Why I Am AN Organic Farmer
By Robert Quinn
I was not born an organic farmer or raised or educated as one. One step at a time, however, I converted my farm from conventional agriculture to the completely different system known as organic farming.
Organic farming has often been misunderstood and misrepresented, and it has been defined in many ways. Over the years the term has come to mean a system of agricultural production that relies on achieving good health in soils and plants through soil-building programs and crop rotations, and good health for animals through good nutrition and stress reduction. Generally, there is no reliance on synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, hormones, antibodies, genetically modified organisms, or irradiation.
Although vaccines are allowed, most other inputs to the system must be from naturally occurring substances such as nitrogen from green manure or compost and phosphate from ground rock. Livestock must be given organically grown feed. The system has been defined by a combination of the demands and expectations of the consumers and the goals and desires of the organic producers. The system must be sustainable, not only providing economic stability to the farm or ranch family and surrounding community but also ensuring the productivity and vitality of the soils and the plants and animals they nourish.
I am the third generation of Quinns on our farm. My grandfather started renting part of this farm near Big Sandy, Montana, in 1920 after returning from World War I. He arrived as many homesteaders were leaving, unable to survive on small acreages and low rainfall. My father returned to the farm when my grandfather retired in 1948. I returned with my family in 1978, as my father was elected president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, which took most of his time.
At that time we farmed approximately 2,400 acres-an average- size farm in Montana. Half was devoted to small grain crops and half to pasture for cattle. We grew winter wheat, spring wheat, barley, and some oat hay for the cattle. One year in three we summer- fallowed-that is, we planted no crop and only cultivated to control weeds so that we could conserve moisture for the next crop. During the other (non-summer- fallow) years, we grew one crop after another and burned the stubble in the spring to prepare for seeding. We relied heavily upon fertilizer and herbicides and in most years had good crops. My father worked closely with the university agriculture experiment station. He was always trying new things to improve the farm's productivity.
When I returned, there was not enough income to support two families, and another source of income was needed. An opportunity arose in 1983 to market high-quality grain directly to whole-grain bakeries in California. By 1985, we had added a stone flour mill to our operation in Fort Benton, about fifty miles from our farm. We were known as Montana Flour & Grains. We soon were marketing not only our own grain but the grain from many other growers in the area.
In 1984 one of our customers asked if we could supply organic wheat. I found four farmers in Montana claiming to have organic grain for sale. Two were only organic by neglect-they had stopped using fertilizers and herbicides but had not incorporated any soil-building component into their operation. I was interested in what the two more serious growers had to say.
I had heard of organic farming during my studies at the University of California at Davis nearly ten years earlier but was very skeptical. After all, I was working on a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry with a background in farming and degrees in botany and plant pathology. I had been taught, and believed strongly, that a plant cannot tell the difference between a molecule of nitrogen from a commercial fertilizer such as ammonium nitrate or one from a pile of barnyard manure. I have since learned that there is a lot more to soil health and plant nutrition than just providing the plant an abundance of nitrogen and phosphate and a few other essential minerals.
Despite my early skepticism, I was intrigued with the notion of growing my own fertilizer. Meeting farmers from other parts of the country who had been farming organically for five to ten years further encouraged me. They told me the changes they had seen on their farms. Soil quality and tilth (physical structure of the soil) had improved. Yields had stabilized to pre-organic levels. Water absorption of the soil was greatly improved. Weed and insect infestations decreased.
I was eager to try such a method but my father felt such a big change was too risky. After attending a health food show in California and seeing thousands of people looking for organic products, however, he became convinced that there was a significant demand. In 1986 we tried an experiment on twenty acres (about 1% of our crop ground at the time). It was a great success and I was encouraged to add more acres to this new method of farming. By the end of the second year, I increased the organic acres to one quarter of the farm. The year after that I went cold turkey on the rest of the farm. I would never encourage such a crash program; a five- to six-year conversion period is much better as it can be done with little loss in productivity or profitability.
After thirteen years' experience, there are three main reasons why I am an organic farmer. I find organic farming: 1) emotionally fulfilling, 2) scientifically sound, and 3) financially rewarding.
Organic farming has made farming fun for me again. It is fun because each year I have so many different choices of cash crops, soil-building crops, and pest management programs. It is interesting to see the farm evolve in response to the different management schemes. Residues from the previous year's chemical applications do not limit my choice of crops. I have seen the tilth of my soil improve while wind and water erosion decreased. Beneficial insects such as ladybugs have increased, as have bird populations. The leaves of trees in my shelterbelts are no longer curling from herbicide drift.
Best of all, I sometimes receive letters and words of appreciation from my customers. I shall never forget the first time a lady came up to me at a food show, warmly shook my hand, and, looking me straight in the eye, said, "Thank you, thank you for growing the food my family eats." As a grain grower, I had never received that kind of thanks before. The local elevator never treated me that way.
Second, I find organic agriculture to be scientifically sound. It is based on the oldest cycles and balances observed in nature. If we look at native prairies, forests, or oceans, we see four principles: interdependency, diversity, balance, and cycles. Organic farming mimics those principles. As organic farmers, we realize that everything is interdependent and therefore everything we do affects something else. This makes long-term planning and close observation vital. We mimic the diversity in nature with the use of rotations, which break up cycles of disease, weeds, and pests. We try new crops, and we have even introduced a new grain to the health-food market, an ancient Egyptian durum that we market under the trade name Kamut. We balance what we take from the soil (in terms of harvested crops) with what we give to the soil (through legumes such as alfalfa, clover, or peas). We focus on nurturing the soil rather than just feeding plants with highly soluble fertilizers. We study cycles, particularly of pests, so we can learn where the pests' weak points lie and how they might be managed properly. This process has helped me become a better farmer.
Each year I approach the coming season with great anticipation because it will be another opportunity to try something new and learn something new. My farm is my laboratory and my garden.
Third, I have found organic agriculture to be financially rewarding. The general principle is to reduce the cost of your inputs, increase the value of your outputs, and enjoy the increase in your bottom line. Because we have no big investments in chemicals in the spring, and because we market at relatively high prices throughout the year, we have eliminated our need for an operating loan from the bank. In the past, during my high-chemical- input years, there was never a question of whether we needed an operating loan; the question was whether it could be completely paid off before it would have to be renewed the next year.
During the mid-1980s when government payments to grain farmers were perhaps at their highest level, we used nearly our entire government check to pay for the chemical inputs on our farm. I wonder how farmers will continue to afford such high inputs when government payments disappear, as they are now set to do in a few years.
I am often asked about our yields. I have read several articles claiming that we would all starve if the country was all organic, or we would have to cultivate all the wilderness and wildlife areas just to keep up with the demand for food. That is not the experience that I have had on my farm. In very wet years, we do see significantly lower yields compared to our neighbors because of their high inputs. In an average year, however, our yields are about the same as our neighbors, and in very dry years we normally harvest more. Over the long run, after a three- or four-year transition period, there is very little difference in overall yields.
Organic farming is not a panacea, the solution to all of agriculture's problems. It has its own frustrations and challenges. It certainly takes more management over the long run and at the beginning a certain amount of experimentation is required. The rewards to me, however, far outweigh the difficulties. I am glad and thankful that I was introduced to organic farming and am able to pursue it profitably.
At a time when many discourage their children from considering careers in agriculture, I do not hesitate to encourage the next generation to consider organic farming. I see its future as bright.
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Robert Quinn, who has a Ph.D. in plant biochemistry from the University of California at Davis, operates an organic farm southeast of Big Sandy, Montana. He is the founder and president of Montana Flour & Grains located in Fort Benton, Montana.