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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

10. Is there a downside to organic farming?

The farmers interviewed feel that the advantages of an organic system outweigh the disadvantages, but they also readily admit and understand that there are problems associated with the way they farm. They recognize that reliance on mechanical weed control avoids a potential environmental impact from the use of herbicides but also requires the use of considerable more diesel fuel, more wear and tear on equipment and a larger labor input on each acre farmed. Ron G. He had some interesting thoughts on the subject when asked to compare his system with a conventional farming system: " Many of them are no-till. Plant it, spray it and forget it. Which, from their standpoint, it works. And it's low input. We can't condemn them for what they're doing. They have some advantages to their system. They're not out there four to five hours an acre burning up that labor and burning up diesel fuel as we do. Diesel fuel is not a renewable resource. That's detrimental to the way we ought to be thinking. If we were burning soy diesel, that's different. They're cutting their fuel bills down and cutting their labor down and machinery. They have some advantages that maybe we ought to try to incorporate into ours.

Mechanical weed control may destroy through oxidation the organic matter that these farmers are so dedicated to building. The jury is still out on this question, but it is worth considering when contrasting conventional with organic farming.

The whole process of receiving certification as an organic grower can be an onerous one. With it's list of prohibited materials, it's requirements for detailed record keeping and, some feel, invasive, on-farm inspections organic certification is not something to be taken lightly. The requirement that 25-foot buffer strips be kept between organic and conventional fields can be particularly bothersome. Some will place the acreage involved in the Conservation Reserve Program while others will simply sell crops grown in the buffer zones at conventional prices. In either event, a loss of income may result. Management of buffer strips may be particularly difficult if field borders are narrow. It has been pointed out that mechanical weed control requires considerable more labor input than chemical control. Some of the farmers interviewed found the labor issue to be a limiting factor in their ability to expand their revenue base.

There is the real possibility that crop yields will decline, especially during the transition period. This drawback can be partially offset if a market can be found for "transitional" or "chemical-free" soybeans. As noted above, the marketing of organic crops is problematic for some growers, sometimes presenting difficulties for the organic grower that conventional farmers who haul their crops to the local elevator do not face. There is the real possibility that as more farmers take up organic practices, the prices of organic crops will decline. Supply may expand faster than demand, although the latter has been increasing in recent years. The question central to this case study is whether organic farmers will continue farming that way if the current premium prices were to disappear. The response to this question is discussed in the next section.

The organic farmer, without a doubt, must acquire a different set of management skills and must have a different mindset from the conventional grower. Basic organic rotations have been in use for decades, but the effectiveness of such rotations are very site specific. So, the organic farmer must be willing to experiment with different configurations, different crops and the timing of operations on his or her own farm. There is a lot of trial and error farming involved which might not appeal to many non-organic farmers. There is no "going by the book" in organic agriculture.

The support system available for the conventional grower does not exist for the organic grower. University reseachers, Extension personnel, most farmer organizations and the farm press constitute an agricultural establishment that caters to the conventional farmer. Individuals and institutions that make up this establishment have, until recently, been openly hostile to the idea of organic farming. The lack of public support coupled with the fact that there are so few organic growers creates an isolation that, despite their willingness to help each other, is one of the disadvantages of being an organic farmer.