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Musing on going organic

An email from a long-time organic farmer pushes Toban Dyck to wonder if he should try it too

The scene ends in horror. No matter how many times I replay. Telling the farming community and anyone else who would listen that “I, Toban Dyck, am going organic” is like saying, “thanks for letting me spend a couple years on the family farm; now I’m going to plunge it into bankruptcy,” while wearing a clown costume. This is all in my head, of course, exposing more about me than those around me. But I don’t think I’m alone. I bet others share this fear, and perhaps this curiosity.

A column or two ago, I wrote about the opportunity to rent 90 acres of land for the 2015 growing season and how that makes me a real farmer, which is a high I’m riding again after writing about it just now. That column received traction, yielding two notable insights:

  • A: the organic farming community is looking for recruits, and
  • B: they want me as their latest (and greatest?)

I received an email from an organic farmer shortly after the article was published. It was a plea to consider the possibility for my land. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. I’m quick to judge, as well. But the plea was better, more convincing than what you’re picturing right now. The email didn’t mention the ’60s, pot, the Grateful Dead, peace, or other things some people think weaken an argument. And it wasn’t a militant missive against those who don’t run organic farms. It was instead an articulate, honest, down-to-earth email, directed to me, by someone who reads my column and has been an organic farmer of over 1,500 acres for nearly 20 years.

“If you thought just starting to farm was scary, wait for the first year you don’t spray and see how many nights you don’t sleep wondering ‘what the heck am I doing.’ But if you go in with a plan it’s not scary,” he said. “There is tons of support and resources compared to when I started. I think there are a lot of farmers out there who see how well organic farmers are doing, but do not know what to do and may be afraid to make a change.”

I am afraid to make that change, partially for the clown-like reason cited above, and partially because I’m still new to farming, in general — the non-organic kind. I’m not familiar with the science of organic farming. I wouldn’t know how to properly substitute pesticides, fertilizer and other inputs. But that doesn’t matter, I don’t think. The debate surrounding the merits or demerits of organic farming is rarely about the science or how exactly to do it. These things can be learned quickly. No, the debate about going organic is shrouded in fear and money, the two things, along with death and taxes, that plague many rational minds.

“Organic farming is a form of agriculture that relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control,” reads the Wikipedia entry. “Depending on whose definition is used, organic farming uses fertilizers and pesticides (which includes herbicides, insecticides and fungicides) if they are considered natural (such as bone meal from animals or pyrethrin from flowers), but it excludes or strictly limits the use of various methods (including synthetic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides; plant growth regulators such as hormones; antibiotic use in livestock; genetically modified organisms (human sewage sludge; and nano-materials) for reasons including sustainability, openness, independence, health and safety.”

Right now, sharing a likeness with those conversations about GMOs that leave both sides thinking, “How could I be friends with that person?” or, “How can a seemingly intelligent person hold on to such?” talk of organic farming is less about organic farming and more a collection of pleas and jabs, depending on your side.

But here’s the thing: It can be done, is being done, and those doing it are making money.

If I were to “go organic”

Trading the pickup for a smart car. This is what it would feel like. What would they say? There’s pride in farming the land, and possessing the leading edge on all opinions related to food production. This would threaten whatever that is. But it might be worth it. Organic commodities can command top dollar from the market. There is consumer demand.

And there are some big initial movers out there. I have no idea how influential the gentleman who emailed is in the organic community (probably quite), but I do know some large companies in Manitoba have organic divisions.

Whether this particular form of farming, if universally applied, can meet food-production demands or not is perhaps a topic for another column. For this column take away this: think about organic practices for your farm, do some research, sleep on it, repeat for a couple days, then consider that maybe, just maybe, going organic doesn’t mean you have to give up your pickup truck, and that doing so might make economic sense in the long run.

Keep in mind, the previous words were inspired by an earnest email sent to me from an organic farmer. A proper treatment of the topic requires more. You know that. But these serve as the opening comments to a larger debate.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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