Hello! I hope everyone had a great 4th of July! Ours was busy, but we got to see a lot of family and friends. (More about that on Monday!)
Today I invited a guest blogger to talk to you all about organics and organic farming. Her name is Linda Schwarz. She, along with her family, have an organic farm in south central Nebraska. I asked Linda numerous questions, some just about her family and farming operation and other questions that we, as CommonGround volunteers, get asked a lot. Here are her answers.
1. When did your family start farming?
The land that we farm has been in the Schwarz family for over 100 years and our children, Alex and Becky, are the 6th generation on the farm. Tom has been farming all of his life, and I started when Tom and I got married in 1984. Before that, I was a “town girl”, though my grandpa farmed all of his life.
2. Who all participates in the everyday farming operation?
The four of us, Tom, our kids Alex and Becky, and I all work on our farm. We also employee several people who help in different aspects of the farm.
3. Why did you decide to start farming organically?
Tom’s parents died shortly after we got married and his sister wanted to be bought out of the farming operation. Unfortunately, shortly before this we had cut back on the number of acres were farming so that it could be handled by Tom and his Dad without any hired help. With the loss of those acres, plus the splitting of the remaining acres in half, we were left in a very difficult situation. There was also poor succession planning on the part of Tom’s father. This loss of acres and equipment forced us to look at value added opportunities, which we found in organic farming.
4. What types of crops do you have?
In organic farming, crop rotation is required and our rotation is typically alfalfa, corn, soybeans, wheat and back to alfalfa. This year we also have popcorn and are experimenting with sugar peas. We have also grown blue corn, white milo, and some specialty food grade soybeans.
5. Do you have greenhouses and if so, what do you grow in them?
Yes! We put up our first high tunnels (plastic covered green houses) three years ago, and now have three of them. We have a large variety of produce in the houses as well as in outdoor beds. This last winter we had spinach, baby leaf lettuce, sugar pea greens, a variety of herbs and micro greens. Right now we have one house that’s dedicated to tomatoes and peppers, one that houses the baby leaf lettuce and sugar pea greens, and the third has Swiss chard and kale as well as a variety of herbs. In our outside beds we have watermelons, pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, leeks, shallots and garlic. In the fall we will plant our winter carrots and hakurei turnips. We also have some crops that we’re experimenting with such as rhubarb and asparagus.
6. How is farming organically different from conventionally on your farm?
Organic farming requires much more labor than conventional farming. Fuel and equipment costs generally are also higher. The biggest difference, however is the high level of management that is required. Tom comments on a regular basis how much easier our lives would be if we farmed conventionally. The last crops we raised conventionally were, for all practical purposes “plant it and forget it” until harvest. For our organic crops we have the same weather issues as conventional farmers, but an untimely pair of rains on our organic fields can create a weed problem that we really cannot overcome.
Another aspect of organic farming that is different, is the huge amount of record keeping. My main job on the farm is keeping track of everything from seed varieties used, field operations performed, dates of these field operations, machine cleaning, storage used, and sales information.
Certified Organic farmers are also required to have an annual inspection. The inspector checks the record keeping, insuring there is a trace back from sales to storage to field to seed. They also visually inspect the fields, checking that all organic requirements are met. They make sure we have met the seed requirements, the input requirements and that no crop has been co-mingled with conventional crops. Every aspect of our farming operation must be available for inspection.
7. Can pesticides be used on organic crops?
This short answer to this question is, very few. Essentially, we can only use pesticides that are non-synthetic. Although there are a handful of synthetics that may be used in very specific instances, at this point in time we have not used any pesticides in our row crop farming. Vegetable production does find you in situations from time to time where you do need to take action. We try to utilize biological and live insect solutions as much as possible. I do enjoy watching Becky release lady bugs, and seeing newly hatched praying mantis or lacewings attack aphids or other insects.
8. Does your farm use any of those pesticides?
In our operation, we have not used any. We depend instead on rotation to combat pests. In the high tunnels, we utilize biological “pesticides”, such as dipel (which is a bacteria) and organic black strap molasses. Anything we use, however, must be approved by our certifying agent before we can use it.
9. Do you have to worry about your neighbors that are conventional farmers and the pesticides and fertilizers that they apply to their fields?
This is always a concern and we maintain buffer strips around our fields that we are forced to grow organically, keep separate at harvest, and sell as conventional because of the danger of contamination from our neighbor’s fields. We actually had an issue on one field where a neighbor sprayed Roundup on a windy day and about five acres were lost because of the drift. In addition, for the next three years we were unable to harvest these five acres as organic.
10. How do you manage insects and weeds?
Pests are managed mainly through rotation, though sometimes in the high tunnel we have to pick them off, as in the case of large caterpillars. Weeds are more difficult. In the row crops, we weed mechanically – over and over again – and we also weed by hand when necessary. In the high tunnels and vegetable gardens, much of it is done by hand. We also use plastic ground cover on our beds. This has been a great help in keeping the weeds down. The plastic does, however, have to be removed at the end of each growing season to maintain our organic certification.
11. Do you use fertilizers on your crops?
In the row crops, we have used manure to add nitrogen and phosphorous. Typically, though, this is done through rotation. For example, the soybeans provide nitrogen for the following year’s wheat crop and the alfalfa provides nitrogen for the corn.
In the high tunnels, we use compost as many home gardeners do. We do have to make sure that the recipe for the compost we use is approved by our certifier before use.
12. What you have you found to be the benefits to growing only organic crops?
There are many people who have sensitivities to chemicals (example, people who are undergoing chemotherapy), and it is very rewarding to be able to provide food that is safe for them. There are many other people in the United States who, for one reason or another, feel more comfortable buying organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms), and we are proud to be able to produce food for that segment of the population. The people who buy our food are very appreciative of the work we do and are very vocal in that appreciation.
13. What have you found to be the drawbacks to growing only organic crops?
Being organic farmers takes a lot more time and effort. From field operations to record keeping, it is much more time consuming. There are also many more risks than conventional farming and while yields can be the same as conventional, from time to time there will be a disaster. We have at times also faced ridicule from our neighbors when our fields have weeds and theirs are clean.
14. Can you explain why the prices of organic foods in the grocery stores are more expensive than conventionally grown foods?
Organic foods are more expensive mainly because of the labor involved in growing them. There are also the added costs of certification and record keeping. One thing we like about this added labor, though, is that it is bringing additional jobs to our smaller communities and keeping the people and their money in the local schools and stores.
15. Are there nutritional benefits to eating organic foods?
I have seen research that shows there are benefits to eating organic foods and I have seen research that shows that there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. Every person should use common sense and choose what works for them and their families. We’re lucky in our country to have the choices that we do, and, as a supporter of American agriculture, I am proud that we offer all of these choices. I am not going to tell someone else what they should or should not be eating, because all of the food that they buy is being produced by a farmer.
Thank you Linda and your family for providing my readers with all of these answers! I hope you learned something about organic farming as I know that I did! If you have any additional questions, please leave them in the comment section below and we will get you the answer! You can also find more information at the Schwarz Family Farm website and Facebook page. Have a good weekend!