By Frank J. Dainello, Extension Horticulturist- Commercial Vegetable Crops, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Texas A&M University.
The current trend toward increasing popularity of organically or naturally produced foods is relatively new having its beginning in the early sixties. Until recently, consumption of organically produced foods was considered a life style choice of a small group of people who had health and environmental issues with conventionally produced foods (4). Similarly, organic producers were individuals who selected organic production more so as a life-style choice rather than as a framing technique. According to Brummond (3) they were characterized as individuals seeking safer foods and a better environment; were usually more observant and more patient than conventional growers, and had a better understanding and interpretation of biological systems, and, often incorporated their personal beliefs into their production systems. During the decade of the nineties, the interest in organics began to creep into the mainstream consumer purchases. Currently, there appears to be an influx of business oriented producers into the organic production field. These individuals view organics more of a marketing strategy than a life style choice or belief. Consequently, large-scale agriculture has begun to take notice. As a result, organically grown has increased 20% in each of the past five years (32). The increasing popularity of organic foods is, in a large part, due to the belief that food produced with this culture is free of pesticides and has greater nutritive value than conventionally produced foods. Organically produced food, now representing seven billion dollars in annual sales (12) is beginning to assume the posture of “Big Business “. Since the seven billion-dollar figure represents only 1 % of the total US food supply, organic production has an abundant potential for market expansion.
Organically grown is still in its infancy in Texas with a reported 1500 A of total production (16). However, based on the interest of conventional producers to capitalize on this increasing popularity, acreage is expected to increase steadily in the near future. Therefore, the intent of this publication is to serve as a guide to help producers make an informed decision as to whether or not organic production is a vital option for their operation.
What Constitutes Organic Production?
According to the National Organic Standards Board (1) organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. Organic farming has been simply defined by Brummond (3) as a production system working in partnership with nature to produce food. Although all food crops produced since man’s first attempt to cultivate plants until the late 1800s were produced in this manner, the concept upon which modern day organic production is based were put forth by the British Agriculturist, Sir Albert Howard (30). Sir Howard (1873-1947) believed that widespread plant and animal pests and diseases are the result of poor soil “health”, and, that the key to healthy soil is through the use of manure and properly composted plant waste which decay to from humus. The humus in turn feeds bacteria, which transform soil substrates into plant nutrients. He also expressed strong opposition to the use of synthetic substances in crop production (30).
Today, it is a common belief that organic farming is a food production system, which excludes the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, this is an erroneous belief. Simply stated, a pesticide can be any product, which has the ability to kill, suppress or repel a pest. Contrary to popular belief, organic certification allows for the use of many pesticides just as conventional systems do (21). However, Sir Howard’s concept for natural production of food opposes the use of “synthetically” produced substances. Therefore, the basic difference between organic and conventional food production systems is the allowed use of synthesized pesticides, fertilizers and growth regulating substances in conventional farming systems (32). Although organic farming utilizes methods to minimize pollution from pesticides, air, water and soil, organic practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residue (1). Also, there is no clear cut evidence to answer the question as to whether or not organically produced food is more nutritious than conventionally produced food (29).
Characteristics of Organic Farms:
Organic vegetable farms have minimizing the kind and amount of fertilizers and pesticides used to produce a crop as their overall goal. As such, emphasis is placed on long term planning based on information regarding crop pest life cycles, soil conditioning, extensive evaluation of ecological relationships, field conditions, and, options for management of these variables in a given field or on a given farm. According to the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association (30), there are three basic characteristics that define an organic farm:
- Soil conditioning is maintained through the heavy use of composted and naturally occurring plant and animal material incorporated into the soil profile; green manure and cover crops, and, crop rotation.
- Soil fertility is depended upon the continuing activity of minor organisms such as earthworms and bacteria to digest organic matter and convert it to compounds available to plants.
- Pest control is advanced by “healthy” soil, plant resistance, selective and limited use of pesticides that poise little or no adverse effect to the soil, crop, environment and human health.
Key to Successful Organic Vegetable Production:
The degree to which a producer is able to achieve success with organic production is directly correlated to his or her ability to understand and manipulate the inputs stated above in the characteristics of an organic farm. However, it should be pointed out that even more so than with conventional systems, vegetable production is a relatively high risk, high cost-per-acre venture requiring intensive management of investment and capital, production inputs and marketing strategies (6). Often times, crop failure and financial loss results from factors beyond the control of a producer such as; market fluctuations, unfavorable weather conditions, pest infestations and legislative actions. Consequently, a grower should pay close attention to the design and implementation of cultural practices over which he has control such as: land, crop and variety selection; soil and seed bed preparation; crop establishment techniques; windbreak management; pollination, irrigation, fertilization, harvesting, handling and packaging of produce. A good understanding of how these practices are interrelated and how they impact production minimizes the increased risk associated with organic production in Texas.