Why I’m Not Converting the Farm to Organic Production

Ellen Gorter, via Facebook, March 2014

andrew campbellAs a proud farmer, I love answering questions, discussing issues and listening to concerns about everything agriculture, food and all of the connections in between. Sometimes though, some of those conversations have me thinking for weeks. Case in point: a simple enough question from a young woman left me trying to sort out a tremendously complicated answer.

She asked, “Would you ever consider certifying your farm organic? Why or why not?”

My short answer to the first question at the time, still stands today. We have had the conversation here before about becoming organically certified. But each time have chosen to stay ‘conventional’.

The answer to ‘Why Not’ is a more complicated answer.

One segment of the answer looks at the business case, a critically important piece that needs to thought through no matter what type of farmer you are if you want to be able to pay the bills and stay a farmer. When selling organic milk, the premium over the last 12 months has been 20.9% here in Ontario, over the milk that heads out of our driveway. Typically, however, organic cows produce less milk. Production data for 2013 in Quebec suggests the average Holstein cow in the province produces 32.7 kilograms of milk per day, while a cow with an organic diet is producing an average of 25.6 kilograms per cow per day. More cows to produce the same amount of milk begins to dilute the 20% premium. Higher feed costs (all of which need to be certified organic), higher priced supplies (like straw, which is recommended to be organic straw for bedding, if available) makes this a harder decision than just how much extra money a litre of milk will get you.

The other segment of the answer though is far more complex as it dances across values, beliefs and differing perspectives of facts. And while the depths of those complexities can be found in conversations about what organic means to different people, I sum my thought up in something very simple.

I don’t believe that everything natural is good, and everything synthetic is bad, unlike many others where this is a driving principle of many consumers and farmers who choose organic production.

Poisonous, all-natural venom in a snake can kill you pretty quickly. A now-12-year-old artificial hip in my grandmother is incredibly valuable for her.

Despite the continued mind-numbing objection to genetically modified crops, fact after fact (including the latest that 100 billion animals fed GMOs over 30 years showed zero difference to those fed non-GMO grains) points to technology benefiting more than just the definition of our television or the quality of life through medical breakthroughs. I can benefit our dinner plate too. Plus, if you can’t tell by looking at a crop to see which one is ‘natural’ and which is a GMO, and both are proven to have identical safety levels, is one really natural and one unnatural? For the record, some of the food our cows eat is considered a GMO. Some of the food they eat is not. Then again, some of the food I eat has GMO ingredients. It has been this way for 20 years.

Related: What’s in milk? FAQ’s about milk, antibiotics, hormones and more

Because of that belief, we continue to choose to not certify as an organic farm. It would make farming harder for me, doing something that I don’t believe in. It’s also why I rarely, if ever, choose to buy an organic product, whether that be an apple, pork chop in a restaurant, or even baby food. It is our choice based on our beliefs that natural and synthetic cannot easily be distinguished as good or bad; black or white; right or wrong. If, however, you and I disagree here – I will happily point you to some great organic dairy farms and milk processing companies in Canada. That’s the benefit of choice.

The challenge going forward though, is evident by the latest hashtag #OrganicMilkNext (trying to push Starbucks to only use organic milk). A few folks deciding what is best for everyone else ends up doing more harm than good. If you would like organic milk in your latte, then ask for it. But, to demand that the way I farm, shop and live my life is unethical, dangerous or greedy suggests a passion for sensation that is short on common-sense, factual evidence or the understanding of a working farm.

Let’s continue to stand up for choice.

Read Andrew’s past columns:

 

Andrew Campbell

Andrew is a dairy farmer in southern Ontario who also specializes in helping farmers learn about social media and advocacy. Once broadcasting farm news reports on the radio, he still likes to keep a close eye on news and issues relating to agriculture. Andrew is the owner of Fresh Air Media (http://www.thefreshair.ca), has a mild addiction to Twitter and believes the Brier & Scotties are the most important sporting events in the country. @FreshAirFarmer

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15 Comments

Diogenes the Cynic

Excellent. Well written and reasoned. Free of the cloying “we’re feeding you, and we have Beliefs, so don’t question it” tripe that shows up in some other discussions.

Bravo, Andrew. Bravo.

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Rob Wallbridge

I agree – this is a very thoughtful response to a challenging question.
I think most organic farmers would agree with you that natural vs. synthetic is not a black and white issue – there’s a lot of organic forage protected by plastic bale wrap!
I’m glad to see that you’ve explored both the economic and “philosophical” aspects of the question: choices like this need to be both economically and personally sustainable. The successful organic farmers I know enjoy the challenges of farming organically, they even say it makes farming “more fun”: there aren’t many people out there who want to feel like they’re working harder for something they don’t believe in, even if there is more money involved.
That’s part of the reason why most organic farmers (unlike some activists) would also agree that it is important to maintain choice – for both farmers and consumers. Thanks for explaining your position with balance and respect – well done!

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James Quist

It seems to me injecting fear into people’s food choices is a reprehensible strategy yet this is how certain members of the organic movement choose to behave. If most organic farmers agree that it is important to maintain choice I’ve failed to see any pushback from them to correct this type of poisoning of the well. If organic proponents acknowledge that synthetic vs. natural is not black and white then I feel they also must come to grips with the illogical underpinnings of the organic designation as well as how one can distinguish a nutritionally equivalent food in the marketplace with candor and honesty. That organic stalk of celery is better how ?

As a consumer I do not avoid organic products altogether but their value added must be based on shared values — for example, a food company that demonstrates that they do exceptionally well by their employees and sell their goods at a good price point can earn my dollar.

Most of what I eat, however, is not organic because I sincerely see no need. Even a city boy such as myself can see that ‘conventionally’ raised food does not equate with bad, lesser, mundane. Organic (strange word choice really!) has some values it cherishes, highlight those, but fearmonger not at all. And if the evidence doesn’t support your contentions embrace that openly.

I read the articles and watch the videos at this site because agriculture is presented as a compelling human endeavor that is advancing in interesting ways. Thank you to all the contributors here.

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johnranta

“Why I won’t be buying your farm’s products”. I get that you can make more money (in the short term) farming conventionally. I get (sort of, although your snake venom analogy is lame and ill-fitting) that not all natural substances are healthy, and not all synthetic substances are harmful. But, as someone who worked for years on a conventional farm (I used to mix dieldrin to spray cabbage plants), and who has had a large organic garden for 40 years, I disagree with your basic premise. Organic farming is better for the land. Organic produce, dairy and meat is healthier for us humans. The short term profits that come from conventional farming are outweighed by the long term benefits of organic farming. Stick to your conventional methods, if you must. But don’t pretend that there’s any virtue in your choice. You’re just trading short term gain for long term pain, for all of us.

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Vonda

You’re comparing conventional ag practices from 40+ years ago to organic? Farming has come a long way in that time. We have gone back to minimum and no-till, cover crops, manure, IPM (integrated pest management), better soil testing and precision application of inputs such as fertilizer. Our soil is healthier and chemical applications far less than they were back in those days, as well as our understanding of safer handling and application techniques in regard to workers.

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Bob

As an organic farmer (I farm with my parents, who run a large conventional operation), I can tell you for certain that organic farming does more damage and is more unhealthy for the land then modern day conventional practices. Minimum or No-till practices DO NOT work with organic farming systems, due to pest and weed control (heavy tillage is the only surefire way to control most of this). As a result soil erosion is more prevalent, and due to the inability to get the right nutrients into the soil in a timely matter, it is always nutrient deficient (fertilizer). Yields are 1/2 to 3/4 of conventional yields, and fuel costs (as well as emissions) are 2-3 times higher due to the need to have to work the ground 2-3 times before even seeding a crop. Not to mention once the crop is up, and you have any weed or pest issues, there is very little that can be done to control it, barring plowing the affected areas down, in which case it’s 100% loss on the affected areas anyway

One thing that was nice this year was the $20/bu market price for organic wheat, which was for a categorically inferior product (protein, vom/scab, and test weight). Yet i made more on less acres because it was Organic. Does that sound healthier and more efficient to you?

So why do it? We have a second business that demands a large volume of a certain organic crop, and this is the cheapest way to acquire it. Take the second business away and i switch to conventional without a second thought. Currently I don’t drink the “Kool-Aid”, I just make the ingredients.

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Rob Hannam

I agree – choice is a good thing.
For me, it is important to keep the organic/conventional discussion at a high level – informed, fact based and taking into account a broad perspective. Thanks for your well informed and thoughtful article.

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richardbarrett

Great article Andrew, thanks. I still drink Alberta Milk. I do not demand how any farmer farms. Let the consumer decide and do not punish those who are not in the Supply Management System.
Choice, belief, evidence, and common sense usually change with knowledge and time. Food has changed in ingredients in the last 30 years but not to the eye. In regular food there are an average of over 200 different toxins. One example is Bt corn. Yes, it shows up in an infant’s blood fed solely on breast milk as well as the toxin Glyphosate. But, nutritional makeup is the same in all milk. The consumer gets more for less money. But given a choice of both corns (Bt versus organic), a mouse will never eat GMO corn. Try it! All Alberta milk has cows fed GMO feed except two Organic Farms of which Vital Greens being my best by not Homogenizing their milk. Consumer get educated, go to http://www.albertamilk.com ‘Ask a Dairy Farmer’. Please read all the questions and answers then go to http://www.rawmilkconsumer.ca

Cows that are not fed grain and GMO food give less than 25 Kg. per day. They also have higher beneficial polysaturated fats such as Omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs). The cows live longer too. Vet $ less.
The energy level of milk from a cow fed no grain can have an energy level of over 80. Organic store milk from a grain fed cow is 13. The regular store milk is 11.
Why are many doctors recommending raw milk and their patients getting healthier?

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Cathal

Just FYI, the “research” behind the idea that Bt ends up in breastmilk isn’t considered credible, so you needn’t worry. Bt is a protein, and like most proteins it is efficiently digested in the human gut. Even if it weren’t, it does nothing to non-insects and would simply pass into the large intestine to be digested by a bacterial enzyme instead (but we know it’s digested by human enzymes first anyway).

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Richard Barrett

Thanks for asking. I will give you parts of quotes from the Doctors themselves:
Dr. Jim McNabb, MD., Austin, Texas “Far more important is the fact that enzymes of unpasteurized milk have not been been destroyed by super heating characteristics of ultra-pasteurized milk. Even those of us who are lactose sensitive can drink raw milk”.
Dr. Greg Waldrip, DC., Alilene, Texas “What I find when I switch people to raw milk, — children tend to have better bone structure, more body weight, less allergies, and healthier overall.”
Dr. Winston W. Greene, RPh., D.C. “We find children who consume raw milk and have fewer allergic reactions.”
Dr. Katya Smith, CBP, LMT, Par. BP “We love knowing that the nutrients are bio-available because our milk is free from the destructive element of pasteurization and homogenization,”
Dr. Mary Traverse, D.C., Austin, Texas “I see a significant difference in how the human body metabolizes raw vs. pasteurized dairy products.”
For many more Doctors who are recommending and using raw milk, phone the farms:
The Family Cow, Edwin Shanks 717-729-9730
Organic Pastures, Mark McAfee 1-877-Raw-Milk
Both are listed with http://www.rawmilkinstitute.org Coliform counts rarely above 2, Standard Pate Count 80 – 120.

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Kevin Yount

Andrew, I must say, from the bottom of my heart, “Sir, I salute you!” It is refreshing to hear such a logical and fact-based opinion. You have restored my hope that we (mankind) can actually bring new technology into use so that the quality of everyone’s lives can be improved. I was involved in the development of the first GMO products and have always been proud that I was able to participate in such a great scientific step forward. Living in Europe, I’ve been disappointed in the resistance to adopting GMO technology – as a geneticist, I understand the technology and I know how much great work went into testing and nd proving the safety of those crops. Then, I have begun to notice the anti – technology movement even in the US and am so discouraged that many (if not most) of that group have no idea what this all really means and seem to simply go with “natural is better” belief. I am not against organic, per se, if I can grow a garden without needing some forbidden fertilizer or pesticide, great – I’ll be organic that year. But I appreciate the ability to help my plants with whatever approved products I need, even if they aren’t part of the “organic program”. Either way the food is equally nutritious and tasty. I believe that if conventional agriculture and gardening has room for improvement, it would be to get everyone to always read and follow the product labels – that ensures that all the food is safe and wholesome. Without even knowing you, I can guess that you are one who reads, understands, and follows the labels – so your milk and any other products from your operation are as wholesome as any from a certified organic operation. On top of it all, you have good business sense! Thanks for making my day and my attitude brighter.

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richardbarrett

From my scientific study I can not agree that, “Either way the food is equally nutritious and tasty.” I have tested conventional non-organic strawberries that were 1 Brix higher than the organic strawberries (6) which came from the same farm with a refractor meter. The highest
Brix level strawberries were 18 from a non-certified organic farm. The taste was not near equal. More carbon and micro-organisms in the soil will result in higher Brix level of foods grown in that soil. Many chemicals will kill some micro-organisms or prevent the minerals from being absorbed which will result in lower minerals in the food we eat which result in deficiencies in our bodies.

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tray

While I do not agree with you on the GMO aspect, and I find organic to be important, I must say I commend you on explaining your reasons, and not hiding how you farm. This does allow everyone that deals with you and your farm to make an informed decision, a right they have. I do not push GMO or organic on anyone, I just prefer to know what it is I am buying, and you are allowing this. Thank you!

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Boudicca

A) “Typically, however, organic cows produce less milk. Production data for 2013 in Quebec suggests the average Holstein cow in the province produces 32.7 kilograms of milk per day, while a cow with an organic diet is producing an average of 25.6 kilograms per cow per day. Higher feed costs (all of which need to be certified organic), higher priced supplies (like straw, which is recommended to be organic straw for bedding, if available) makes this a harder decision than just how much extra money a litre of milk will get you.”

B) I agree that research shows that organic cows produce less milk than conventional dairies. However your claim on production costs is not completely accurate. For example a USDA Economic Research Service study from 2009: “The relative production costs for large and small organic dairies, organic dairies in the East and West, and organic dairies using pasture-based and conventional technologies are similar to those for conventional dairies. ” “Almost two-thirds of organic dairies report that 50 percent of dairy forage comes from pasture, and a third indicate that 75 percent or more comes from pasture. Using pasture for dairy feed costs less than higher energy feed sources, and average feed costs per cow decline as more pasture is used for dairy forage. Organic dairies using the least pasture for dairy forage, however, have lower feed costs per cwt of milk than other organic dairies because average production per cow is more than 30 percent higher. Organic dairies that use conventional feeding methods, such as confining cows and feeding harvested forages, may generate higher returns to capital and labor than those using pasture-based feeding because of higher production and economies of size, and because pasture-based feeding requires more labor. ”
https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/46267/11005_err82_reportsummary_1_.pdf?v=41079

While I know one source isn’t nearly enough, there is plenty of research out there that shows that the production cost variation between organic and conventional dairies is slim. It is certainly easier to convert a smaller existing dairy than starting up a new organic dairy operation, but overall the costs balance out for the most part when you compare currently existing/operating producers.

A) “I don’t believe that everything natural is good, and everything synthetic is bad, unlike many others where this is a driving principle of many consumers and farmers who choose organic production. Poisonous, all-natural venom in a snake can kill you pretty quickly. A now-12-year-old artificial hip in my grandmother is incredibly valuable for her.”

B) This is a Strawman Fallacy. You cannot substitute a person’s actual position or argument (natural is always good; synthetic/artificial is always bad; re:agriculture) with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of the position of the argument. Furthermore, your straw man doesn’t even work because 1) A blood-clotting protein in Taipan venom has been found to stop excessive bleeding during surgery or after major trauma. 2) Components of Malayan Pit Viper venom has shown potential for breaking blood clots and treating stroke victims. 3) Hip replacements have negatives as well; commonly, due to a design flaw, artificial hips are more prone to dislocation than the natural setup (even from simple exercises like squats).

A) “Plus, if you can’t tell by looking at a crop to see which one is ‘natural’ and which is a GMO, and both are proven to have identical safety levels, is one really natural and one unnatural?”

B) Put the safety levels aside for a minute, because sure, they have not proven to be more of a danger when ingested. But what about how GMOs will affect the future of agriculture? Do we want to make the switch to GMOs and rely on them in the future? Do we want to create crops that can withstand barrage after barrage of pesticides/fungicides/insecticides. The effects on biodiversity (both agricultural and ecological), soil health, water supplies (runoffs) and simply general ecological health will not be improved with the use of GMOs. Essentially the way I see it, GMOs promote the industrial model of agriculture which is far from sustainable for our food production and for the planet.

A) “It is our choice based on our beliefs that natural and synthetic cannot easily be distinguished as good or bad; black or white; right or wrong.”

B) Absolutely it is your choice; however, consumers are driving the market:
“National consumer research reveals strong support for organic foods in Canada—over half of Canadians are purchasing organic foods weekly. And that rate is even higher for people living in Canada’s largest cities, households with young families and consumers with university educations.”

” Nearly half of all Canadians: consider organic foods a healthier, more nutritious choice; believe ecological sustainability is an important consideration when choosing food products; want to choose products that are not genetically engineered (GMO)”
source: COTA “Canada’s Organic Market; National Highlights, 2013” http://www.filierebio.qc.ca/Filierebio/Documents/Canada_s%20Organic%20Market_%202013.pdf

“Despite the growth of Canadian organic acreage in recent years, demand for organic is significantly outpacing supply. Organic retail sales in Canada are now worth CAD $4.7 billion annually, a 13.6% growth per year since 2007, while organic production is experiencing much slower growth.”
source: COTA: Canada reaches new milestones in domestic organic production; http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/canada-reaches-new-milestones-in-domestic-organic-production-2199900.htm

A) “But, to demand that the way I farm, shop and live my life is unethical, dangerous or greedy suggests a passion for sensation that is short on common-sense, factual evidence or the understanding of a working farm. Let’s continue to stand up for choice.”

B) Again, the choice is yours. But consumers want more, many want to know how they are impacting the planet whether that be through:
– Environmentally sustainable/ethical practices
– Animal welfare choices
– Pesticide/Insecticide/Antibiotics use
– or what they deem to be healthier (there are in fact many European studies who bolster the reputation of organic produce; particularly for infants and children) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/581922/EPRS_STU(2016)581922_EN.pdf

It is clear you know that consumer preferences are changing and that’s why you wrote the post. No one is going to force you to change to organic, and of course it’s your choice not to change…but the future is here. I’m happy to read however that you don’t condemn the organic dairy farmers like many conventional operations do to their organic counterparts. If you are receiving negativity that people are calling your lifestyle “unethical, dangerous and greedy” maybe try to look at the big picture. As another commenter noted (paraphrasing), you very clearly seem to be on the side of short term gain, long term detriment to the planet. I’d imagine the people calling you dangerous or greedy are not in fact sensationalists who don’t understand how farms work…but in fact are passionate future thinking folk who are trying to leave life better than they found it.

Credentials: Researcher for an Agricultural Non-Profit, with a Masters Degree. I’m also a cattle rancher in Canada.

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