Organic farming blossoms into favor at US Agriculture Department

An estimated 1 percent of American farmers -- or some 25,000 to 35,000 -- proudly consider themselves organic farmers. With some help from an unexpected source -- the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) -- that percentage could start rising sharply. The change is coming, according to Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, because "energy shortages, food safety, and environmental concerns" are combining to push more and more farmers toward organic farming.

Mr. Bergland himself pushed his department in that direction 18 months ago after finding that one of the neighboring farmers back home in roseau, Minn., had switched to farming his 1,500 acres organically.

The neighbor, Paul Billberg, was showing profits, fine crops, and healthier cattle six years after deciding to cut out the chemicals that he had always used on his soil, crops, and livestock. Mr. Bergland was impressed and ordered the USDA's Science and Education Administration to study organic farming -- the first time this no-chemicals approach has been given serious consideration by the US government.

The result is a thick USDA report released last month which recommends:

* Research programs both to help organic farmers and to encourage conventional farmers to adopt at least some of the organic farmer's methods for conserving energy and natural resources.

* Programs to evaluate and make best use of organic wastes from both rural and urban sources.

* Development of nonchemical means for controlling weeds, insects, and plant diseases -- such as by mechanical cultivation, crop rotation, and natural insect predators.

* Development of new crop varieties geared to organic farming rather than reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

* Studies of the effects of chemical residues in farm products -- to follow up on the warnings issued by Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring," in 1962.

* Studies of how yields are increased by combining organic and chemical fertilization methods.

* Research into the economics of organic farming to improve management techniques -- to make up for the fact that such help in the past has gone only to conventional farmers.

* Land-grant university courses focusing on organic farming, both the benefit US farmers and to develop models for third-world nations.

* More USDA information dealing specifically with organic farming, both for the farmer and for customers.

* Establishment of marketing systems for foods certified as organically produced -- and thus, in theory at least, able to fetch higher prices.

These and other recommendations come as a surprise because they are from USDA experts who previously showed little interest in or respect for organic farming.

But the report shows that after visiting organic farms in the United States, Europe, and Japan, the USDA researchers were quite favorably impressed by "a production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives."

The report churns through a variety of case studies and statistics before reaching a general conclusion that there is little difference between crop yields on organic and conventional farms of comparable quality. The report calls for more detailed research to establish what the differences may be. But it also finds that whatever cost advantages conventional farming may have enjoyed in the past are being wiped out by rapidly mounting energy costs.

The report lists a number of ways in which past government policy has favored conventional over organic agriculture. It notes that parts of the price-support system "appear to run counter to conservation goals, thereby discouraging program participation by conservation-minded farmers in general and organic farmers in particular."

Noting that "public policies can either promote or impede the goals of organic farmers," the report goes on to state that "the future of organic farming as a viable option for food and fiber production will depend on the future goals of US agriculture and on public policy in matters concerning energy conservation, natural resources conservation, and environmental protection."

Dr. Richard Hardwood, director of the Organic Gardening and Farming Research Center in Pennsylvania, feels the USDA report is a major -- and sorely needed -- breakthrough.

"This gives official government recognition for the first time to the value of the organic approach to agriculture," he told the Monitor, "and I think it will give some legitimacy to organic farming and open the way to research in government and in the universities."

Dr. Harwood says that perhaps the most remarkable aspect of organic farming today is that it does produce crop yields comparable to conventional farming -- despite having government policies, funding, and research programs all directed at supporting conventional farming.

But will organic farming catch on, or is the farming community too committed to its present methods to change?

Perhaps one clue to the answer comes from the USDA's judgment that "agriculture is a dynamic system, and it operates in a changing environment." A major change is the rise in oil prices, and, the report states, "Organic farming incorporates many of the changes farmers might be expected to make in response to inflated prices of energy."

Another clue comes from Roger Schuller, who raises cattle, sheep, and grain on his 3,400 acres in Claremont, S.D. "We would be tickled to death if we weren't forced into using chemical fertilizers and all that," he told the Monitor. "But if your neighbors do it, competition forces you to do it."

It could be that a new policy approach by the USDA, as indicated in its organic farming report, will help Mr. Schuller and his neighbors shake themselves free from their present dependence on increasingly expensive chemical farming methods.

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