[NAFEX] Organic vs Standard Spray Programs

Road's End Farm organic87 at frontiernet.net
Tue Apr 15 12:06:15 EDT 2008


On Apr 14, 2008, at 10:30 PM, Mark & Helen Angermayer wrote:

> Hi Rivka,
>
>  
> I think you and I agree that organic probably fits best with small 
> growers who market their own stuff, or possibly large growers in very 
> low pest pressure areas.  However I would disagree competition at the 
> grocery store is against "insipid strains of Red and Gold Delicious."  
> That may have been true at one time, but the consumer, at least around 
> here has appeared to wise up.  At one of the grocers where we shop, 
> you can't even get Red Delicious anymore.  The other carries Red 
> Delicious, but they are always the cheapest, and from the look of them 
> (old and soft looking), nobody is buying them.  They have been 
> replaced by the new more flavorful varieties-Honeycrisp, Fuji, Pink 
> Lady, Gala, Braeburn, and some others. 

This may depend on the area. I'll just repeat that, at least in my 
area, fruit in the grocery stores (all fruit, not just the apples) is 
in most cases tasteless. So are most of the vegetables. My closest 
grocery does carry a good deal of local produce in season, conventional 
produce as well as organic, and the flavor of the local produce is 
generally much better; but they're clearly selling enough of the 
tasteless stuff to keep carrying it.

> Now the consumer has choices, and seems to be choosing the better 
> flavored apples.  This is going to be a challenge for the organic 
> grower.
>

In my experience, in most cases the local grower has better flavored 
produce, and organic often has better flavor than conventional. Local 
conventional may have better flavor than organic produce that had to be 
shipped long distances, however; and individual farm management may 
trump the organic/conventional even in the same area: a conventional 
grower concentrating on good flavor may produce better flavor than an 
organic grower who isn't. But when all else is equal (a rare 
circumstance), I think organic management usually produces better 
flavor.

>  
> One other thing on farm diversity.  I'm not against it, but it can be 
> difficult to make it work nowadays.  I'm not talking about having 
> cattle and row crops.  That works generally because there is little 
> capital equipment (relatively speaking) in cattle.  But real 
> diversity, the kind our forefathers used to practice, is quite at a 
> disadvantage unless you can direct market your product.  The reason is 
> many people don't realize just how much economies of scale add to 
> efficiency.  In modern farming capital equipment costs (driven by the 
> high cost of labor) make up a huge piece of the cost pie.  Every time 
> you double the yield, or amount of acres farmed, you halve the 
> equipment cost per output.  So small operations find it harder and 
> harder to compete (even with the best management) with large 
> operations that have "built in" cost efficiencies from economy of 
> scale. 

What is or isn't "efficient" tends to depend on what's being taken into 
account in the measurements. Highest yield per acre, highest yield per 
human hour of labor, highest yield
per inch of topsoil loss or gain, highest yield per unit of fossil fuel 
used, highest yield per total off-farm sourced inputs: these are 
different types of measurement, and are likely to give different 
results. When you add in to this the complications of deciding whether 
you want to measure "highest yield" in terms of pounds per acre of 
crop, or of nutrients per acre available in the resulting diet, or 
whether you want to consider in "highest yield" benefits from the land 
in addition to its production of food (water absorption, habitat for 
species not eaten by humans, oxygen production, carbon absorption, et 
very cetera); and/or whether you want to consider the total cost of 
getting the food to those who are going to eat it, including all those 
who work in the supply chain and all the resources (fuels and 
otherwise) that this supply chain uses; and/or if you want to consider 
whether to use gross financial income to the farmer, or net financial 
income to the farmer, or total gross or net income to the farmer 
including any benefits to the farmer (such as the farmer's own food, 
fuel, etc.) as well as cash payments: "efficiency" becomes a much 
harder thing to rate.

Current prices for agricultural products in the USA are affected by the 
fact that fuel here is currently significantly cheaper than labor; by 
the production of large amounts of produce in arid climates in a 
fashion that is draining the water tables of large parts of the 
country, often with water use being charged at well under market rates 
(and even full market rates are unlikely to fully reflect the damage 
being done, in many cases, far away from the farms in other areas of 
the watershed); and, in many cases, by a failure to include in the 
price to the consumer any charge for diminishment of health of the 
fields, or of those who work them.

I am not saying that you yourself are harming the health of your 
fields, or of the surrounding watershed, or of your workers. But the 
price you're offered for your products on the overall wholesale market 
is affected by the price that those who are doing so are willing to 
take; and the definition of "efficiency" that most people use doesn't 
take any of this into account.

> Modern apple producers sell their product for 10 to 20% the cost of 
> retail.  It's going to be extremely difficult for a small producer 
> to compete with that pricing structure.  They can only compete by 
> selling their product themselves.  My point is that a small 
> diversified organic farm is probably only going to fit in niche 
> markets.  But I guess you said the same thing, "It's not going to work 
> for every operation."
>
>  

Many conventional producers, including some quite large ones, have also 
gone out of business under that pricing structure. I agree that small 
producers (as well as a lot of medium-sized ones), conventional as well 
as organic, are likely to do better by marketing direct to the 
consumer, and/or through small co-ops, and/or direct to those local 
retail outlets that are still allowed to make their own decisions as to 
what to buy. Considering the huge growth in farmers' markets, CSA's, 
etc. over the last twenty years or so, I disagree that such marketing, 
considered overall, continues to be a "niche". Any small to medium 
sized business, of course, conventional or organic, farm or other type 
of business, has to find its own "niche" in the sense of finding its 
own customer base, and its own way to distinguish its product so that 
enough customers will buy that product, as opposed to buying whatever's 
cheapest at Walmart.

And no one technique is going to work for every operation. In the case 
of farms, no two farms have the same resource base in the terms of the 
specific farm size, layout, soils, soil conditions, water availability, 
climate, microclimates; or in the terms of the available capital and 
accumulated equipment; or in terms of available labor, from the farm 
family or otherwise, and of the actual capabilities of the people 
providing that labor; or, most especially, in terms of the specific 
farmer(s) running the place. Each of us has to decide how to allocate 
those resources that we have. Somebody who loves hand work in the 
fields is going to decide differently than someone who loves working 
with machinery (and there are some highly mechanized organic farms). 
Somebody who loves working with people and doing sales is going to 
decide differently than someone who hates this. The farmer is part of 
the farm. I am not going to try to decide for you how you ought to run 
your farm (not that you would listen to me if I did!)

The sun is out, the fields are drying enough to work in, and I should 
quit going on on this subject for a while (and, as you have no doubt 
noticed, I am quite capable of going on. And on.)

Yours en route to finish getting ready to plant onions, parsley, and 
strawberries --

--Rivka
Finger Lakes NY; zone 5 mostly
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