Center for Rural Affairs: It’s not all about organics

Farm Forum

A growing number of people equate sustainable farming with organic farming. That is a mistake.

At the Center for Rural Affairs, we look beyond labels and focus on our core values of stewardship, community, and ownership. We ask if a farming system protects the land, soil, and water. We ask if it encourages widespread ownership and how it impacts community.

To be certain, we champion organic family farming. Many organic farmers are innovators in practices that protect the environment. Premium prices for organic products have kept countless farms profitable.

At the same time, we have been harshly critical of corporate organic. There are farms that meet the letter of the organic labeling law, but run operations that otherwise look like large corporate operators.

Similarly, painting all conventional producers with one brush overlooks critical differences.

Among conventional, family-size farmers are many ardent conservationists who maintain grass waterways, buffer strips, terraces, and shelterbelts that reduce soil erosion, limit runoff, and provide habitat.

Some of the most innovative farmers are employing cover crops and no-till to enhance soil health and rebuild soil organic matter. This practice represents a convergence of the best from organic and non-organic practices.

The Center first advocated for sustainable farming systems some 30 years ago as a way for mid-size farms to compete. We promoted low-input systems because they enabled farmers to use their local expertise and hands-on management in the field and barn in place of capital and increased inputs.

We saw farming systems that emphasize careful management through crop rotations, integration of livestock, specialized tillage, targeted pest management, and selection of high-value crops as an alternative to expansion to improve efficiency and income.

Many of the farmers who embraced these strategies ultimately became organic to capture premium prices. Promotion of organic farming systems, market development, and policy that supports these systems remains a key strategy in our work.

We are now watching a new round of innovation from farmers who do use chemicals, but also use innovative management strategies to reduce cost, weather drought, and build soil health. Farmers adopting these practices are again using careful management in the field as an alternative to expansion.

This means more farmers on the land, controlling their own destiny and rising to meet the most pressing stewardship challenges of our time.

In an era where climate change is the most critical challenge facing farming, we must bring more farmers who embrace these values into our fold. It is the only way to achieve widespread change across the landscape.