Clean, healthy agriculture without the use of ANY pesticides or fertilizers actually increases yields and lowers costs!
"The results are almost always the same: Yields get better as organic practices are continued, and pest problems virtually disappear. Natural pest controls, which are suppressed in chemical farming, get healthier and more effective every year." - Notes from an Organic Farmer
NOTES FROM AN ORGANIC FARMER
Armed with an interdisciplinary science doctorate, life-long ecological observations, farming in my blood, ten years of entrepreneurial tenure, a date of birth preceding the modern "pesticide revolution" by 15 years, a mortgage-leveraged farm purchased in the mid-70s, and no visible agency guidance in sustainable agriculture, I set off in 1976 at age 39 to try "our" hand at family farming. Like most beginning farmers, I was an obvious target for the agrichemical producers, each of whom had "all the formulas" for secrets to success. However, because I knew it could be done without them, we eschewed pesticides from day one. All the "experts" forecast failure.
Since I was confidant as a biochemist that very soon pesticides would migrate to the aquifers just as they would through a chromatographic column in the laboratory, and since I also surmised that foreign (to nature) molecules from "crop protection" chemicals would very certainly be toxic to at least a few of the thousands of metabolic pathways making up the food chain and providing ecological balances, I saw no alternative but to proceed as if my farming career would be an ongoing experiment, mixing modern equipment and genetics with the good farming practices I had watched my grandfather and father use.
Thus began Roseland Farms, pesticide-free since 1978 on 645 acres (and additionally on 1,155 acres since 1980) in southwestern Michigan, 20 miles northeast of South Bend, Indiana.
Since 1985, we have also been free of soluble chemical fertilizers. We started with land that had been on the chemical treadmill, though not as long as many of the area farms. Though we considered this a not-so-hidden defect, it did provide us with a baseline value for productivity on the "treadmill" of our operation.
In 1977, the tillable base of the original 645 acres was rented to the resident chemical dairyman, since we were not financially capable of taking over operation of the farm the first year. Thus we were able to observe first hand the performance of chemicals on our acreage that year. It was not very impressive, and the dairyman went bankrupt in 1978, reinforcing our contention that chemical farming was not the answer to successful farm economics and corroborating our experience with share rental of family "chemical" farmland in Illinois in the 60s and 70s. This led to our recommendation that the Illinois homestead be exchanged for additional Michigan acres near our mortgaged farm in 1980 so that we could become the sharecroppers sans chemicals! And this was done.
We did the unthinkable. We went cold turkey off the pesticide treadmill in one crop year. Except for some problems in the first year, yields have been comparable to those of the previous baseline, and in recent years they've been improving over that baseline. In spite of an outrageous debt level and droughts in '83, '85, '88, and early '89, we have survived---and then some!
Since then, we have learned that what we did as an independent experiment has been repeated almost without exception worldwide. The results are almost always the same: Yields get better as organic practices are continued, and pest problems virtually disappear. Natural pest controls, which are suppressed in chemical farming, get healthier and more effective every year. Plant and livestock health improves; soil tilth improves every year, and so does soil moisture retention.
There are no secrets or surprises, only simple, economical management practices: long-term crop rotation; leguminous and nonleguminous green manure incorporation; mechanical cultivation; clipped forages and allelopathic crops in rotation; preservation of habitat for beneficial insects and other natural control organisms. It all really does work!
Livestock is helpful for efficiency and for utilization of "alternative" crops, but not mandatory for adequate maintenance of plant nutrients. We compost manure for optimum nutrient and nitrogen recycling, but green manures are more effective than animal manures, in our experience.
The compelling conclusion to this experiment and its repeatable results in the organic community is that the highly touted benefits for pesticide and fertilizer input are nonexistent. These "benefits" are being measured wrongly. The zero-pesticide baseline is not usually achieved. Test plots are almost always contaminated with chemical carryover, which suppresses natural controls and distorts the benefit valuation. For the most part, the federal EPA never even bothers to evaluate benefits; they are simply assumed to be highly positive.
The public and farmers then get the idea that high crop yields are only possible with pesticides. Many farmers try to go off the treadmill and fail, because they are not patient enough to allow natural controls to return to normal (baseline). The favorite ploy of the pesticide industry is to show fruit from an unsprayed tree in a chemical controlled orchard. This is a classic case of the skewed (wrong baseline) test plot just described---which is used to justify pesticides. Actually, this example proves the self-defeating nature of chemical pest control.
Most credible organic certification standards include a three-year absence of pesticides because it takes at least this long for pesticide residues to fall to predominantly natural-control levels. However, from the standpoint of victims of environmental illness or multiple chemical sensitivities, three years may not be long enough. In addition, "natural" insecticides such as rotenone, pyrethrins, or neem, which are allowed in many organic programs, should be avoided by EI victims. Also, these suppress natural controls and therefore generate their own perpetual demand, like synthetic pesticides.
HEAL [Human Ecology Action League] members and others who care about good health should avoid the use of---or food grown with---even these "benign" pesticides. Ask store managers to find out what chemicals are used on the foods they are selling; check to see what standards are being adhered to by growers of organic produce, meats, and grains.
"The compelling conclusion to this experiment and its repeatable results in the organic community is that the highly touted benefits for pesticide and fertilizer input are nonexistent."
We need to stop dignifying the myth of the benefits of pesticides, and we need to stop pretending that there can ever be "safe"---or even effective---poisons. There are too many thousands of species of insects for this ever to apply. "Close" only counts in horseshoes. Pesticide-free farming has to be just that---totally free of pesticides.
Roseland Farms began a direct marketing program (primarily beef) to stores in 1985. EI victims have found our products to be completely clean, and this "test market" is a far more sensitive assay for pesticide residues than any chemical analysis currently available. EPA does not seem to recognize the existence of environmental illness or its victims. The sad truth of all this is that all the risks associated with pesticides are unnecessary risks. Safer, nontoxic alternative practices exist and work. The Roseland Farms experiment demonstrates this without a doubt.
This article first appeared in The Human Ecologist, Spring 1990, Number 45. It is reproduced here with permission. Dr. Clark has given minor changes that we made in his original article. The Human Ecologist is the quarterly newsletter of the Human Ecology Action League (HEAL), P.O. Box 29629, Atlanta, GA 30359-0629.
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