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Farming Without Chemicals in Ohio
A Case Study Report

Author: Keith Dix
Innovative Farmers of Ohio
in cooperation with the Citizens Policy Center

1. Why do it?

Admittedly, the premium prices currently being offered for certified organic crops is an important factor in explaining why the farmers interviewed for this study made the transition to an alternative, chemical-free system of farming. There were many other factors involved, and it's important to consider these to fully understand why someone might consider farming organically. Each farmer had a different story to tell to explain why he adopted organic methods.  

Ron G. The 220-acre farm that Ron now leases was formerly a dairy farm operated by a farmer who grew his hay and feed grains without the use of chemicals. The only off-farm inputs utilized were lime and Pro-Min, a calcium-sulfate product. When this farmer passed away, his widow insisted that Ron, if he wanted to lease it, continue farming it without pesticides or commercial fertilizers. He viewed this as a challenge. She convinced me that I could make it work. Also, I like to be different. I don't like to do what everybody else is doing. After the first year, I could see that there was some potential for profit from the standpoint of limited equipment, limited capital and limited time; that somebody could go out and make some money. I've always been against big business and big operations and yet if you want to survive today you've got to have a big operation for a conventional farmer. With organics, it gives you a chance to get into a niche. You can survive on a lot smaller scale. That was one of the main appeals that I have for doing it organically. I didn't want to go out and buy new tractors, new combines, etc. So, I currently am working with the newest piece of equipment being a 1981 tractor.

Dean M. During the energy crisis of the 1970's, Dean admits to having a youthful vision;"an image that it would be neat to come up with a substitute for fertilizer because I knew a lot of petroleum went into making it." He first heard the word "organic" while at college and later became more familiar with what it meant during a student internship, working with the Food Action Committee in Washington, DC. During his Peace Corp years in Paraguay, Dean was made aware of the heavy use of agricultural pesticides in the developing world, and it bothered him to realize that many of these chemicals, like DDT, were banned in the US. Dean returned to Wayne County in the early 1980's to farm with his father. They were using a conventional system, but Dean became concerned with the low returns they were experiencing and the heavy debt load they were carrying.

It was at that time that he began looking for an alternative way to farm. The debt structure was pretty high, interest rates were high, so on one parcel of land I suggested that we plant it and not spray it. We had a crop, not a great crop but at least we saved a lot of money on herbicides. I had the concern about the environment and about the food, but it was the economic issue that brought my dad around to thinking we should try it. We were spending a lot of money on herbicides. Also, markets weren't that fabulous, so it seemed that the only way to make money farming was to cut your costs. Most farmers were trying to cut costs by getting bigger;they still do this today to spread their equipment costs over more acres.

Nelson W. While Nelson admitted that the high prices for organic crops encouraged them to make the transition to organic production, he said that he "had a longstanding hatred of chemicals that went way back. Just a natural sense I have." Lynn, his son and partner, echoed his father's dislike for working with chemicals. I think one of the motivations for me was to get away from chemicals. I've heard many stories of that stuff coming through the product. Antibiotics in feed come through into your meats. As poisonous as the chemicals are , you wouldn't take them and eat them, but if they come through your crops a little bit at a time...well, I don't think it's good for a person to eat those crops. I think there should be a natural way to grow stuff.

Geoff M. Geoff and his wife firmly believe there is a cluster of cancer victims among their neighbors;including their daughter who suffers from Hodgkins disease that they attribute to the excessive use of agricultural chemicals in their area. They are also concerned about the environmental impact of these chemicals on wildlife. When asked what other factors might have led him to move into organic production, he said, "I think it was just seeing herbicides not work. Having to spray the same weeds every year. And seeing the uncertainty about mixing different herbicides and the real lack of knowledge out there about the side effects of these chemicals."

Jeff D. Jeff admits that the premium prices played an important role in his decision to transition to organic "but once I learned how it all works, that it does actually work, I was hooked on the whole biological thing." he said. I was fed up with borrowing a lot of money, buying all the stuff, then midway through the summer I'd run out of money and I would run up accounts here in town. Come fall I'd pay everybody off. I'd pay the bank off first but still owe on all these open accounts. So I'd have to borrow more money to pay them off and then start all over. So, I thought that this is crazy. There's no way to win. Then the drought of '88 really hammered it home to me. I said, this just doesn't work. When I heard from other organic farmers they were saying they didn't have much difference in yield (during the drought), I thought I would try it.

Steve B. Steve has farmed conventionally all his life and "didn't know anything other" until several things happened to change his thinking. His father, with whom he farms, was an important influence in making the change. He said his father had farmed before 2-4-D had come in and knew that there were other ways to control weeds. And "of course, he wasn't satisfied with what our bottom line was. We went down the list to see what we could change. It was either get more for your product or cut the fertilizers and chemicals out." The farm was also facing another problem. Steve explained "my grandfather had tiled these farms systematically but by the late '70s and early '80s we were beginning to notice the fields weren't draining. The soil was so tight around the tiles the water wouldn't penetrate." They decided they had to do something to improve their soil drainage. "We were primarily interested in building our soils. The soil is what really got us started."