A US nod to organic farms

A watershed of so far undetermined magnitude has been reached in Washington, but you'd never know it to judge from coverage in the so-called major news media. For years the high use of energy and chemicals in agriculture has been accepted as "conventional" farming -- something that would have surprised farmers through most of American history. The watershed is that the Department of Agriculture, which some small farmers refer to as the Department of Agribusiness, has displayed a newly welcoming attitude to farming that avoids chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and additives -- and requires less energy. But the department's big official report on the subject of organic farming seems to have been left out on the south forty.

Not that the report tells organic farmers all that much they don't know. Nor does it fail to raise such points as that some of the high yields from organic farms may be due to "residual" fertilizers from previous years, and that "conventional" farms get higher economic return over variable costs. But even on the latter question it offers a qualification -- that such cost comparisons do not take account of the bad aspects of conventional farming such as soil erosion, possible decline of soil productivity, and water pollution from fertilizer and pesticide run-off.

At this stage the most important part of the report may be that it was undertaken in the first place and that it recommends research programs and information and evaluation services to foster organic farming and marketing. The report notes that there are now not only small organic farms but a "significant number" of large-scale ones up to 1,500 acres. The increasing costs of energy and chemicals contribute to making organic farming more attractive. But research and information are needed to adapt organic farming to the present day and substantiate its advantages for the future.

Agriculture Department officials have apparently tended to be as skeptical as anyone else. But over the past 18 months they have been favorably impressed by some organic farms in the US and organic farming systems abroad.

Many younger Americans were running with organic farming as an idea whose time had come even before Washington put a toe on the bandwagon. If it is a bandwagon. Much still has to be learned and achieved to fulfill the promise of organic farming in a new age.

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