The main attribute that draws me to southwest Wisconsin is the concentration of organic farming. I decided to move from Chicago to be closer to organic farming, to eat more organic food, and to in some capacity, help produce more organic food. You may be surprised to hear that Wisconsin is second only to California in number of organic farms. Wisconsin also leads in organic dairy products, as well as organic livestock, which includes dairy cows and laying chickens (Food & Farming 2015). Many of these organic farms are clustered in this southwest region, where steep hills make conventional row crops less economical.
Yet, there are still many fields of “conventional” corn, soybeans, and alfalfa surrounding these smaller organic farms in the area. These farms aren’t always easy to tell apart. Not all farms that use conventional practices look like the scary, factory farms you read about on the internet. Many use practices promoted in organic farming such as crop rotation and outdoor access for livestock.
However, one of the main differences between conventional farmers and organic farmers is how they use pesticides. Pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. One of the most popular pesticides in conventional farming is glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. Farmers plant Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, and alfalfa that are genetically engineered to resist Roundup herbicide. This way, farmers can apply liberally to kill weeds without worrying about hurting their crop.
The problem is that plants evolve. Now, farmers are combatting more and more glyphosate-resistant weeds with more and more glyphosate. As a result, Monsanto recently came out with a new, stronger herbicide called Enlist Duo, which contains glyphosate as well as a new form of 2,4-D, which is already used on other crops like wheat and on pastureland and golf courses (Entine 2014).
You know it’s spraying season when you start seeing these Star Wars-like vehicles on the highway.
In general, on organic farms, synthetic chemical substances, including most synthetic pesticides, are prohibited, while most natural substances, including botanical pesticides, copper fungicides, and sulfur, are allowed. (Glyphosate and 2,4-D are prohibited.) The small number of exceptions to this anti-synthetic are included on the National Organic Program’s National List. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommends to the Secretary of Agriculture what substances should be added to or removed from the National List. The NOSB is made up of elected farmers, processors, retailers, environmentalists, scientists, consumers, and representatives of certification agencies.
Before applying any kind of pesticide, organic farmers must first use management practices such as hand weeding, mowing, mulching, introduction of predators of pest, and development of habitat for natural enemies of pests, among other practices, to control the issue. Only after these methods have been exhausted and prove insufficient for pest control may a biological or botanical substance be applied (see National List 205.206(e)).
Of the pesticides available to organic farmers, the most common are: sulfur products, Bacillus thuringiensis products (along with several other microbial pesticides), botanicals, copper fungicides, garlic products, neem pesticides (containing the active ingredient azadirachtin), pheromone products (used in traps or to disrupt insect mating), various repellants, soap-based products, and a biochemical called spinosad (Benbrook 2008). The vast majority of these pesticides are classified as “Restricted”. The restrictions usually address the circumstances in which a given pesticide product can and cannot be used, added restrictions designed to reduce risks to certain nontarget organisms, and steps growers must take to exhaust all non-pesticide alternatives (Benbrook 2008).
Finally, any pesticide application on certified organic farms is monitored by a third-party certifier. During annual inspections, the certifier carefully inspects the pesticide use records. Certifiers may choose to impose more restrictions on a particular grower if they feel approved pesticides have been depended on too heavily and preventive practices have not been given enough effort. There is no such monitoring required for conventional growers. On average the microbial, botanical and biochemical pesticides approved for organic production are applied at considerably lower rates than their conventional alternatives (Benbrook 2008). Many organic farmers rarely use pesticides or do not use pesticides at all.
Obviously, any type of farming is complex, particularly as our weather patterns become more extreme. Organic farming is a holistic approach with the goal of improving the land, water and environment while producing good food all at once. Organic farmers are, first and foremost, soil farmers. The healthier the soil, the healthier and more pest-resistant the plants will be; thus, reducing the need for any kind of pest-battling.
This morning, while biking along County Y west of Hwy 14, I came across this guy. It looks he’s spraying herbicide on last year’s harvested corn. He is probably about to plant or has just planted some Roundup Ready seed, and he is killing any weeds that might out-compete his crop with some Roundup.
On the other hand, an organic farmer would have to use mechanical means to tear up and kills weeds before they out-compete their crop seedlings. Here’s an example of machinery that might be used on an organic farm.
They say “the dose makes the poison”, so I’m not too excited about inhaling any herbicide drift. Unfortunately, biking, while holding your breath, can be quite the challenge. Next time, I’ll be sure to come prepared!
Benbrook, Charles. “Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation: The Organic Option.” Simplifying the Pesticide Risk Equation: The Organic Option (2008): 18-25. The Organic Center, 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 1 May 2015.
“ECFR — Code of Federal Regulations.” ECFR — Code of Federal Regulations. USDA National Organic Program, Web. 01 May 2015.
Entine, Jon. “GMO Opponents File Suit to Block EPA Approved Enlist Duo Weed Killer.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 01 May 2015.
“Food & Farming – Driftless Wisconsin Region Guide.” Driftless Wisconsin Region Guide. Web. 01 May 2015. http://driftlesswisconsin.com/explore/food-and-farming/