"People are looking for something better. They're looking for meaning and value in their lives." So says Al Courchesne, who raises organic peaches, nectarines, pears, apricots and cherries on Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, California. In today's world, farming organically seems to be a step back from our technologically advanced society. But Courchesne, or "Farmer Al," as he prefers to be called, thinks it's a lot more involved than just a yearning for simplicity.
"Food is part of the foundation of culture and community — we need to pay more attention to it – and organic farming can take a strong leadership role in the restoration of life's value and meaning. Not just in the health of our children and families but in terms of meaningful membership and participation in the local community."
Can something as basic as organic farming affect a world that is becoming increasingly complex and technological? As Farmer Al hinted above, it starts at the local level, with people like Larry Butler and his wife, Carol Ann, who own Boggy Creek Farm near downtown Austin, Texas, about 3 miles from where he first sold organic vegetables off a card table in front of a friend's liquor store. Larry, a big, lanky Texan with a mischievous smile and the requisite drawl, is sitting at his kitchen table, reflecting on a quarter century of organic gardening and farming and the satisfaction it has brought them.
"Pregnant women come to the farm market and it's a pleasure to know that they're gonna go home and eat something that's so good and clean and fresh and local, and grow that baby with it. Then they come back with their newborns, sit and visit under that big tree, and I get to watch those kids grow up eating the produce that they buy off this farm. That means something to me. That's one of the main things that help us stick with this business. It's a tough business. It's physically demanding. It's very emotionally demanding. It's got the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The high points are when you see the things I just mentioned, all the way down to low points like last year when we got a 20 inch rain and it completely wiped us out."
Carol Ann tells a story about their first attempt at gardening in 1982. Larry's father insisted they cover their tomato plants with a pesticide powder "to keep the bugs off." They put some on and were horrified at what they'd done so they washed it off and went on to harvest a beautiful tomato crop.
"Why bother with all that snake oil stuff," Larry interrupts, "just use what Nature gives you. It's the right thing to do."
"We didn't want poisons, we just wanted clean, nutritious food." Carol Ann finishes, "We haven't used chemicals since."
Clean, nutritious food untainted by toxic chemicals and grown in healthy soil teeming with beneficial life is what more and more people want these days. As a result, while total US food sales have increased between two to four percent a year for the last seven years, organic products have grown on average more than twenty percent a year, making it the fastest growing segment of agriculture. Though still a small industry compared to conventional agriculture, increasing interest by consumers and the resulting growth in organics bodes well for the future of human health and the planet as a whole and confirms that organic farming will continue to grow and have a positive impact on our world.
But what does organic really mean? Who are the people who toil long hours to ensure that the food on your plate is in its purest and most natural state and why do they do it?
In essence, the purpose of organic farming is to work as a partner with nature to promote natural and compassionate husbandry of plants and animals while conserving soil and water resources. As mandated by the USDA National Organic Standards, soil and plants are not treated with toxic chemicals or persistent pesticides. No toxic fertilizers or sewage sludge is used to promote growth, nor are genetically engineered seeds allowed. Animals are fed organic feeds and their natural behaviors must be accommodated to make their lives as comfortable and stress-free as possible. The use of synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics are forbidden.
Sounds simple. Just let nature take its course and you'll end up with a garden full of perfect heirloom tomatoes or an orchard where the trees groan from the weight of plump, perfect peaches. Ah, if only it were that easy.
Farmer Al says that most people, especially those who have no experience on farms, "tend to idealize farm life — it's pastoral, slow paced. But it's not — it's very fast-paced and intense. They don't begin to understand the depth or breadth of the effort required to produce food of this quality."
Anthony Owens, owner of Windy Ridge Orchards in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and the only organic apple grower on the east coast, agrees. "Growing anything organically is much more difficult. It's extremely labor intensive, especially weed control. But as an organic producer, you take more pride in your work and your product. I take extra steps to make sure my customers get the best apples possible. We always wear gloves in the field so when the apples are delivered, they have not been touched by our bare hands. And if one of my workers shows up with a cold or is not well, he's not allowed in the field."
"Long hours are common," says Stefan Hartmann, another North Carolinian who specializes in growing greens on his Black River Organic Farm, "but as a farmer, you don't count hours — it's a way of life. At the height of the season, you can get up at five or six A.M. and still be loading trucks at midnight, then take a nap and get up again at two or three A.M. to drive the truck to market. In the off-season, a regular eight-hour day feels like a vacation."
If it's so difficult, why do these farmers continue to farm organically? For Hartmann, it just seemed like the logical thing to do. "I've been farming organically since 1984, mainly for health and environmental reasons," he says.
Environmentally, organic farmers have a much gentler impact on the earth than their conventional counterparts. The organic farmer pays a price for that in higher labor but the rewards are commensurate if you believe in the land and want to take care of it. For Hartmann, the rewards are plentiful. "I just like to see things grow. It's an amazing miracle of Nature — a sense of wonder — you put a seed in the ground, tend it a bit and it turns into a red, ripe tomato or a beautiful head of lettuce. With organics we are able to do things we feel good about, things that are good for the overall health of the farm. We can afford to do them because we're getting better prices for our products and we don't have to make all those bad compromises that conventional farmers often do. It's all about getting a fair price for the product."
Organic products cost more than conventional products because the price more accurately reflects the actual cost of food production. Society as a whole bears the health and environmental costs of toxic chemical use in agriculture, such as the cleanup of soil and water contamination, while organic farmers must bear the cost of the increased labor and intensive management required as a substitute for chemicals and the use of genetically modified seeds.
Economic sustainability along with environmental and personal health are key motivations for organic farmers but intangibles play a role, too. "We pay special attention to cover crops here at Black River Farm," says Hartmann. "They improve the soil, provide habitat for beneficial insects and also provide an aesthetically pleasing landscape. It really looks nice if you overwinter* rye and crimson clover and other crops. It looks so much better than those conventional fields where they just plow it all down and leave it bare all winter and then they come back in the spring and cover it all with acres of black plastic that sits there for a month or more and sterilizes the soil. Then they plant and fertilize and spray herbicides and suddenly you got a field full of stuff."
For many organic farmers, the simple gratification of providing a quality product and working in harmony with nature are the main rewards. Sara Bolton, who along with her husband Denny, grows organic herbs and raises goats for goat cheese production on Pure Luck Texas Farm near Austin, appreciates the positive comments she gets from her customers. But the emotional connection with her herd of goats is important too. She cares deeply for them and would never do things that many large dairies do, such as milk her goats three times a day instead of two. Milking three times a day, or every eight hours, forces the goat to produce more milk — the more you milk, the more you get. While this may be good for the bottom line, it is not good for the goats.
Larry from Boggy Creek says that "small producers are intimately connected to the land, down on their knees digging and weeding, checking for bugs, fixing drip tapes, hand harvesting. Large factory farmers, if they're in the field at all, often never get off their tractors. If they're raising crops that require hand work, such as strawberries, they hire it done."
For Owens of Windy Ridge Orchards, it's about sustainability of the land and his community. Knowing his customers are eating the best produce available gives him tremendous satisfaction but keeping the land healthy so that future generations can enjoy the same kind of quality is even better. This seems to be a touchstone for nearly all organic farmers. According to Hartmann, "That little extra consumers pay for organics ensures these farms remain healthy and will continue to feed future generations. Consumers buying organics for their own personal health is really just half the equation, they're also supporting those farmers committed to improving the earth so that future generations will also enjoy the benefits of pure food that is not contaminated."
Frog Hollow Farm's Farmer Al gets intense satisfaction from all aspects of organic farming. For him, food is indeed a primary touchstone in life and there was never any choice as to how he'd farm — organic was the only way to go. But there are some clouds on the horizon. Farmer Al's main concern is "that young people are not going into farming. The average age of farmers is nearing 60 years. The old ones are hanging on and the young ones are not inspired to go into agriculture. Who wants a life relating to heavy equipment and poisonous chemicals? I think organic agriculture offers the hope — a hopeful way for young people to relate to farming and to the land again. I think that America is facing a food crisis, a crisis of agriculture because we're not going to have young people interested in growing food anymore."
For these organic farmers and the thousands of others who rise each morning to put pure and natural food on your plate, it's about knowing that what they do is making a difference in the world, one crop at a time. It all boils down to what Larry Butler said in his kitchen that beautiful Saturday in August when he was asked why he farmed organically. "It's the right thing to do," he said. His eyes went to the window affording him a view of his fields and his features visibly softened. "It's just, by golly, the right thing to do."