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Radiance Dairy: Ecological Organic Agriculture

Radiance Dairy: Ecological Organic Agriculture

By Francis Thicke, Owner of Radiance Organic Dairy in Fairfield IA

Savvy Veg: Shortly after we printed an article by Ken Roseboro about Radiance Dairy, Got Local Organic Milk?, I came across this article by Radiance Dairy farm owner Francis Thicke in Acres USA. Not very coincidentally, Ken, Francis and myself all live in Fairfield, IA, where we enjoy Radiance Dairy organic milk every day.

Organic farming is now showing up on the radar screen of industrial agriculture, after years of being ridiculed. Of course, this is inevitable now that organic sales in the U.S. are approaching $11 billion per year. But it is a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have been haranguing conventional farmers to get off the chemical bandwagon for years.

Now that the lure of organic premiums is making some of them give it a try, we should be glad, right? Well, on the other hand, organic markets are somewhat fragile, and can easily be overwhelmed, leaving us in the same low-price trap that conventional commodity production has been in for years.

There is, however, a deeper issue here than which chemicals are used or not used on an organic farm. If we can address this deeper issue, we can protect both the integrity of organic farming and our organic markets.

Maine leads the nation with more than 10 percent of the state's dairies, 50 of 420, now producing organic milk. The nation's two largest organic dairy producers are Organic Valley, based in La Farge, Wisconsin, and Horizon Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colorado. Both sell milk nationally, unlike Radiance, which refuses to sell even regionally. More about that later.

Farming By Input Substitution

Now that organic farming is coming into vogue, a whole new breed of farmers is taking up organic production. They often approach organic production as just another specialty crop. The result is an increasing emphasis on farming by "input substitution." That means substituting conventional farming inputs with inputs that are approved for organic production, rather than using an array of cultural and biological practices to build soils, control pests and grow nutritious, productive crops--as had been the tradition in organic farming.

Another approach common among farmers who see organic production as a specialty crop is farming by "neglect." That means "organic farming" using neither any inputs nor any additional cultural or biological farming practices. The result, not surprisingly, is decreasing yields and increasing weed and pest pressures. These farmers usually give up "organic" production in a few years, convinced that it doesn't work.

Is organic farming by input substitution or by neglect really organic farming? Technically, yes, by today's working definitions, but not really, by the standards of traditional organic farmers.

As an aside, it is not surprising that studies comparing the nutritional value of organic and conventionally grown food are inconclusive. Clearly, that is because a lot of "organic" food is essentially "conventionally" grown--by input substitution or neglect methods. It is not likely to be nutritionally different from conventional food because it is grown under conditions that mimic conventional production. I suspect, however, that if we were to test food grown on an organic farm that utilized generous amounts of green manure and compost in comparison with food from an NPK conventional farm, the organic food would be found to be superior in taste and nutritional value.


The crossroads where we now find ourselves is whether we will allow organic farming to become wholly defined by the materials that are allowed or not allowed in production. Or, can we take organic farming to a higher level, also defining it as an ecological production system that utilizes a range of biological and cultural methods to build soils, defend against pests, and achieve our production goals. The benefits of such a system should include more nutritious food, increased biodiversity, better protection of the environment and enhancement of the natural resource base, and greater prosperity for organic farmers and for rural communities.

Some claim that the National Organic Program (NOP) has set us on a course of input substitution and industrialization of organic farming. That does not have to be the case. The NOP Final Rule defines organic production as "A production system that...integrat(es) cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity." So, clearly, the NOP holds the possibility that organic farming can and should be more than merely following a set of rules regulating which inputs can be used and which ones are outlawed. Obviously, such rules are important, but are only the starting point for defining organic agriculture.

Consumer Perception

At this point, most organic consumers have likely not thought much about the possibility of industrialized organic food production. If anything, they probably assume that organic food is not only produced without the use of synthetic materials, but that it also is produced by family farmers in an environmentally sound manner. Indeed, consumer polls show that one of the main reasons consumers buy organic food is the perceived benefits of organic production for the environment. Can we build off that perception to make it a reality?

If not, if we allow organic production to go down the road of industrial agriculture, we will end up bankrupting our profits, environment, and rural communities as surely as conventional agriculture is accomplishing that today. The consolidated agribusiness corporations are waiting in the wings to find ways to take control of the rapidly growing organic trade, to squeeze out its profitability and send organic farmers down the road to serfdom, right behind our conventional farmer friends.

The Real Cost Of Food

Let's compare the real cost of conventional food to the cost of food grown locally by organic methods that are ecologically sound and protect the environment. The organic food costs more at the point of purchase, if the full cost of producing the food is charged. The conventionally produced food may appear to be cheaper but really is not if you consider all the ways we pay for that "cheap" food. When you pay for conventional food in the grocery store, you are only making your first installment.

You also pay for it in taxes for the massive subsidies for conventional agriculture. You pay for it in subsidies for transporting it (the average piece of food travels 1500 to 2500 miles). You pay for it in taxes for the military to secure oil from foreign lands to make fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel. Then, you pay for it to remove the pesticides and nitrate from drinking water. You pay for it through soil erosion and resultant sediment pollution. You pay for it when massive manure spills pollute rivers and kill fish. You pay for it with the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and in damage to estuaries and lakes. How cheap is this conventional food, really?

We should not be reluctant to charge a reasonable price for organic food--if it is more than just warmed-over conventional food produced by input substitution or neglect. We are not going to be able to make a living trying to produce organic food at a price that competes with conventional food, which is made cheap by externalizing costs of production and keeping farm.

If there is to be a future for organic family farmers, we must convince consumers that there is value and benefit to buying organic food that is produced by family farmers in an environmentally friendly manner--and produced locally if possible. We must point out to consumers how industrialized food production--both conventional and organic--externalizes production costs, which they have to pay for later.

If we do not proactively promote organic farming as a production system that is friendly to family farmers, to our natural resource base and to farm animals, organic consumers will not be able to distinguish ecologically produced organic products from those produced by industrial methods.

Worse yet, consumers will wake up one day and realize that the cows producing the milk that is in the organic milk carton--with the picture of cows grazing in a pasture--are really in a concrete confinement facility, that the organic chickens they have been buying are raised in crowded conditions without access to the outdoors, and that their organic tofu is made with soybeans that are grown under conditions that cause excessive soil erosion. Then they will question the integrity of all organic products.

Ecological Organic Agriculture

Small and moderate-sized organic farms have an advantage over industrial-scale organic producers. It is easier for us to diversify and integrate crop and livestock systems in ways that actually enhance the natural resource base, rather than degrade it. It is easier to design a sound grazing system for 50 to100 cows than for 4000. It is easier to provide outdoor access for 500 to 1000 chickens than for 40,000. It is easier to rotate soybeans with soil-building crops on a diversified farm than on an industrial-scale farm that grows only cash row crops.

We have the opportunity now to take the definition of organic farming beyond the discussion of which inputs are acceptable and which are not. To protect the future of organic family farmers, of our natural resource base, and of our communities we should create the perception - and the reality - that organic farming is truly an ecologically based system of farming that provides all the economic, environmental, and social benefits that consumers would like to believe it does.

Francis Thicke, 2004


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