Organic Farmers: Can They Be Tech Savvy?

by

Accounting Market Analyst

Demand is on the rise for organic produce. A survey by the Organic Trade Association found that sales revenue from organic food in the U.S. had exploded to $25 billion by 2009 – twenty-five times that of 1990.

High demand requires high efficiency. But organic farmers can’t use the technologies common to conventional agriculture – like pesticides and genetic engineering – to increase yields. As such, there’s a misconception that they stubbornly shun technology, preferring age-old tradition over modern methods. But that’s not the case. Through recent technological developments, these farmers can use their understanding of natural processes – the mating habits of pests, for example – to optimize yields. The surprising results can make you wonder where to draw the line between technology and nature.

Organic Solutions: Software and Beyond

Jeff Birkby, Outreach Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, recognizes the broad potential of technology: “To me, technology is neutral; it’s neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s applied that makes the difference.”

Jeff’s got a point – there must be a way for technology to help organic farmers. I began researching this article with software in mind because, unlike pest removal chemicals and other conventional farming technologies, data management tools don’t affect the crops directly. Clearly, organic farmers are free to use them. And the systems are certainly there – Farmigo for business data management is one example. The Georgia Institute of Technology is even developing a new user interface for soil moisture data software.

But as I researched, I became fascinated at how organic farmers can apply specialized technology in their fields rather than just in the office. Unlike their conventional counterparts, organic farming technologies cooperate with ecosystems to benefit crops. Blurring the line between natural processes and human intervention, the concept made me question the very definition of technology.

Can Technology and Nature Cooperate?

Ted Quaday, Communications Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, clarified the issue when I spoke to him. “We’re taking new knowledge, new information, and transferring that into real practical solutions in the farm field . . . is that new, innovative technology? I would argue that it is.”

According to the definition that I found on Merriam-Webster’s website, Ted’s right:

tech·nol·o·gy (noun, \tek-ˈnä-lə-jē\) – the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area.

Who said technology had to involve spinning blades and steel? Organic farmers use new research in their approaches to the field, and that qualifies their methods as technology.

The Trade-offs of Technology

Pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers save time and labor in conventional farming practices. But the resulting efficiency comes at a cost. The production, transport, and use of these substances threatens water quality and leaves a sinister carbon footprint. They produce runoff that causes algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, draining oxygen from the surrounding area and killing nearby fish.

Through more natural farming methods, organic farms avoid damaging the environment. These examples reveal how technology can help, even while adapting to natural processes:

Fertilization and Yield
To increase yields, conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers. But mechanical tools can be suitable alternatives. The roller crimper, a device dragged by a tractor through alfalfa and hay fields during harvest, breaks down the cell walls of plant stems to accelerate decomposition. This man-made tool increases soil fertility by speeding up the natural decomposition process – without artificial chemicals.

Another simple innovation that can increase yield quantity in organic farms is the hoop house, which is very much like a greenhouse – only easier, faster, and cheaper to build. Consisting of raised beds in a walled-off piece of land, it extends the growing season by protecting crops from bad weather and keeping them warm. More crops can then be produced for the local market, avoiding the need to import them from another location (which cuts down on potential carbon emissions). This research-oriented improvement helps farmers increase yields and benefit financially in a clean way.

Pest and Weed Control
Pesticides and herbicides are notorious in conventional farming, and apples are especially vulnerable. Conventional farmers use potent substances in apple orchards to get rid of codling moths, tent caterpillars and other destructive pests. Organic farmers can’t use these chemicals because of their side effects, but they’ve found alternatives. Surround, a type of biodegradable clay, can be sprayed on apples to confuse insects. Once affected, pests no longer recognize them as food. The clay washes off and dissolves in rain, so it has none of the harmful effects of the more conventional methods.

Thanks to a better understanding of insect mating habits and chemistry, farmers can also strategically destroy pest populations without even touching crops or soil. They can set up sticky traps coated with female pheromones, attracting male flies and maggots that typically harm the crops. They come in to mate, become trapped, and eventually die. Understanding the chemistry and deploying these traps required new research and designs, so it’s clearly a form of technology. It’s just not the giant robot with chainsaw hands that we all tend to imagine.

A Delicate Balance

Pure technology or not, organic farmers can merge nature and human creation to improve efficiency and protect produce. Adhering to strict standards has forced organic farming into creative action. Nature and technology, two apparently polar opposites, have seldom shared such a symbiotic relationship.

Thumbnail image created by TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋).

 
  • http://CIMMYTBlog kelly

    Hola Hunter! I read the article and it’s really great! Keep up the good research and thanks for being a fan of the CIMMYT blog. Are you are our friend on Facebook and Twitter? If not, you should be!

    Cheers,
    CIMMYT

  • http://www.greenergreengrass.com GreenerGreenGrass

    Fantastic article! I’m so glad we are finally dispelling the myth that organic farmers live in the Dark Ages.

    Integrative pest management alone is a science unto itself, and that is just one of the many tools they use to grow pesticide-free crops.

    And don’t forget, organic farmers are not the only ones who can use these novel technologies. Many of them are also available for organic lawn care, too!

  • http://www.simplelivinginstitute.org Shayla

    Hunter – Inspiring and very well supported article!! Technological doesn’t have to mean invasive. Your message conveys this with several stellar examples.

    Going to the Webster’s definition is like a grower going organic. What are we really talking about? Helping sunlight turn into food. Beautiful basics, like what we teach here at SimpleLivingInstitute.org.

  • http://thymesquaregarden.blogspot.com/ Pam Kimsey

    Oh I just love what your doing with the apples. I think that is truly genius to use the clay. Helping to keep us all inspired and stay on track!! Thanks So Much!!

  • John R

    Hi Hunter,

    You may remember me from college. I roomed with you in sophomore year.

    This is a great article, in all seriousness!

    J

  • http://www.dsorganic.com Dimitris Sotiropoulos

    Interesting article and very well balanced to the extent of the technical details.
    I am an agronomist working in organic agriculture for more than 10 years and this is exactly how the organic producers work. Due to the strict limitations that they face regarding pest control and fertilization inputs, the whole approach for organic management is based on prevention and monitoring. Research and technology have helped a lot, especially during the last decade, and worked on optimizing the tools that nature provides us anyway (use of beneficial insects, biological insecticides, very advanced organic fertilizers, etc) together with enhancing good agicultural practices.

    People shouldn’t think of organic farming as old-fashioned. It is far more difficult to produce excellent quality products without the use of any harmful and energy-consuming inputs, and it needs a lot of technological support to achieve the desirable result.

  • http:www.carriagehousefarmllc.com Richard Stewart

    The question here seems to be how you define technology. I have a 300 acre farm about 1/2 of which is organic. Take our hay operation. Its organic. Two adults bale 5000 bales of hay a year without actually physically touching a bale by hand. Its all done through hydraulics and mechanical devices. Its collected, stacked, and placed in a barn.

    Technology has allowed us to operate without the need of 10 other people and we do it while cultivating crops. Crops cultivation in organic production has become incredibly technical…technology allows us to weed soybeans rather than spraying them. We’ve replaced chemical technology with a new version of an old method allowing us to better develop soil biology.

    New methods of crop rotation using oil seed radishes and winter rye or a vetch allowing us to naturally till and amend soil is a technology.

    Food distribution and self-promotion enters into play as we deal with chefs and retailers using Facebook and Twitter to promote and sell our crops. All technology issues.

    Solar and wind powered pumps bio-diesel and electric vehicle delivery methods…all technology issues.

    And this is the simple list I can throw out in a few dozen seconds.

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