input systems as organic presents a paradox for many proponents of organic agriculture. It is unclear whether these technological advancements reflect the kind of farming most practitioners and supporters of organ-ics think of as truly "organic." To begin with, the research citing environmental and economic benefits has largely been done on low-input organic systems; it is questionable whether similar findings would be made about high-input systems, especially regarding environmental matters. Of particular note, while low-input organic systems are documented as being more resistant to erosion, fields under plastic mulch are reported to be fifteen times more erodible.(34) Traditional organic farms leach minimal amounts of nitrogen into tile or groundwater; the losses from fields loaded with high levels of soluble organic fertilizers is certain to be greater, but how much greater is unknown. The fossil fuel energy involved in plastic manufacture, transportation, and application may or may not be compensated by reductions in tractor fuel use.

Finally, the lowered capital investment required to produce a crop by traditional organic methods makes this form of farming more accessible to resource-poor farmers and entails less risk in years of crop failure or lack of premiums. These factors are less certain in a high-input system. A further consideration is the issue of plastic disposal following removal. At this time, there are few to no options for recycling, and landfills are the fate of plastic mulches at the end of each season.

While it is unwise to rush to judgement regarding high-input organic farming, it is clear that some adaptations will need to be made, if the traditional character and sustainability benefits of organic farming are to be preserved.

Fire

While fire can be used in a number of ways in organic agriculture, the area of greatest interest is flame or thermal weeding. In its most common application, torches mounted on a tractor toolbar throw a hot flame at the base of mature (i.e., heat-resistant) plants, over the inter-row area, or both. Tractor speed is adjusted so that weeds are not burned so much as seared. Searing is sufficient to kill most seedling weeds and uses less fuel. Liquid propane (LP) gas is the fuel most commonly used, though alternatives such as alcohol and methane offer the possibility of on-farm sources.

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