Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens just posted a thoughtful response to
the SANET list, where I crossposted your letter below.
Here it is:
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 00:01:44 -0300
Sender: Sustainable Agriculture Network Discussion Group
From: Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
Subject: Re: large scale organic farming
To: [EMAIL PROTECTED]
We understand your problem with organic farming very well. We were where
you are now just a few years ago. Based on the limited information that you
have gotten, (and that we were limited to until a few years ago) you're
right in saying that organic farming won't work. As I explained in detail
to Alex Avery a couple of years ago though, substituting large amounts of
manure for chemical fertilizer and 'pinching bugs' is not organic farming at
all. That is what we call "input substitution". Input substitution is
actually nothing more than conventional management using organically
approved inputs. That type of farming won't pass organic standards to
qualify as "certified organic".
The question about how many cows it would take to fertilize 1000 acres of
corn is actually irrelevant. The answer to that question is that it doesn't
take ANY livestock manure to grow 1000 acres of high yielding organic corn.
We currently farm 1300 acres of certified organic crops including corn,
soybeans small grains and vegetables with no animal manure. Our yields are
easily as high as conventional yields in this area and sometimes better. We
have no more hired help on our farm than conventional farmers of equal size
do. What's more, there are now 7 newer organic farms that border ours and
many more near by who are showing that organic farming works well at any
scale and for any farmers who have the management ability to learn and to
adopt good organic management practices on their farms.
If all the farmers in the world were required to farm organically, We would
have no problem feeding everybody. Your statement on nitrogen production by
legumes may be true of conventional farming in some cases but think about
it. Alfalfa commonly yeilds 10 tons or more under irrigation or with
excellent dryland farming where rainfall is adequate. Good alfalfa is often
over 20% in protein content. 6.25 pounds of protein contains one pound of
nitrogen so... 20,000 X .20 = 4000# of protein divided by 6.25 pounds of
protein per pound of nitrogen = 640# of N removed in the alfafa that leaves
the farm plus what the roots contain and put into the soil in addition to
the nitrogen contained in the feild losses. We easily grow 200+ bushel corn
organically when weather permits using only nitrogen supplied by a red
clover cover crop that grows after the previous year's wheat harvest and
over winter/early spring.
Did you read the Farm Journal article on organic farming in February? We
can refer you to plenty of university researchers, crop consultants, even
chemical sales people who can verify this information if you don't want to
believe it from us. We feel that it is safe to say that organic farming is
a sound, highly productive and profitable system because it has been shown
to be so on thousands of farms around the world. It is growing in this
country at a compounded rate of about 25% a year and Europe is already far
ahead of us in converting it's agriculture to organic.
It's too bad so many ridiculous misconceptions about organic farming
are still out there and being repeated by otherwise well informed people.
Stossel's piece on 20/20 and other such "news" about organic farming really
belongs in the tabloids. The truth will come out in the end, but good
farmers like yourself are the losers until then because you are missing an
opportunity to make a much better living than you are able to today. 175 bu
corn at today's prices won't pay a mortgage or put children through college
without large LDP payments to suplement them. It's also not bringing the
next generation back to their home farms and that is a tragic loss. Nobody
can know a farm or care for it as well as those who were born on it.
Organic farming is giveing our children a chance to farm this land and enjoy
raising their children on it like we do.
If you don't know of any good productive organic farms just look a little
farther. There are more every year and they are getting much better at what
they do. Go to some conferences and meet some real progresive organic
farmers there. Many people here still don't know how much of our county is
organic because it doesn't look any different than the rest of the land at
first glance. Often in our neighborhood, it's the chemical fields including
some roundup ready crops that are full of weeds and mistaken for organic.
Our FSA loan officer got a real eye opener when one of our neighbors took
him around and pointed out which fields actually were organic and which ones
weren't. He was even more surprised to discover that over half the soybeans
in our county were organically grown and that the county average yield was
up a bushel.
Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens
>I don't disagree as much as you would think. This is definitly on
>topic because agriculture will power the green revolution. Biofuels
>are our future and I hope your right about organic farming being
>their as well.
>I have one very big problem with small organic farms feeding the
>world. How will they acquire the land. Government take over by the
>people maybe. This is a free country and land is very high priced.
>And no, I am not a Freeman.
>As for large farms they are suited to large scale production. I can
>argue the point both ways on efficiently. Which is better, a large
>farm that produces a lot at a lower cost or a small farm that
>produces a lower volume but at a higher quality. This could be
>argued for years.
>I can't quote any studies. I can't talk about anywhere except here
>in KS. The people that try to do it here are not competitive with
>the conventionals. Anywhere but here could be different. So once
>again I hope your right.
>I do not believe conventional farming is on the right track. I don't
>know if organic will work and if it works can it produce enough to
>feed the world. Conventional agriculture could easily bury the world
>in grain if the government would turn us loose. But then all the
>farmers this year would be gone and who would do it next year. I do
>know their are lots of hungry people in the world and here I am
>setting on a large pile of corn and a pathetic low price. Their
>hungry and the American farmer is broke. Don't that make one hell
>of a pair.
>The reason everybody plants one crops is money. You plant what will
>make the most money and hope to survive. Right now that is corn.
>The only reason I plant wheat is so I can plant corn on the stubble
>next year. The only reason I plant soybeans is so I can rotate my
>crops to reduce my input costs. I hope everybody can see that this
>is not simple. Their is no quick fixes and we will always have
>problems. As the world population grows I can't help but feel that
>our problems will grow as well or be replaced by other problems. We
>have the ability to grow the food, conventional or organic but we
>need a better way to distribute it to the poorer countries.
>Something where they can afford to buy and the farmer can afford to
>Keith Addison <[EMAIL PROTECTED]> wrote:
> >Hi George
> >Before some list-cop starts yelling "Off-topic", I believe it's
> >on-topic enough. Is this a way to dispense with all the huge
> >petroleum inputs in food and ag commodity production in the US (and
> >other industrialised countries) that Dana's just been talking about,
> >and that skew the energy equations of biofuels like biodiesel and
> >Short answer - Yes.
> >You're not really talking about organic farming, you're talking about
> >input substitution - chemical farming without the chemicals - and
> >it's usually doomed to failure. Organics is a management system, and
> >proactive, not just a matter of a different set of inputs to achieve
> >the same reactive aims. It looks upstream to determine why the
> >problem exists in the first place and then determines how the system
> >should be managed to avoid having the problem at all. Most organic
> >farmers in the US don't use any pesticides at all, whether approved
> >organic ones or not - they don't need them. They don't use
> >"fertilisers" either, to feed the crop, and they're not too
> >interested in nutrients. They're interested in humus-maintenance, in
> >building and maintaining very high levels of soil fertility, and in
> >integration. It's an integrated system, not just an extractive one -
> >"organic" in this sense doesn't really refer to the source of the
> >inputs (whatever the "standards" might say), it refers to a system
> >characterised by the coordination of the integral parts; organised.
> >It's a different approach, not just a stepping over to
> >business-as-usual with different ingredients.
> >To borrow a couple of useful terms from another organic farmer, your
> >comparisons are with "organic by neglect" farms - low-input
> >low-output - rather than "organic by design" farms - low-input
> >Many organic farmers equal or better their "conventional" neighbours'
> >yields. There are many large organic farms that do indeed run at a
> >healthy enough profit - but no, they tend not to grow a thousand
> >acres in a monocrop. But I tend to agree that very large farms aren't
> >suited to organic management. I'm not quite sure what they are suited
> >"Small family and part-time farms are at least as efficient as larger
> >commercial operations. There is evidence of diseconomies of scale as
> >farm size increases." -- "Are Large Farms More Efficient?" Professor
> >Willis L. Peterson, University of Minnesota, 1997.
> >Re your statement that "organic farming cannot feed the world",
> >there's now a lot of considered, studied, expert opinion and evidence
> >that not only can it do just that, but it's going to have to. This
> >isn't just a bunch of dewy-eyed idealists talking, these are
> >scientific studies from reputable institutions, the findings
> >published in reputable journals and widely reported. (Full references
> >available on request.)
> >There's also mounting evidence that it's so-called conventional
> >agriculture that just doesn't cut it - not even economically: one
> >"very conservative" study found that the hidden ("externalised")
> >costs of British farming almost equal the industry's income. Other
> >industrialised nations are not much different. The high levels of
> >fossil-fuels inputs are obviously not sustainable - it's hard to find
> >anything about it that is sustainable. Why grow all that corn? A
> >billion tons of it went unsold last year. And in spite of it all, the
> >US (like all the other industrialised nations) is left importing more
> >food than it exports. (References on request.)
> >I guess you disagree with all this very much.
> >Rather than a long argument about it here, I'll forward your post to
> >the Sustainable Agriculture Network Discussion Group (SANET) for
> >comment and relay any feedback to you, and perhaps we can summarise
> >it for the list later, if that seems appropriate.
> >Keith Addison
> >Journey to Forever
> >Handmade Projects
> >Osaka, Japan
> >George wrote:
> >>I would say that is a very fair question. If it was possible I would.
> >>I know several organic farmer and they don't laugh all the way to the
> >>bank. That is just an image they would like everybody to believe. In
> >>order to reach the production goals required by today financial needs,
> >>organic don't cut it. Not even close. Zero Input Sustainable
> >>Agriculture (name used by the US government) is just a dream of the
> >>extreme left wing enviromentalist. Looks good, sounds good but not
> >>feastable. You need to draw a clear line between those that do organic
> >>farming with an acre or so and those who farm on the x,000 acres plus.
> >>To grow a couple of hundred corn plants on 1/2 acre and then petal the
> >>roasting ears to people who you meet on the street is probably very
> >>profitable but your going to need a job on the side. With a 27,000
> >>population per acre and 1000 acres of corn that's 27,000,000 roasting
> >>ears. This is but one big problem. The places that broker organic food
> >>are not capable of handling large volume. The market just isn't their yet.
> >>Do you have a clue how much manure it takes to equal 250 pounds of NH3.
> >>The average amount of nirtrogen put on an acre of irrigated corn here in
> >>KS. Or how many cows it would take to produce enough manure to fertilize
> >>1000 acres of irrigated corn. The reason I say irrigated is that dryland
> >>corn here in KS is a "iffy" crop at best. This doesn't even touch on the
> >>labor required to load, haul, and spread the manure or the costs
> >>involved. To use manure would not only be labor intensely, but terribly
> >>costly as well. I would lose my butt big time to use all manure. They
> >>say rotate your crops. Yes, alfalfa does put a little nitrogen into the
> >>soil. But not nearly enough to grow 200 bu per acre corn. I do rotate
> >>my crops, especially my dryland crops but I do rotate my irrigated as
> >>well. To keep the chemical costs to a minmium. On a very small farm, an
> >>acre or so, organic is the only way to go. Their are organic farms up
> >>to 100 acres or so. But their not profitable, just diehard, stubborn
> >>"Gonna do it organic" types. They would do it even if they were
> >>starving. If I can't produce in the 175 and up range then I won't be
> >>here next year. Someone else will be farming my farm and he won't be
> >>For chemicals their is no organic replacement. They simplely let the
> >>bugs chow down. Diease is uncontrollable except by rotation. In bad
> >>years like we had last year they don't raise a crop. If organic was
> >>suddenly required by all governments in this world. No one would be
> >>able to buy enough food to live on. It would simpley be a severe food
> >>shortage. As long as organic has conventional farmer to produce for the
> >>masses then they can produce for the few (and growing) who buy organic
> >>only. If everybody tried to buy organic only, their would be one hell of
> >>a long line everywhere they sell food.
> >>The simple fact is, organic is not ready to replace conventional
> >>farming. Except on a small and local scale.
> >>One last comparision. I'm sure you don't like to buy gasoline for your
> >>car or truck, whatever. I'm sure you don't like to buy tires, oil, and
> >>repairs or that you don't like the idea of being a part of the pollution
> >>that is generated in the world every day. So why don't you walk to work
> >>everyday. I'm sure their is people out their who do, but is it
> >>feastable for everybody to walk. Cut down on the gas comsumption of the
> >>world, cut down on air pollution and get a lot of good exercise in
> >>addition but it's just not workable for the vast majority. So it is with
> >>American agriculture. Organic farming cannot feed the world. For me to
> >>switch would create such a severe income loss that it is not even a
> >>remote option. Conventional ag needs the ag chemicals to produce the
> >>crop big enough to pay the bills by as few people (per farm) as possible
> >>To close, I'm sure their are places in the world where organic farming
> >>on a larger scale than I am portraying here is possible, but they are
> >>labor intensive. They just are not possible on a large scale and today's
> >>agriculture is growing larger and larger on that scale. It has to, our
> >>fixed costs go up every year and the only way to cope is to get bigger.
> >> It is a vicious circle. Remember that question about "How many cows
> >>would it take to fertilize 1000 acres of corn" How many ton of poop can
> >>you scope in a day? While your scoping poop, who's going to be pinching
> >>I hope I didn't bore you
> >> >
> >> > So why don't you? There's plenty of totally organic farmers who are
> >> > laughing all the way to the bank. You
> >> > too can end your chemical dependancy -- "Just say NO!"
> >> >
> >> >
> >> > --
> >> > Harmon Seaver
> >> > CyberShamanix
> >> > http://www.cybershamanix.com
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