The Anatomy of Farm Certifications: Organic, No-Spray, Biodynamic and Conventional

Memorabilia Tractor at Paffenroth Gardens, Small Conventional — An Unconventional Farm That NYC Chefs Like to Buy From

On a sunny day somewhere in Middle America, a motored vehicle with a large wingspan is spewing fertilizer across a precise patch of cropland. In the distance another is roving steadily, shooting pesticides in a similar fashion. This is conventional farming as the mass knows it, sprawling, impersonal, but an efficient technique that harvests enough yield for the ever increasing population.

Most of us know that mass conventional farming is not good for the consumers, environment and for our future, but not all conventional farms fit this description.

We need to look further–we need to think more about what we are buying, and make conscious decisions about what we are putting into our bodies. We need to go back to the way we used to buy food, directly from the farmer but integrated with e-commerce of the 21st century. Chances are that if you’re ignorant about where your food originates, you won’t do well for your health.

As an online Farmer’s market, we (Wildkale.com) work with organic, certified-naturally-grown and biodynamic farms. We also work with conventional (yet unconventional) family farms that are small in size, with farmers as amenable as they come. We work with farmers who grow crops organically, and others who opt for the no-spray method, but still choose not to certify organically because of the additional administrative work organic certification entails. Our diverse marketplace includes farmers that might grow under slightly different certifications (or the lack of them thereof), but are most importantly, sustainable, small, family farms that have worked the farmland for generations and are concerned with the health of their soil and air because they are raising young families and the next generation of farmers.

In this article, we’re going to cover the four most common farming methodologies — small conventional farms, organic, no-spray, and biodynamic — so that we start thinking about who made our food and have less ambiguity when approaching a product.

Large Conventional

Uniform and cultivated for maximum yield, in America, conventional or as it’s more commonly known ‘corporate’ is the most widespread and common form of farming (see above description.) Conventional farming is ‘conventional’ because it utilizes all that science has to offer to make the process efficient. Genetic Modification, pesticides and fertilizers all ward off viruses and insects that could potentially damage or destroy crops. According to a study done by Steven Savage, an eco-journalist, conventional farming had higher yields in 84% of the samples of crops, and up to a 45% higher yield on particular crops. This process however, has been proven harmful to the environment through water pollution, soil erosion and to have negative effects on our health. The question is, if it is not good for you, why eat it?

Check the dirty dozen list by the Environmental Working Group when purchasing.

Small Family Farm Conventional (some practicing Integrated Pest Management)

Locally grown conventional produce however, has distinct benefits over produce from large farms. These small family farms most often use environmentally friendly practices such as Integrated Pest Management (“IPM”), a common-sense approach to controlling pests such as crop rotation, pest prevention and use of resistant varieties rather than outright spraying.

It supports the small farms; the purchase is a transaction with those farmers, who have names, who will happily shake your hand, share their story, and tell you about how they came to implement their methods of farming. It supports the local economy. And it’s fresh, because of its proximity to your home.

Jake Samascott, a farmer who practices IPM methods at his farm Samascott Orchards, likes to say that the health of his farm is exemplified by the long life of his centenarian grandmother. Pamela Torres of Prospect Hill Orchards that grows both organic and “conventional” apples once told us that regardless of the certification they almost never wash the apples at the farm. They like to eat them just off the tree. But she would never eat an apple without washing it once they get to the farmers market in New York City because of all the dust and the dirt that comes with the city!

No Spray

The term no-spray means that the farmer is self-describing themselves as not using synthetic fertilizers, genetic modification and pesticides. Here it is the reputation of the farmer that precedes it. In the words of Cheryl Rogowski, a second-generation farmer in the magnificent Black Dirt region, no spray means:

“Our Produce is grown using NO chemicals, synthetic or organic, providing the purest of produce. Our intense seed saving program ensures the preservation of many heirloom varieties of vegetables paying it forward for the future!”

Isn’t this exactly what we are looking for when we think about organic? Any questions, don’t judge, be sure to ask the farmer and it’s easy to do so by sending them a message on their profile on wildkale.com.

Large Factory Organic

A common misconception about organics is that they are all created equal. Paralleling corporate conventional farms are the factory organic farms, which abide by all of the rules to earn an organic certification, but don’t necessarily adhere to the philosophy of organics.

By this I mean that they bypass the ethical side of organics for profit. The sales of organic foods have nearly doubled over the past 10 years to 39.7 billion dollars, and the demand is skyrocketing. A burgeoning market for organic fertilizer and pesticides create some handy alternatives for farmers to produce higher yields, but because these are deemed acceptable, some factory farms abuse these pesticides, while still earning an organic certification.

Large factory organic produce can originate from as far away as China, meaning that it isn’t fresh when arriving in a supermarket.

Small Family Farm Organic and Certified Naturally Grown

Delicious and clean, small family farm organic farming is vastly different from the conventional organic. Wildkale.com’s small farmers nominated with this icon on their products are certified organic or certified naturally grown (a certification based on National Organic Standards). These farmers aim to create Biodiversity between the crops, which in turn create immunity from mites and invasive species. As opposed to the uniformity of conventional, it’s common to see different crops planted in proximity to one another.

Organic is what we hunt for deals on, and sometimes we sacrifice an extra couple of dollars on at the supermarket. Conscious consumers should ideally be purchasing from local farms they know, while searching for an organic certificate.

Biodynamic

Out of the four, Biodynamic sounds like an intricate science, but in truth it’s a holistic philosophy for farming. Farmers who are biodynamic treat their farm like a living, breathing system. By this, I mean that everything is self-sustained. Animal manure is used as fertilizer, the plants coexist, and the farmers live off of the land. Even the moon plays a part, as it determines the optimal days for planting seeds and harvesting.

There is a spectrum within each type of farming; that is to say, each farmer within a designation does not farm the exact same way. I like to think of all four methods on a geometrical plane. Corporate conventional being at one end with the highest yield and lowest cost, but with most consequence, and Biodynamic on the other end, being a completely natural process, but the most expensive and with the least quantity.

It would be a beautiful thing if we could feed the entire populous off of organic and biodynamic crops alone, but it just isn’t realistic. Not everyone can afford organic, and because of its smaller yields, an inaccessible amount of land is required to produce for everyone — a 43% increase of farmland to be exact (almost the size of Spain.) For now, the best practice would be a greater integration of Local Small Family Farm Food whether Conventional, No-Spray, Organic or Biodynamic.

This would promote environmentally conscious forms of farming, while supporting small, conventional farms in their battle with ‘corporate’ farming.

Sources:

  1. Savage, Steven. The Lower Productivity of Organic Farming: A New Analysis And Its Big Implications. Forbes, Oct. 9, 2015, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensavage/2015/10/09/the-organic-farming-yield-gap/#322b71135e0e
  2. Organic Market Overview. USDA, Apr. 4 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-market-overview/
  3. Luo, Irene. 5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Trust Organic From China. Food Revolution, Aug. 6 2015, https://foodrevolution.org/blog/organic-food-from-china/
  4. McWilliams, E. James. Organic Crops Alone Can’t Feed the World. Slate, Mar. 10, 2011, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/green_room/2011/03/organic_crops_alone_cant_feed_the_world.html
  5. Barber W, L. Carpenter-Boggs, D. Dalsoren, W. Goldstein, C. Koopmans. Comparisons of Conventional, Organic and Biodynamic Methods. Oregon State University, n.d., http://extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/sites/default/files/comparison.pdf
  6. US Environmental Protection Agency, “Introduction to Integrated Pest Management”, https://www.epa.gov/managing-pests-schools/introduction-integrated-pest-management
  7. Wilcox, Christie. Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming>Conventional Agriculture. Scientific American, Jul. 18 2011. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/
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