view on the Martens' farm: The weather outside is
frightful, but inside the community is warm and delightful
... so to speak.
"We farm organically for many reasons
-- greater economic security, the health
of our families and ourselves, the
rewards of community and cooperation, environmental concerns,
because this system works well for us.
But we also have another role to play. This world can not
survive continued assault with dangerous chemicals and poor
agricultural practices much longer. "
Weed control: The Achilles Heel
of organic farming
At our meeting in November, Dr. Bill Liebhardt from the Rodale
Institute was kind enough to come speak to us. Bill is the
retired chair of the Sustainable Agriculture program at the
University of California at Davis, and is currently on a one
year assignment at Rodale, reinvigorating their research program.
The NYCO farmers were captivated by the highly pertinent research
that Rodale has done over the past 20 years. The long-term
systems comparison trial between legume-based organic, manure-based
organic and conventional grain farming systems showed many
worthwhile things, particularly that the yields varied little
and in dry years, the organic system shone. The organic soils
were higher in organic matter, had greater water infiltration
and water holding capacity, and were more microbially active.
For those of us firm believers in the organic system, this
was music to our ears!
Then Bill turned the mirror on us with straight talk about
the Achilles Heel of organics -- weed control. There is plenty
of evidence that organic farming improves the soil and is
better for the environment, but unfortunately weed control
on many organic farms is inconsistent. It can be very good,
sometimes better than what can be obtained with a complex
herbicide cocktail, or it can fail, and often the farmer does
not really know what caused the difference. We don’t
like to hear this, but it is undeniably true. So, in response
to Bill’s observation, here are some thoughts about
what we, as organic farmers, can do to make organic weed control
substitution does not work
-- there are no silver bullets!
For those who switch to organics, thinking that all they
have to do is eliminate chemicals and buy a cultivator, weed
control is almost certain to fail. Organic farming is a totally
different system of thinking and planning. Crop rotations,
or lack thereof, that ‘work’ under heavy pesticides
and synthetic fertilizers are often totally inappropriate
under organic conditions. Conventional agriculture’s
inattention to soil health spells disaster in an organic system.
If we don’t change our way of thinking and planning,
it is hardly a surprise that an organic farmer might have
weed control success one year and failure the next, and have
no idea why. Organic agriculture is a system where all parts
are interrelated. Weed control is integrally linked to soil
fertility and condition, which is integrally linked to crop
rotation. We, and the scientists now studying organics, should
not consider any one factor in isolation, or fail to take
into account that whatever we do to one part of the system
affects everything else.
2. The heart
of organic weed control success
is cultural, not mechanical.
A good cultivator may be needed to clean up residual weed
problems, but it should be seen as only the last line of defense.
Far more important are various cultural practices that limit
the size and type of the weed population from the very start.
The main point in cultural practices is to create as large
a differential as possible between the size and vigor of the
crop and the size and vigor of the weeds. A well-planned,
diverse, crop rotation, active soil fertility management,
attention to sanitation, using high quality seed of well adapted
varieties, and well adjusted and appropriate equipment will
go far in creating this differential. Wise use of allelopathic
and deep shading crops can put existing weed problems at a
disadvantage. Cultural weed control is a system of thinking
and of planning approaches that use many interrelated factors
to your advantage.
your reasonable weed control expectations.
Perfect scorched earth between the rows might not be necessary
or even desirable. Indeed, don’t forget that this isn’t
always the norm with chemical weed control either! We believe
that rating weed control with a simple one to five scale,
only recording how many weeds are killed, is not adequate
to evaluate weed control holistically. A sound weed control
program must meet the following criteria:
- no yield loss from weed pressure,
- no quality loss from weed pressure,
- cost effective,
- safe for farmer, the crop, and the environment,
- sustainable over many years.
Each crop and even each field will require different approaches
to meet these goals, but if your overall weed control program
meets these criteria, then don’t second-guess yourself.
When we farmed with chemicals, we found that our weed control
program consistently failed on the last three points -- and
all too often, it failed on all five. Today we are happy to
report that our weed control is meeting all 5 criteria on
most of our farm each year and on all of it in good years.
We are still striving to constantly improve as we learn more
about weeds and expect that we will continue to do so for
as long as we farm.
It doesn’t take much attention to control weeds in
Roundup Ready soybeans, but it is not so simple in organic
farming. Mechanical weed control must begin long before the
weeds are visible. If you can see the weeds from your pickup
truck window, there’s a good chance that you are too
late. Timing can be somewhat less precise if your cultural
practices are sound. If you are relying solely on a cultivator
for weed control and then it rains for days just when you
must cultivate, you can have a real disaster. But if the weed
population has already been reasonably controlled by cultural
practices, you will have a little more flexibility with timing.
observation and creativity
What your neighbor is doing might not work as well on your
farm. Your crop and weed histories, soil conditions, weather,
and your farm’s economic needs are undoubtedly different.
It is very useful to learn what works for others, but you
and your farm are unique. You won’t know what works
on your farm unless you are out there, critically observing
and learning from what you see. There are so many opportunities
for creativity. The conventional mindset of doing the same
thing every year is a real hindrance to organic success. One
good example of this what Bill Liebhardt called relay cropping,
an approach that may work some years in many places. He suggested
drilling soybeans into a small grain in late spring. The small
grain will be harvested in mid-summer, giving the soybean
plants enough time to grow through the straw and produce a
reasonable yield by October. Two harvests in one year, terrific
weed control, and lots of organic biomass for the soil too!
The soybean plants may not yield well in a dry year, but in
‘normal’ years, the payoff could be substantial.
What a neat idea! It won’t work for everyone all the
time, but its worth a try!
in what you are doing.
We must believe that the organic system will work; we cannot
begin by expecting it to fail. When Bill Liebhardt presented
recent scientific data showing serious environmental and health
problems caused by the pervasive exposure to pesticides, we
all sat up a little straighter and felt a little prouder.
We farm organically for many reasons -- greater farm economic
security, the health of our families and ourselves, the rewards
of community and cooperation, environmental concerns, and
because this system works well for us. But we also have another
role to play. This world can not survive continued assault
with dangerous chemicals and poor agricultural practices much
longer. Already we are seeing emasculated frogs, rising cancer
rates, and sharply reduced human sperm counts in rural areas
of Iowa, all linked to pesticide exposure. Antibiotics are
losing their effectiveness because they have been so irresponsibly
used as animal growth promoters. This is another legacy of
the past 50 years of agricultural policy. We must actively
show that there is another way that is productive, economical,
environmentally friendly, healthy . . . and where weeds are
consistently well controlled!
Peace on earth begins
on the farm
As we approach the holidays, the cards proclaiming ‘Peace
on Earth and Good Will to All’ begin to arrive. For
many of us, our personal philosophy toward peace has been
deeply pondered during the past few months. However, the oft-repeated
phrase in our own house, “World Peace begins with your
sister! (or brother)” is equally relevant to consider.
Sometimes it is much harder to be peaceable with those closest
to you. The founders of NYCO could have protected their markets
and refused to share their hard-earned experience with others,
but they did not. Instead, they learned that the more you
give away, the more you have. As our community grew, so did
our market opportunities and our strength as a group. Cooperation,
sharing kindness, and friendship were not just nice, pleasant
but somewhat impractical virtues. They were pragmatic, profitable,
and deeply satisfying.
With the coming of the NOP, we have the opportunity to transcend
regional, commodity and certifier loyalties, and really see
ourselves as part of a larger cohesive, unified, and positive
ORGANIC COMMUNITY. Just as families help and support each
other, forgiving others’ quirks and inadequacies and
sticking together even when we don’t agree, we in the
organic community need to do this also.
We have a big job to do, and we can not do it alone!
Previous Letters from
November 4, 2002: Reflections at harvest time,