When consumers shop at the grocery store, does organic equal sustainable or is it just a heavily regulated marketing tool ? I think the answer is that it can be some of both, depending heavily on a whole bunch of extraneous factors. There is no possible way I can do justice to this topic in one post, so I'll probably spread my musings across a whole bunch of posts, as I have done with other topics on this blog.
The focus of the first several posts will be on exploring some non-organic technologies, and touching on some of the reasons why people (especially farmers) use them! I want to talk a little bit about herbicides for the remainder of this post.
When I was a child in the 1970's there were next to no chemicals registered for use to control weeds in navy beans, which are a very fussy and sensitive crop. The fields had to be mechanically weeded with a combination of inter-row cultivation and hand hoeing, and they had to be kept nearly weed free all season long as seemingly every weed in the world would either contaminate or stain the navy beans, resulting in a huge dock at the elevator. As such, the job was necessary, but goodness me it was hot, boring, mindless and extremely labour intensive work. It's also interesting to note that while the hoeing was pretty environmentally benign, inter-row cultivation brought it's own set of problems. Soil by it's nature is meant to be covered in either vegetation or residue. Inter-row cultivation removes the first and incorporates the latter, thus leaving the soil very vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain. Anyway, back to the program at hand....
To convey how much I and every other sane human being detested this task, I want you to imagine going out on a 90 degree day to hoe all the weeds out of your garden, however big or small it may be. Then I want you to transpose that pleasant task over to a field of navy beans by imagining that your garden consisted of 250 rows of vegetables and each row is choked with weeds and is 1500 feet long. If you could do 10 of these rows in a 10 hour day you would be besting anything I was ever able to do. So to hoe this field would conservatively take one person an entire month of labour. I also want you to imagine that once you got done hoeing this monstrosity the first time you would almost certainly have to turn around and start again, and I want you to imagine doing this all season long, from early June through mid September. Hoeing navy beans might not have been the worst job on the farm, but it sure ranks right up there in my opinion. Even better, navy beans were never lucrative enough to PAY someone to hoe them, so this task always fell on familial small humans.
So imagine everyone's wonderment (especially mine) when the first set of herbicides was licensed to be applied to navy beans. At nearly $ 30 per acre, the herbicide was expensive, but compared to the labour required to hand hoe the crop, the cost was a relative bargain, and the entire summer's labour could be freed up, minus the few hours on ONE DAY that it took to apply the herbicide.
Apply this thought process and cost vs. labour savings toward every other row crop grown in North America before World War 2 and it is extremely easy to see why the ineptly named "Green Revolution" took off with amazing rapidity upon the advent of 2,4-D herbicide in 1943.
In some respects, I genuinely like the idea of being and becoming a fully organic farm. I could easily satisfy the elimination of herbicides on the cattle side of the business through the use of management intensive grazing. Due to grass management constraints, maintaining reasonable pastures with the total elimination of herbicides on the horse side of the business would be considerably more challenging. It's my thought that it would be even more challenging in row crops.
Many small vegetable growers and even some row crop farms are already there. Unfortunately the number of farms is not very high and the acreage they control is also quite low. There are a lot of reasons behind the low acreage devoted to organics, but I have to believe from a practical standpoint that the biggest roadblock is labour. There are still too many farmers my age and up who remember summer days endlessly filled with hand hoeing, and we just aren't that eager to repeat them. Until something in the labour vs. herbicide cost equation changes (as I am sure it will), my goal on this farm is to minimize, rather than completely eliminate herbicide usage.
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