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FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What does Certified Organic mean?

A: USDA Organic Certification is granted to producers who fulfill the requirements laid out by the National Organic Program (NOP). It basically means we follow their rules and we can prove it. For instance, we are prohibited from planting GMO seed. Additionally, we are required to rotate our crops each year. This differs from conventional growers, who add synthetic nitrogen to their soil each year, which enables them to plant corn every single year. We cannot do this. In fact, we rely on our crop rotation to maintain soil health, suppress weeds, and fight disease. Additionally a producer must go through a two year transition period, keeping records that prove they are following NOP regulations for a full two years before they can sell their crops as certified organic.
We must also keep precise records of our field operations, including soil preparation, seed selection, planting, weeding, harvesting, storage, and sales. To get an idea of what that looks like for us, we have 8 (3.5") thick binders that we use to keep track during the year. At the end of the year, each year's records can be condensed into 3 (3.5") binders.

Q: What is the difference between Organic and Conventional?

A: 1. As described above, we are required to rotate our crops. Conventional growers often plant the same crop on the same piece of land year after year. To do this with field corn--which is common in our area--they must add synthetic nitrogen to the soil. This nitrogen is slowly leeching down through the soil toward our aquifer. We don't know yet what consequences this will bring, but at this point, the water in our area tends to test high in nitrates. Organic production actually takes the nitrogen from the water and uses it, filtering the water in the process.

2. We are prohibited from planting GMO seed. We can use hybrids, provided they are the product of natural plant breeding processes. In other words, the hybrids have to come about through selective breeding in the field rather than direct genetic manipulation in a lab. Our seed must also be untreated (conventional seed is often coated with a pesticide which can be identified by its bright coloring). We are permitted to plant seeds with a clay coating, which are known as pelleted seeds. The clay breaks down with water and becomes part of the soil, and this pelleted seed enables us to achieve a more evenly spaced planting on crops like carrots.

3. Conventional growers are free to spray their crops with synthetic pesticides and herbicides. We cannot. There is a list of accepted pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides available for our use. Most of these are naturally occurring, but a few are synthetic (more on these later). I can't speak for other organic farmers, but we use very few of these. The ones we do use include blackstrap molasses, insecticidal soap (which is an oil to control aphid populations), fish emulsion (which is what you'd get if you put a dead fish in a blender...and yes, it smells as good as it sounds), and manure (not on our vegetables, only our field crops). We also use compost. Instead, we manage our pest and weed problems a bit more creatively. Often, we purchase live beneficial insects (ladybugs, praying mantis, lacewings) to control our aphid population. We do a lot of hand weeding in our greenhouses, but in the field, we use mechanical and flame weeding implements. In other words, the only way for us to get rid of weeds is by pulling them, cutting them, mowing them, or burning them.

There are other differences between conventional and organic, but these are the main differences. If you'd like more information, contact us at schwarzfamilyfarm@gmail.com

Q: What are the benefits of eating organic?

A: That depends on what you value.

We believe that monocultures (vast areas of land planted mostly to one crop) and dependence on chemical methods of weed and pest control are problematic for our environment and industry sustainability. We see an increase in pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant weeds, which means farmers will continue to require more and different chemicals and genetic engineering of crops to control them. We prefer to live and farm without being dependent on chemical controls. If this is something you agree with, then eating organic is a great way to support this lifestyle.

If you have a chemical sensitivity or compromised immune system, you would probably benefit from choosing organics.

If you are concerned about chemical residue on produce, studies show that organic food contains less chemical residue than conventional produce (although some contamination is inevitable due to factors like produce handling methods and proximity of organic fields to conventional ones).

If the above are matters of concern to you, then you would benefit by eating organic produce.

Q: What do you use as fertilizers?

A: On our large fields, sometimes we use cow manure before we plant corn, though we've only done that a couple times since 1998. In our greenhouses and vegetable fields, we use a compost from a company from Cowsmo, which uses all organic ingredients (no compost can be certified organic at this point in time). We also supplement this with compost pellets from Beju, and fish emulsion.

Q: How do you kill weeds?

A: In and around our greenhouses, we manually pull and hoe weeds, use a weed eater, a flame weeder, a small shredder that hooks on to our garden tractor, and sometimes (when the situation is dire or we are preparing ground by germinating weeds) we use a tiller.

In our larger fields, we use a wide variety of methods, including cultivating, rotary hoeing, and flame weeding. WE DO NOT USE HERBICIDES.

Q: I've seen this long list of chemicals allowed in organic production. Can you explain this?

A: To begin with, you can make anything sound like a chemical. Dihydrogen Monoxide? That just means water. So sometimes things sound scarier than they are. Most scary-sounding substances on the aforementioned list that are allowed for use are actually used for cleaning and disinfecting purposes. Many chemicals on that list aren't for use on plants that will ultimately be used for food or they cannot come in contact with the soil. Some items on the list are things like mulch, oils, vitamins, and alcohols. Substances allowed for use are typically naturally occurring substances (like a bacteria or a plant oil, for example). They also break down quickly or in sunlight and can leave no lasting impact on the soil. For example, we can use some copper based products, but they "must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation in the soil and shall not be used as herbicides." (NOP regulations 205.601(i)(1)) And still other substances are only allowed for use as a last resort (you have to demonstrate to your certifier that you tried all your other options first and in some cases provide a soil test). In other words, usage of these substances ALWAYS comes with stipulations.

The reality is, there are FAR more substances we cannot use, and many of the "scary" stuff that some of these sites are talking about are crop specific and typically only used by very large organic producers. In other words, WE DON'T USE THEM. We use a basic organic insecticide called insecticidal soap (which is a plant-based oil) for aphid control, and BT, which is a naturally occurring bacteria, for tomato worm control (Please note this is not the same as BT corn, which was genetically engineered to contain this bacteria within the seed itself and whose overuse has resulted in BT resistant insect populations).

In a nutshell, in organic farming we don't WANT to use chemicals, naturally occurring or not, so we operate in a way that we can avoid using them. Whereas in conventional farming, chemicals are used preemptively, we wait until we have a major problem before we even consider them, and the chemicals we're allowed to use are heavily regulated.

Q: Why do you farm organic?

A: We believe that a system that works with nature, rather than against it, is better for our land. When we incorporate practices like crop rotation and the utilization of naturally occurring beneficial insect and nematode populations, we're helping nature do what it does best while making a living at the same time. We know that when we hand this land down to the next generation, we'll be handing down both soil that is biologically rich, but also a way of thinking and managing the land that requires creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills, and a willingness to let naturally occurring processes and cycles guide our decision making.

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