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Food & Health News

What is Organic Farming, Really?

Ever wondered what makes your produce "organic?" Our resident farmer, Mary Milsap Brower of Bluestem Farm, explains all.

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Interested in joining a CSA (community shared agriculture) program? Here’s what you should know first.

Organic farming is defined in large part by what organic farmers don’t do. Organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Organic farmers don’t use hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These substances are 20th century innovations meant to resolve specific agricultural problems, but each one has its own negative long-term impact on health or the environment.

Beyond what organic farmers don’t do, the term “organic” is also a legal description. Organic farmers submit to outside review and annual inspection to ensure their practices, records of seeds and soil amendments and fields align with the definitions set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP).

Not everyone understands, however, that the protocol governing organic farming also sets forth a group of positive, holistic practices that promote ecological balance, soil conservation, and biodiversity. By valuing these processes, organic farmers help advance the values of healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy human beings. But just how does one go about enhancing ecological balance? Or promoting healthy soil? This time of year, farmers all over North Anerica are planning the 2015 growing season. Here are a few considerations we are weighing at my own organic farm.

Building Fertility and Biodiversity in the Soil

In addition to sunlight and water, all plants need minerals to grow. Healthy soil has good mineral balance and contains a diverse population of friendly microbes. Plants grown in healthy soil are more vigorous and better able to ward off disease and pests.

At my organic farm, we support soil fertility and biodiversity by:

  • Reducing the amount we till, or disturb, the soil. This serves to protect the natural structure of the soil as well as the microbial communities present in distinct soil horizons.
  • Testing the soil each year. When there’s a mineral deficiency, we add specific types of compost, rock powders, and micro-nutrients to make up for it.
  • Rotating animals through resting garden areas. The extra organic matter in well-composted manure helps retain moisture in the soil, makes it more fertile, and creates a stable home for microorganisms.
  • Avoiding pesticides. By using physical barriers, delayed or early plantings, and crop rotation, we throw off pests without the use of poisons.
  • Avoiding herbicides. Instead we manage weeds through cover cropping, shallow cultivation, and hand-weeding.
  • Not using synthetic fertilizers, which disturb soil microbes, and easily leach out to other areas.
a cover crop of rye grass planted the autumn before a food crop of winter squash at Bluestem Farm.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are often planted in late fall, after the main harvest. Usually not intended for human consumption, they hold the soil in place so that bare ground is not eroded by rain and wind. They’re often cut and left where they are in the field so organic matter and important nutrients feed the soil.

The benefits of cover crops:

  • If bare soil is left unplanted after a harvest, minerals like calcium and boron, nitrogen and sulfur leach away every time it rains.
  • By out-competing unwanted weeds, cover crops help us reduce the need for hand-weeding or chemical weed suppression.
  • Cover crops maintain the structure of the soil and provide habitat for a diverse community of microbes that are beneficial to food plants.
A map of crop rotations. To outsmart pests and disease, cabbage and carrots grown at Bluestem Farm are rotated on plots throughout the garden.

Crop Rotation

When a single crop is grown in the same spot year after year, pests and disease easily establish themselves. To avoid this invitation, we constantly move diverse plantings of unrelated vegetables around within the garden.

Crop rotation is important because:

  • The simple act of moving a crop to a different area helps us outwit some insect pests, and naturally reduces pressure from many plant diseases.
  • Different types of plants require different diets of minerals. By rotating crops to new locations each season, the soil gets a chance to recover from the demands of each specific crop.
  • Even soil needs to rest sometimes. We systematically allow different parcels of land to lie dormant, or fallow, each year.

Why Buy Local?

Putting all these systems in place takes an abundance of planning and practice. At my organic farm, we feel that submitting to the rigors of certification makes us better at what we do. It also ensures that we support an entire organic supply chain whenever we buy organic seeds, planting stock, or farm inputs such as fertilizer, compost and hay. These choices keep additional pollutants out of the environment as a whole, not just our own farm.

Organic food is becoming more widely available in most of the country, and today even box stores carry lines of organic products. But when you choose to shop at a local farmers market, or join a small farm’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership program, you support the work of environmental conservation, food security, and public health, along with your own local economy. Even better, when you have a relationship with the person growing your vegetables, you can ask direct questions about the specific practices he or she uses to grow safe, nutritious food.

Mary Brower owns Bluestem Farm, a small organic farm in northern Michigan. Learn more at

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