I grew up during the time that farmers were just embracing the power of commercial fertilizer. After World War II, munitions plants were converted into fertilizer plants, which pulled nitrogen from the air to produce ammonium nitrate fertilizer that greatly increased crop production. With this magical product, corn yields increased from 20 to 30 bushels per acre (prior to WWII) to 60+ bushels per acre in 1960. Nearly all farmers began using the commercial fertilizers, including those on our family farm. With further advances in genetics and fertilizer mixes, crop yields are now exceeding 160 bushels per acre.
The back-to-organics movement also began in the 1960s when leaders such as J.I. Rodale and Sir Albert Howard began to identify the harmful environmental effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The ‘movement’ was further advanced by public safety concerns arising from news stories of chemical residues in food products and, more recently, by diseases like ‘mad cow disease.” With good farm management, organic farm yields can match conventional yields.
Why aren’t more farmers raising crops organically? The issue is that farmers typically live on the razors edge of profitability. The notion of taking three years to convert their operations to a new way of farming is more of a risk than most are willing to take, even if they would like to stop using expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
And yet, curiosity about organic farming remains. Two years ago, the Calvert Sustainable Agriculture Workgroup invited Ed Fry, a prominent dairy and grain farmer from Chestertown Maryland, to speak about organic farming and leading county farmers came to listen. The profit margin from organic raised eye brows. On the other hand, farmers noted that Mr. Fry uses manure from his dairy cows, along with poultry and green manure from winter crops, to fertilize the soil. Except for green manure, nitrogen sources are scarce in Calvert county and there are also concerns about the time it take to comply with the organic certification process. The decision is a difficult one.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture website lists over 100 Certified Maryland Organic Farms. Frederick County is leading the charge with 24 certified organic farms. Quoted in a news story from the Frederick News-Post, Eric Rice of County Pleasures Farm says “There finally may be enough critical mass that we’re reaching a tipping point.” Nationwide, organic food sales grew by 9.5 percent overall in 2011 to reach $31.4 billion in sales, more than four times the $7.4 billion level of 10 years ago. According to the USDA, organic takes sixth place for the value of crop production.
If you are interested in converting to organic, you might want to try the crop conversion calculator, provided by the Rodale Institute. It allows those interested to compare conventional and organic yields and profits using the numbers for their farm and Rodale’s numbers for organic productivity and value.