[NAFEX] Organic vs Standard Spray Programs

Bob Randall YearRoundGardening at comcast.net
Tue Apr 15 13:14:08 EDT 2008


Hi

I hate to get involved in this sort of debate since there aren't  
really any definitive answers and whichever side you come down on in  
this debate requires a lot of belief and investment and time.  At one  
time I was a pesticide research chemist (malathion) and then became a  
specialist in ecological issues and at this point vastly prefer  
organic ecological approaches. In the last two decades I have worked  
with both gardeners and farmers in the Houston area as growers have  
gradually turned from chemical approaches to ecological/organic ones-- 
and I respect all of them.  It ain't easy.

Chemistry as a science predates ecology by about two centuries, and  
chemistry had a great deal of government money put into it partly  
because it was useful in war. So it shouldn't be any surprise that   
20th century agriculture turned to chemistry to control pests and to  
fertilize crops, and that many people still use these concepts to grow  
things.  That is what they know and have been trained on, and these  
methods sort of work at least if you focus on production and bottom  
line (which is very understandable), and ignore water pollution and  
medical problems in farmers (see the fact sheets at www.pesticide.org  
and  www.pesticideinfo.org or look at http://www.cdc.gov/nasd/search.html 
  to see what is known about problems with particular pesticides).  
Then there is the need for cheap fossil fuel to create the  
fertilizers.  94% of chemical nitrogen fertilizer's cost is said to be  
natural gas, and the price of that has more than trebled in the last  
ten years, so a cheaper way to fertilize should be something we all  
want.

As well, organics and especially agro-ecology has made giant strides  
since the 1950's by studying practical methods for pest control and  
enhanced soil fertility. Essentially the modern idea is to build up an  
ecosystem where disease organisms, insects and other pests have their  
own natural enemies more or less deliberately propagated by the  
grower. Pests need to have pests.

Fertility and disease control is created especially by feeding soil  
dwelling-microbes the right foods. See http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/concepts/soil_biology/biology.html 
  for a good explanation of how this approach to soil fertility works

My sense is that in the Houston area, these approaches work very well  
on all fruits except stone fruit and perhaps bunch grapes. They  
certainly work well on pecans, citrus, apples, pears, persimmons,  
muscadines, jujubes, figs, blackberries, and muskmelons and there are  
reasons to think the other fruits may be growable soon as well.  
Tomatoes are clearly easier to grow here organically than with  
chemicals. As for comparative costs, the truth is that we don't really  
know.  Large farms however often invest heavily in specialized  
equipment for one crop that is very expensive, so the cost per tree  
drops significantly the more of a mono-crop is grown. But mono-crops  
are one of the hardest types of crops to grow organically and no mono- 
crop is ever ecological. So if you must grow a huge amount of one  
thing, organics are the least effective.

My guess is that the idea that chemistry is better suited than biology  
for growing plants is a byproduct of academic history, and in a  
century everyone will think of chemical agriculture as an inefficient  
earlier form now obsolete. Whether it is more or less productive right  
now in particular places with particular crops depends a lot on the  
place, the crop, the length of time it has been used, and especially  
what the grower knows about the two methods.

Bob Randall, Ph.D.


On Apr 14, 2008, at 9:30 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.  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.
>
> 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.  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."
>
> Mark
> KS
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Road's End Farm
> To: North American Fruit Explorers
> Sent: Monday, April 14, 2008 8:24 PM
> Subject: Re: [NAFEX] Organic vs Standard Spray Programs
>
> On Apr 14, 2008, at 5:47 PM, Mark & Helen Angermayer wrote:
>
> I think organic fits much better with backyard orchardists, or small
> growers who market their own product. Small growers, particularly  
> those
> with supplemental off-farm income can afford to experiment and may  
> have less
> pest pressure. The situation is different for someone trying to make a
> living full-time farming.
>
> I think there's some truth in saying that organic fits better with  
> small growers, partly in that some of the techniques may be more  
> labor intensive, and partly in that organic works best with  
> diversified cropping: growers who have large acreages of only one  
> species have a disadvantage both in increased numbers of species- 
> specific pests and in difficulty encouraging diverse populations of  
> beneficials. Large growers can of course plant a large number of  
> small blocks, interspersing different crops, or even mix the crops  
> in one field; but this makes it difficult to use large-scale  
> equipment, which of course poses a much bigger problem for the large  
> grower than for the small grower.
>
> However, there are people making a living full-time farming who are  
> farming organically. It's not going to work for every operation; but  
> it can be done. Many such growers are, indeed, using direct-market  
> techniques for at least part of their sales.
>
> There are, of course, some very large "organic" operations selling  
> to grocery chains all across the country; Cal-Organic and the like.  
> I expect they do meet USDA standards.
>
> is the consumer willing to accept a less flavorful
> apple? Maybe some will, but I suspect most won't.
>
> Considering that the competition in the grocery store is mostly from  
> entirely insipid strains of Red and Golden Delicious, and  
> considering the flavor or rather lack of it of most fruit in most  
> grocery stores, I think "the consumer" is entirely willing to accept  
> tasteless fruit. The challenge is in getting most people to find out  
> what good fruit tastes like.
>
> I have had some very flavorful organic apples -- I'm sorry, I'm bad  
> at names on anything I don't grow myself, and can't recall what they  
> were.
>
> in farming one can always find someone doing something different,  
> and claiming it works. The key is making it work in your climate and  
> circumstances.
>
> That is certainly true.
>
> Marketing the pigs would be an obstacle in many areas.
>
>
> If there are any small slaughterhouses in your area that will take  
> one or a few animals at a time (there are several around here), your  
> best bet would be to sell direct to the consumer. There is certainly  
> a market for small-scale raised meats in many parts of the country.  
> Legalities of this differ from state to state; in New York what's  
> often done is to, technically, sell the live animal to one or more  
> people (who will each wind up with a side or a quarter); the farm  
> then does the new owners the favor of delivering the animal to the  
> slaughterhouse. There are also ways to sell individual cuts legally,  
> though I think this is more complicated.
>
> Try to find out in advance whether your customers are likely to want  
> fat hogs or lean ones. This is apparently affected strongly by breed  
> selection as well as by feed (at any rate judging by what I've been  
> told and what I've wound up with in my own freezer; as far as  
> livestock goes, I'm on the consumer end).
>
>
>
> --Rivka
> Finger Lakes NY; zone 5 mostly
>
>
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"Share What You Grow and What You Know!"

Bob Randall, Ph.D.
YearRoundGardening at comcast.net
713-661-9737



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