What's Organic?

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, June 7, 1996

Suddenly, everyone's talking about organic. Supermarkets advertise organic produce. Landscapers offer organic lawn programs. We are waking up to the dangers that the widespread use of pesticides pose for people and for the Earth. It's a hopeful sign. Like the evolution of society's attitude toward smoking, it indicates that we can make a dramatic change in our collective behavior.

Most people expect organic produce to be free chemical pesticides and organic lawn care not to use chemical fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides.

But, what exactly is organic?

Strictly speaking, organic relates to materials made of carbon and to matter that was once alive. For more than 50 years, the name has been applied to a way of gardening and farming which uses compost, ground rocks, cover crops and green manures to build soil fertility and doesn't use synthetic, chemical pesticides. Plants which are growing in healthy soil have fewer pest problems. Any damaging pests are managed with non-toxic mechanical, biological or cultural methods. This school of agriculture takes its inspiration from nature - the cycling of nutrients among plants and animals, the natural composting on the forest floor and the diversity and balance of organisms in a healthy ecosystem- and also from the best traditional agriculture in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.

Care for the soil is at the heart of organic agriculture. By building up organic matter and the diversity of life in the soil, the organic grower makes it easier for the plants to obtain what they need for healthy growth.

Protecting the life in the soil is one of the reasons for not using strong chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides. The latter are frequently as effective at killing helpful and benign organisms as they are at killing the pests. In many cases, the pests soon become resistant to the chemicals anyway. In the long run, they just don't work. Yet, they leave their residues in the air, soil and water, as well as in farm workers and produce-eaters. Avoiding these chemical residues may be especially important for the young, the elderly, and those who are seriously ill or are allergic to manmade chemicals.

In a store you often see the term "Certified Organic." Certification is a process designed to assure a store customer that the grower of an item - in Connecticut, California, Mexico or Chile - has followed certain guidelines in producing that crop. Recommended, permitted and prohibited materials and methods for soil preparation, planting, weed and pest control, harvesting and packing are specified in these guidelines or standards.

The farmer who wants to be certified organic must fill out a form detailing the history of and future plans for the farm as well as the crops to be grown, rotations and even seed sources. After an inspection, a soil test and approval by an independent certifying organization, the farmers' produce carries that certification with it to market.

The standards for certification in different states vary in the number of years that must have elapsed since pesticides were used, and on some soil amendments that are used, but most all certification standards have a component which deals with building healthy soil.

The federal government's National Organic Program is expected to bring greater consistency among the various state and private certification agencies when it becomes a reality in the near future.

For nearly 25 years, we have used organic techniques on our farm. This year, we decided to apply for certification for the first time because we are planning to sell at several local farmers markets. Our farm and plans met the standards and passed the inspection, so we are now certified by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, better known as NOFA, which developed its program with the approval of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. We are one of 38 farms certified in Connecticut this year.

If you are interested in knowing more about organic agriculture or where to buy local organic food on Long Island and in Connecticut, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Organic, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.