By Hunter Richards
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.
Organic farmers can’t use the same technology as conventional farmers – like pesticides and genetic engineering – to increase yields. There’s a misconception that they stubbornly shun technology, preferring age-old tradition over modern methods. But it’s not true. These farmers can use their understanding of natural processes – the mating habits of pests, for example – to optimize yields and care for their crops. 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 technology’s broad potential: “To me, technology is neutral; it’s neither good nor bad. It’s how it’s applied that makes the difference.”
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 directly affect crops – 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 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. It made me question the 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 the field – it’s an alternative type of 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. The runoff causes algal blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, draining oxygen from the surrounding area and killing nearby fish.
With 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
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 destructive side effects, but there are alternatives. Surround, a type of biodegradable clay, can be sprayed on apples to confuse insects. Once affected, pests no longer recognize the apples as food. The clay washes off and dissolves in rain, with none of the harmful effects of the more conventional methods.
Thanks to a better understanding of insect mating habits and chemistry, farmers can target and destroy pest populations without even touching the crops and soil. They can set up sticky traps, coated with female pheromones, that attract male flies and maggots. When they come in to mate, they 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.