Can organic agriculture be resilient agriculture?

In the early 90s I started hanging around with some rough and ready Florida Organic Growers.  The have a great acronym: FOG and a pretty responsive state University at Gainesville.  I much prefer Gainesville, Missouri, pop. 773, and spawning ground of Leesa Johnson and her clan, but that’s beside the point.

mule plowNowadays, Marty Mesh runs FOG with support from his academician wife at the Florida Gainesville.  No one who knows Marty can doubt the power of organic ag.  I’ve had multitudinous discussions and contretemps with Marty at various National Sustainble Agriculture Coalition meetings.

Following is a foolish attempt to win him and other organic advocates over to the insights of ecological resilience.

It’s foolish because organic is more a religion than anything else.  People believe in organic agriculture.  Such faith is not open to question. They are just as impervious to evidence and logic as folks who detest organic agriculture because it undermines their profits.

Now I’ve made everyone mad.  Someday soon I’ll quit writing this blog.  At least two hours a day every day since early July–that’s too much time. Time I should devote to more practical pursuits, like fixing buildings at Meadowcreek and finding the funds to do so.  I guess I could make this blog subscription-only and charge you to read it.  But that’s a hassle and with a max of 323 views a day (only 230 yesterday) the income would be minimal. And then you might feel entitled to get one every morning and I might feel obliged to write one when I wasn’t inspired.  I don’t ever want to get in that position.

Maybe this will be the last one. You never know.  But as I was standing watching the night sky earlier tonight, I realized one more is begging to be written.  One more sacred cow needs to be skewered.

I know and respect a bunch of organic farmers.  I also suspect many organic farmers cheat.  In the late 90s I took a visitor from Cuba to see an organic rice farm here in Arkansas.  The owner of the business was a really affable guy.  We had a great time driving around his fields.  We didn’t see any weeds, nary a one.  When we asked how he controlled his weeds, we got lots of evasion and circumlocution.  Never did get an answer.

The organic inspector comes once a year; weed pressure is almost 365 days a year in the Delta.  Unfortunately, even when organic farmers play by the rules, it has become just another variant of industrial agriculture.  Though organic farms as originally conceived build the soil, increase diversity and embrace many of the other qualities present in resilient systems, in practice organic ag is just a list of compounds you cannot use.  Every farmer, whether organic or not, has such a list.  Even the worst culprit would not use DDT, if only because he can’t buy it.

As far back as the turn of the century, some far-sighted folks realized that ecological resilience was the answer to what ailed organic.  Rebecka and Ika published a paper in 2003 called “Building farm resilience.”  You should read it.

They like organic farming.  After defining resilience  in line with Carpenter et al., 2001 and organic farming by IFOAM Basic Standards, they contend:  “for most criteria, organic farming displays encouraging and promising features and mirrors the characteristics of farm resilience.”

The paper argues that organic farming has become dominated by farms which focus on stability using the command-and-control approaches of classic resource management.  This class of organic farms has become just a set of industrial farms which follow slightly different rules but the same philosophy as their conventional brethren.  They follow the letter of the law and not the historic spirit of organic farming.

I buy organic spinach and arugula nearly every time I go to the grocery store.  I love it.  It’s standardized and cheap and tastes great.  I believe its good for me.  But I’m under no illusions that organic farming is going to change the world.  It’s been co-opted.

That happens to any word–especially when material gain is possible. Words always get divorced from their biological reality.  People are already using resilience in ways totally inconsistent with its biological reality.  Just read some of the thousands of articles devoted to psychological resilience. Or don’t.  They are just about all worthless.

Instead get outside and enjoy these last beautiful, crisp fall days.  I can’t wait to get back to Meadowcreek later today and see the vibrant colors missing in the rest of the state.


Rebecka Milestad and Ika Darnhofer’s prescient, clear and charming little paper, “Building Farm Resilience: The Prospects and Challenges of Organic Farming” can be found in the 2003 Journal of Sustainable Agriculture Volume 22, pages 81-97.