Sowing fall brassicas, thoughts on Organic certification and organic farming

Brassica seedlings under insect netting.
Photo Pam Dawling

Sowing fall brassicas

We sow our fall broccoli and cabbage in mid-late June, followed by our outdoor Asian greens and collards. These will all get transplanted from nursery seedbeds covered with insect netting, to growing beds covered with insect netting. In the summer we try to have a No Visible Brassicas Month to break the lifecycle of the harlequin bugs. Once our spring kale is finished, the spring cabbage gathered in and the spring broccoli mowed down, the only brassicas are hidden under netting. Our hope is to starve out the harlequin bugs or at least deter them from making too many more.

Brassica transplants under ProtekNet.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

I wrote a short piece about sowing our fall broccoli and cabbage in 2014 here

I wrote about our long evenings of transplanting in July and August in 2015 here:

Fall broccoli rows.
Photo Kati Falger

This year we have a simplified plan: one broccoli variety, one cabbage variety, Morris Heading collards, Koji (a hybrid Asian green a bit like Yukina Savoy) and Senposai.

The broccoli is an OP variety, Umpqua. It takes 96 days to maturity, has dark green 5-6″ heads and makes lots of side shoots. That’s a long wait compared to 54d Tendergreen and 60d Green Magic, so I hope it’s good! It’s certainly highly rated compared to other OP types.

The cabbage is Storage #4 a 4-8 lb 90-95d hybrid, for fresh use and storage.


Zipper spider catching pest bugs on our hoophouse squash.
Photo Pam Dawling

After worrying about the challenges with our early squash in the hoophouse, I realized today that at least half of the plants are still producing, while the younger first outdoor planting has given up, before the second planting is ready to take over.


Is Buying Organic Worth It?

An interesting blog post cones from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, exploring the meanings of “organic”, and I will summarize it here. Paying the higher price for organic products is always a personal decision, and whether buying USDA Organic food is “worth it” depends on the relative value that the consumer puts on food The Real Organic Projectbeing produced in accordance with USDA Organic standards.

The word “organic” is used to mean different things:

Formally: When used to advertise and sell a farm product, the word “organic” is regulated by federal law—the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and the related USDA Organic regulations. This legal meaning of the word “organic” as defined by Congress and the USDA has only been around since 1990 (when OFPA was signed into law). USDA Organic standards are the same from state to state and from store to store. Because the USDA tracks the sales of certified Organic products, buying USDA Organic food is a great way to vote with your dollar.  The core principles of organic agriculture were initially developed by organic farmers, not the USDA.

Informally: In daily life, many people use the word “organic” for agricultural products that were grown using methods that are similar to or even completely consistent with the USDA Organic standards but are grown by uncertified farms.  The cultural practice of farming using organic methods has been around for a at least a hundred years. Many outstanding organic farmers were growing organically before 1990 and either have never bothered to become USDA certified Organic or have given up their certification since then. However, after 1990, they could no longer market their products as organic. 

What exactly does USDA Organic certification mean?

The environmental stewardship required by the USDA Organic regulations is one of the most important values that certified farms offer to consumers. Farms that comply with the USDA Organic regulations have considerably smaller ecological footprints than many of conventional farms. (See the USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service webinar series on the environmental benefits of Organic farming.)

As well as requiring farming practices that protect natural resources, the Organic rules also prohibit the use of most synthetic farm inputs for production of crops and livestock, including the use of GMOs. Antibiotics and growth hormones are prohibited from livestock and dairy production. Most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers commonly used in industrial crop production are also prohibited. And although some synthetic pesticides are permitted under Organic production, a specific pesticide is only allowed if the USDA (in consultation with the National Organic Standards Board, the EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services) determines that it is not harmful to human health or the environment, that it is essential for that farm because natural substitutes are not available, and that it is in every other way consistent with the Organic law. Pesticides can only be used as a last resort, and they cannot be used in a way that contaminates crops, soil, or water. USDA Organic standards require farmers to provide special living conditions and diets for Organic livestock.

Several studies have shown that eating a diet of Organic food considerably reduces the concentration of toxic and synthetic pesticides found in the human body.  This general prohibition against synthetic substances and against the overuse of pesticides means that the USDA Organic products are generally free of toxic residues.

For those who are concerned about avoiding exposure to chemicals and helping encourage environmental stewardship, buy organic food from a local farmer you trust, regardless of whether they are certified organic. If they are certified—even better. Your purchase will help advance the organic food movement. If you are unable to buy food directly from a trustworthy farmer, then look for the USDA Organic label. It’s not perfect—regulatory programs never are. But it is the best source of information a consumer can get about how their food was produced, short of hearing it from the farmer’s mouth.


Read the next article to learn more about an effort to deal with the shortcomings of the USDA Organic label by designing an add-on label for better-than-Organic standards.


The Real Organic Project update

The Real Organic Project was formed in January 2018 to educate, promote, and advocate for traditional biological farming, which came to be called “Organic Farming.” The Project is intended to fill the void left by failures of integrity, transparency, and public process in the USDA National Organic Program (NOP).

“As the NOP has been increasingly reduced to a marketing brand, it is clear that a catalyst is needed to reinvigorate the organic farming movement.”

The Real Organic Project’s initial efforts focused on creating an add-on label to the USDA organic label. This wrap-around label will prohibit hydroponic and CAFO production, instead requiring practices that maintain and improve the health of the soil. The simple standards for the wrap-around label were set by the Real Organic Standards Board in late March 2018.

The fifteen-member Standards Board came together from all over the country. After many weeks of preparation, they met for two intensive days of debate and hard work.

The Real Organic Project has released the thirty-one page Provisional Standards on their website: Real Organic Provisional Standards.

These seven short standards sum up the basics:

  1. “Origin of Livestock. In current NOP rules, producers can continuously transition dairy animals into organic over time. This standard ends that loophole.
  2. Grazing Requirement. There is strong evidence that current NOP grazing requirements are not being met. This standard tightens the current standard, and it will be enforced.
  3. Grown in the Ground. Current NOP decisions permit 100% hydroponic production with no relationship between the soil and plants. This standard mirrors the recently passed EU standard that requires crops to be grown in the soil, in contact with the subsoil, in contact with the bedrock.
  4. Soil Management. Current NOP language requires certified farms to maintain and improve the fertility of the soil, but these standards are often not being met. This standard simply reinforces the language and intention of OFPA and the NOP language.
  5. Greenhouse Production. NOP standards around greenhouse production have never been set. This standard prohibits the use of 100% artificial lighting and requires an energy plan to show steady progress in reducing the carbon footprint.
  6. Animal Welfare. Following the recent rejection of the animal welfare standard (known as OLPP), CAFO production of poultry has become accepted in NOP certification. Our standard requires genuine outdoor access for all animals. It also addresses other animal welfare concerns, such as tail docking and beak trimming, that are needed in farming systems that allow overcrowding of livestock.
  7. Split Farms. This standard limits the circumstances in which an organic farm can produce non-certified crops.”

As CAFOs and hydroponics become a bigger part of the USDA-certified Organic products, the public is being misled. And the real organic farms that make up the majority of USDA-certified farms are being pushed into the background. A recent story written by Cornucopia noted that the remaining 6 “organic” dairy farms in Texas (all large CAFOs) produce one and a half times more milk than the 450 certified family dairy farms in Wisconsin. We now see the organic family dairy farms being driven out of business in Vermont and California by CAFOs every day.


Organic farming can make an important contribution to world nutrition

Research on organic farming was carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture in cooperation with the University of Aberdeen, Alpen-Adria Universitat Klagenfurt Vienna and ETH Zurich.

The study (recently published in Nature Communications) determined that

“A global conversion to organic farming can contribute to a profoundly sustainable food system, provided that it is combined with further measures, specifically with a one-third reduction of animal-based products in the human diet, less concentrated feed and less food waste. At the same time, this type of food system has extremely positive ecological effects, i.e. considerable reduction of fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions – and does not lead to increased land use, despite lower agricultural yields. “

If current trends persist unabated, and the forecasts by the World Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) prove to be accurate, the negative consequences of agriculture on the environment will continue to increase dramatically until 2050. The FAO assumes a population above 9 billion people and an increase in eating habits requiring high volumes of water, energy and land, as with a high level of meat consumption.

The results demonstrate that organic agriculture has the potential to play a significant role in a sustainable nutrition system, if combined with abstaining from the use of concentrated feed in livestock production, a reduction in the consumption of animal products and a drop in food waste.

Karlheinz Erb elaborates further: “In this way, it would be possible to secure the provision of food for the global population even in the event of a population size above 9 billion in the year 2050; land use would not increase, and the negative effects of today’s intensive nutrition system such as high nitrogen surplus levels or elevated pesticide loads would be reduced considerably. Furthermore, such a system would reduce considerably the greenhouse gas emissions from land use and the livestock systems, important drivers of climate change”.

If changes in consumption patterns are not implemented, the critics will be right: Organic agriculture alone would entail an increased demand for land. This would offset the advantages of organic farming and would thus significantly reduce or even call into question its contribution towards a sustainable development.