He’s gotta wear shades
Departing intern looks toward his own future and the future of organics.

By Aaron Fox

editor's NOTE:

This season our interns are taking turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning as they help out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

As they will tell you, it’s a combination of love for the land, good food, sharing community, and a sense of purpose that keeps them going.

--NF Editors

December 14, 2006: My research internship at The Rodale Institute is ending. As I look toward the next steps in my life, I also consider the future of organic food and agriculture.

There are many issues for organic agricultural researchers to work on. Organic crop production is not a perfect system. The nitrates created by a legume cover crop or coming from compost can leach into the groundwater just like those from synthetic fertilizers. It is our responsibility to devise innovative organic ways to provide nitrogen and other nutrients for our crops without polluting our waters.

Another issue that we must continue to improve on is tillage. Organic farming systems’ heavy reliance on tillage creates a dangerous potential for soil degradation and topsoils loss. We do so much to nurture the soil through cover crops and other practices—our focus now needs to be on protecting those soil investments. The no-till organic system being developed at Rodale is a leading example of this priority. However, no-till organic is not a continuous-use system. We must also look at reducing our tillage when our rotation does not call for no-till. New weed management techniques must be tested before reduced tillage can be a viable organic option. And although new implements will need to be used, we also need to turn our focus away from mechanical weed control. Using different practices such as allowing weed flushes before planting will help us find ways to realize organic reduced tillage. These practices may be as old as frost seeding or may be ones not yet dreamed of.

Another step organic agriculture researchers must take is toward reducing energy use. As worries about peak oil grow and global warming edges to the brink of catastrophe, more and more of the world is looking toward biofuels. It is the organic community’s responsibility to make sure these biofuels are truly “green energy.” Tensie Whelan, Executive Director of the Rainforest Alliance, says “green energy is a lamentable misnomer” if more forests are cleared to plant corn, switchgrass, sugar cane, or soybeans for these new fuels. We need to make sure that crops intended for fuel are grown in a responsible and sustainable manner. It would be an oxymoron for corn grown for ethanol to be produced with petroleum-based fertilizers. For this reason, organic agriculture must be at the forefront of the burgeoning biofuel market.

Along with true green energy, the organic community has much to offer to combat global warming. Practices commonly associated with organic agriculture—cover crops, composting, and others—are carbon sinks, keeping carbon from entering the atmosphere where it can contribute to global warming. The organic community has an opportunity to take a leadership position in preventing disastrous global climate change.

Lastly, for the organic world to sincerely grow, we must refocus our definition. The current organic designation is too beholden to comparisons, namely what organics is not. We commonly answer that organic agriculture is not using pesticides and is not using synthetic fertilizers. But as conventional agribusinesses move away from these chemicals and toward biotech, organic crop production needs to represent not just an alternative but also a better choice. To convince farmers and consumers that we are the better choice, we need to focus on what organic agriculture is—improving soil health and building organic matter, promoting natural biodiversity, and getting excellent yields—not by using bought products but by utilizing quality practices.

During my internship at Rodale, I have had the opportunity to concentrate on and study these goals. Now that my internship is ending, the next step is to research, teach and promote them.