Often farmers who use “conventional” methods of agriculture technologies to produce food call themselves a “modern farm.” The farmer, if dairy, is usually standing in front of a large free stall barn. I agree that this is “modern” agriculture. But have you considered if an organic farm be modern? The definition of “modern” in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is 1) of , relating to, or characteristic of the present or the immediate past and 2) involving recent techniques, methods or ideas: up-to-date.
I argue that an organic farm is modern in every sense of the definition. Having posed this question to my Twitter followers and Facebook friends, I found the responses very interesting. Most people responded with “depends on your definition of modern” or “I am really not sure.” The most affirmative response I received was from Carolyn who, with her husband Jonathan, is an organic crop farmer. Carolyn responded “With all the GPS technology and precision farming methods being used by organic farmers, how could we not be considered modern?” A stark contrast was one of our Twitter followers, Zak, who is not a farmer, but an avid organic consumer. He stated “to me organic farming is the antithesis of modern farming.” Interesting, but more on that point later…
What’s my answer? I have to agree 100% with Carolyn. I view our farm as very modern. We use the latest techniques when it comes to animal housing/health/ nutrition, feed storage, milking parlor, field work (mostly custom), record keeping and phone technology. Just because we choose to not use some technology, it doesn’t mean we are converting back to old fashion farming practices. Would you consider a farmer who uses rBST and antibiotics, but milks in a tie-stall barn, modern? You probably do. But, their farm is choosing not to invest in some of the latest milking techniques (i.e. a parlor or robotics).
Consider the definition of modern as being an earlier adopter of the latest trends, and the double digit growth in the organic market. I will boldly argue that organic agriculture is more modern than conventional agriculture (bring on the critics). Time will only tell.
My question likely received a lot of “I don’t know” responses, because there are a lot of misconceptions about organic farming. In simple terms, we are not allowed to use feed from GMO plants, antibiotics, use hormones or synthetic chemicals. The organic standard does not state “return to the practices of the 1940’s or even the 1990’s for that matter.” A lot of research has been done to help organic farmers advance their production methods while staying within the guidelines of the USDA certification. For example: research on pasture grass varieties for different stages of lactating cows, plant breeding to make corn leaves wider (to shade out weeds), homeopathic animal health care, and intergraded pest management.
Returning to to Zak’s comment. Does his thought that modern agriculture doesn’t belong with organic represent what consumers of organics really think? Probably. To often “modern” agricultural practices are linked with bad media coverage. It seems good ag stories are not sexy, meaning they aren’t heard. Does it mean Zak’s comment is right or wrong? Not sure, but the real question should be: does the word “modern” resonate with consumers? I don’t think so. Just as I don’t care whether Nike is using the most modern equipment to make their shoes. I just care that the shoes fit well, are going to last and will serve their purpose. Imagine a new Nike’s new slogan “This shoe is made with the most modern practices.” I don’t think it would convince me to buy their shoe over Adidas. Consumers of food just want to know, that what farmers are producing is of good quality and is going to nourish their bodies.
I believe this is where organic farmers have really succeeded. While it is still debatable which technologies are more environmentally safe and which ones produce a more nutritious product, organic farmers have known for a long time that consumers don’t care that farmers can now feed 155 people or that our tractors have GPS. They only care that we care: about the environment, the health of animals and of course the quality of food we are producing. When I see check-off dollars used to produce websites or publications showing only modern dairy farms, it saddens me to not see an organic farm included.
The point of this blog isn’t to “prove” anything or promote one system over the other. Rather, I’d like to challenge readers to look beyond labels and recognize that many types of food production are “modern” and relative to the way we are feedings our world’s growing population.
Note from Michele: After seeing Emily’s question on Facebook, I thought it was an interesting discussion to have on the Gate to Plate blog. I’d encourage you to share your perspective on different food production practices. You can learn more about their farm at https://zweberfarms.com. Thanks, Emily, for a thought-provoking post.
~Guest Post by Emily Zweber