By P. Allen Smith | Photography courtesy of Mark Fonville and P. Allen Smith
“If you are doing everything right, after a period of years pesticides are not necessary,” says Allen, who runs Allenbrooke Farms in Springville, Tenn. “The ‘beneficials’ [insects] are so prolific, they do the job. If you spray, everything gets out of whack.”
For him, the secret to organic farming lies in the soil. Using compost and cover crops on the off season, he is developing a soil with a healthy microecology. He calls his soil a “fertility bank.”
“Good vegetables are a byproduct of good soil,” Allen says.
Allen transformed his family farm into one of the largest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in Tennessee. He sells “shares” to 400 members who come by weekly for 22 weeks a year to pick up a bushel of fresh-picked vegetables. Much to his family’s surprise, he routinely grosses in the mid-six figures as an independent farmer. His income increased as soon as he received his organic certification from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Another certifying agent is the Certified Naturally Grown, a group composed of farmers and academics. This group encompasses many organic farmers, such as a chicken farmer in Hartsell, Ala., “who don’t want to deal with the government.”
“USDA certification is a lot of paperwork at first, but it has been beneficial to our business,” says Allen.
With the farm-to-table movement, organic foods have risen to premium prices as they are snatched up by high-end restaurants and health-conscious consumers. Taste-makers have gone organic and more and more Americans are seeking out local wholistic farmers, like Allen. On menus across the nation, local farmers are named and credited with everything from the Brussel sprouts to the pork belly.
Supporting local farmers has become a source of pride among restaurants, who keep many of the small farms in business. Frank Stitt, recently named Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation, is often called “the godfather of Southern cuisine,” for his early adoption of local, organic, seasonal dishes in Highlands Bar and Grill, opened in Birmingham in 1982.
At the heart of the organic debate is chemical pesticides and herbicides. Much like humans who can be vulnerable to disease during stress, mismanaged crops can also demonstrate reactions to stress. Organic crops must be carefully selected for appropriate varieties for the climate and for the water need and availability. For example, Arizona plants do not thrive in the humid South and would need a shipload of chemicals to survive.
“Any stress on a plant is a calling card for pests,” said Dr. Ayanava Majumdar, an entomologist and farm consultant at Auburn University.
While organic pesticides are gentler on the whole system, Majumdar recommends, like Allen, more physical ways to dodge pests, such as covering crops to protect them or planting a sacrificial crop to draw pests away from the cash crop. Even so, approved pesticides for organic gardeners are available and tend to be bio-based, like a harmless-to-humans fungi that bugs don’t like. A big difference in commercial crop dusting with pesticides and herbicides rests in how deep the chemicals go — hitting the roots is forbidden in organic best practices.
As for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), the original corn and soybean modifications introduced a bacteria that would bolster insect protection. However, adding herbicides into the DNA of a plant violates all of the principals of organic farming.
“There is no bad intention, but it is what people are afraid of,” Majumdar says. “You can’t use these in organic farming.”
The good news, according to Majumdar, is the intense interest in organic. More research has been conducted on organic farming in the last 15 years than the preceding 50, he says. Perhaps soon, our taste buds won’t be the only ones accessing the value of organic foods.
To find organic farmers in your area, visit www.organic.ams.usda.gov/Integrity/ or www.certified.naturallygrown.org.