Notions of Organic

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As organic farming and marketing entered the 1970s, it began to develop as an industry. As a result, a clearer definition was needed to distinguish it and its products from conventional agriculture. This was no straightforward task. Environmental issues and other alternative agriculture philosophies had created diverse notions about what organic agriculture was and what it should be.

A particularly problematic image grew unexpectedly from the anti-pesticide movement of the 1960s. This was the romantic notion that organic simply meant "doing next-to-nothing." In this exploitative approach, not only were pesticides avoided, sound farming practices that built the soil were also largely ignored. The results achieved on such farms were predictable, as yields were low and the quality poor. These approaches became collectively known as organic by neglect and are a far cry from the responsible farming models proposed by Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale.

It is unclear how many farmers actually chose to farm "by neglect" and advertise themselves as organic over the years. However, this extreme representation of organic agriculture was quickly taken up by critics who tried to characterize all of organic agriculture as soil depleting and unproductive. (10) To counter this, current standards for certified organic production require an "organic plan" outlining the use of soil building activities and natural pest management.

There is a further notion that organic farming also describes farm systems based on soil building, but that continue to use some prohibited fertilizers and pesticides in a limited or selective manner. A USDA study of U.S. organic farms (11) made note of many such individuals who readily and sincerely referred to themselves as organic farmers. While these growers were largely conscientious and would, in most instances, fall under the modern umbrella of "sustainable farmers," industry standards evolved to preclude all synthetic pesticides or commercial fertilizers. The approach to farming by this loose-knit group of growers and their supporters has come to be called "eco-farming" or "eco-agriculture" — terms coined by Acres USA editor Charles Walters, Jr. (12)

A further notion of organic agriculture that bears addressing is the persistent image of organic farming as being possible only on a very small scale. This impression has been enhanced by the high visibility of organic market gardens. These, of course, are small because market gardening — conventional or organic — is usually done on a smaller scale. Also, some organic market garden systems, such as Biointensive Mini-Farming, use highly labor intensive/low capital investment technologies. These have become popular among U.S. gardeners and, more importantly, with those concerned with Third World development, where such systems are especially relevant. Focus on these systems has, unfortunately, distorted the picture of organics as a whole.

This difference can be much greater where horticultural crops are involved, and farm size may be limited accordingly. However, technological innovations in organic horticultural production are helping to narrow the gap. Organic systems are also more information intensive, requiring additional management time in planning, pest scouting, and related activities. For this reason, organic management can be better done if a farm is not too

Traditionally, organic farms truly have been smaller than conventional operations. This has been due in part to labor requirements. Organic systems are generally more labor intensive. Studies done in the late 1970s by Washington University, for example, found that about 11% more labor was required per unit of production where agronomic crops were concerned.(13)


Essentially, the notion that organic systems are only possible on very small farms is a false one. Both the Washington University and the USDA studies confirmed this.(3, 11) Given the range of acceptable technologies available, organic agriculture can be sized to fit a wide range of farms and enterprises.

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