For decades, people farmed in a way that included soil rotations, fallowed fields, hedgerows, and other ecological methods. After World War II, chemicals developed for warfare no longer had a market and were repurposed for farming. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides became ubiquitous. The use of these products made sense to most farmers as, at least in the short term, the benefits seemed clear. Production efficiency increased, and combating invasive weeds and pests was quick and effective.
Now that the long-term effects have come into focus, it’s clear that chemical-intensive farming has resulted in a wide range of problems, including herbicide-tolerant weeds and the loss of critical beneficial insects that pollinate crops. Beneficial insects also eat the bugs that devour the plants, keeping larger ecosystems in check.
For the public, eating foods dependent on the intensive use of agricultural chemicals is falling out of favor. Organic food has grown from a very small niche market to a more than $50 billion a year industry in the U.S., with more demand than supply.
One of the key goals of organic production is to maximize on-farm fertility and limit the use of “off -farm inputs.” These farmers manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through the application of organic matter and compost. They plant cover crops for weed suppression to increase earthworms and beneficial microorganisms in the soil. They also add essential plant nutrients.
In many ways, modern organic farming is a throwback to the traditional farming systems that were used prior to World War II, although farmers today also have the benefit of sophisticated soil testing, research, and other scientific advancements.
Organic farming’s deep-rooted methods can also provide solutions to our modern challenges. Organic practices can mitigate the adverse effects of our climate crisis by improving the soil’s water-holding capacity and regulating soil temperatures so that crops can survive during droughts, floods, and bouts of extreme heat or cold. Regenerative, organic systems do not use synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous, which are major contributors to water pollution and the algal blooms plaguing Lake Erie.
The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) recently published an analysis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s newest agricultural census. Ohio is now seventh in the nation in the number of organic farms, and second in acreage of conventionally farmed land that is in transition to organic. In addition, we are in the top 10 for the number of beginning farmers. The amount of food sold directly to the public has almost doubled in the past five years.
The environmental and social benefits of organic farming would be even greater if our decision-makers embraced the opportunities inherent in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Ohio should provide incentives, as well as educational and mentoring support, for farmers transitioning to organic. Our Congressional representatives should ask that federal farm payments (which increased by 86% in Ohio during the last five years) are tied to practices that protect clean water, build healthy soil, and work with nature.
Building the political will to do these things will require full participation by conscientious eaters.
Contact OEFFA today to learn more about how you can be part of positive change in our food system. Read the full report, “Ohio Agriculture: The Changing Contours of Farming”.