Connecting Gate to Plate Blog

Can an Organic Farm Be Modern?

 
organic modern farm, emily zweber, michele payn-knoper, no more food fights

Guest Post by Emily Zweber, who farms with her husband, Tim, and his parents in Elko, MN. Established in 1906, the farm today consists of a certified organic dairy & direct meat market business. Tim and Emily have three children, Erik, Jonathan & Hannah.

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

20 Comments

  1. Liz on August 24, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    There must be something in the air this week. I posted a somewhat similar blog just today about the consumer’s perception of different methods of farming. You make a good point, and I agree, organic farmers have done a very good job of promoting themselves as good stewards. The problem comes when we producers start fighting amongst ourselves and claiming that one method of farming is better than the other. When the truth is that we can all coexist peacefully, and we usually do. And I think you demonstrated very well that farming is not black and white. Organic farmers often use “modern” technology, and conventional farmers use a lot of “sustainable” practices.

    I have been using the term “modern” to label my farm, basically because I can’t really get over the fact that “conventional,” used to be the term for non-gmo beans. When did that change, anyway?!? It seems that the buzzwords and semantics when it comes to agriculture are constantly changing…just think of how words such as “natural,” “sustainable,” and “local” have become sooo popular they’re used to label everything.

  2. Emily on August 24, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks for the great comment Liz. I agree with you totally. The labels need to stop and we all to figure out how we are ALL going to feed the growing population.

    I also want to mention that our farm pays all mandated and voluntary check off dollars for our commodities.

  3. Alison Howard on August 24, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    As an organic vegetable and grain farmer who direct markets to consumers, I want to take our customers on a journey. Everyone has a different vision of our farm in their head and it’s that vision that we can sculpt and form into one that creates a market for our products. Regardless of the definition of modern or who thinks we’re modern or not. We don’t get hung up on what other farmers think of our practices. We care what our consumers think.

    Ditto what the previous poster said about in-fighting among ag producers. We all eat and we all buy some, or all, of the food we eat. We all care where it comes from and how it was produced. If your production story is one that people want to support, people will buy your products. If not, it better change or there won’t be any money to pay the mortgage. Period.

    • Emily on August 25, 2010 at 1:51 am

      Agree Alison. The story and the connection are exactly what bring in the type of customers you and I market too.

  4. Cassy on August 24, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    As a non-farmer I admit, “modern” is not the first word I’d associate with organic farming. I can see Zak’s line of thought. Though hearing your thoughts, and being a business woman myself who prefers to take advantage of technology when I can in my own field, I agree. Emily there is nothing out of date about your farm. And your PR skills are fantastic. 🙂

  5. Joanna on August 25, 2010 at 2:23 am

    I am glad to see this post here. I couldn’t get to it when it was on FB before.

    In my opinion, of course organic farms can be modern. In fact, in a lot of ways I think if not the farmer, the cooperative or the manufacturer has caught on to delivering what the consumer wants – if customer perception/preference exists and there is a market for it, than go for it. In this way, organic farms are more advanced in being able to deliver what an audience wants.

    A friend just getting into ag retail went out to visit a well-established dairy farm with an agri-tainment value recently. Despite all the customer-friendly attractions on the farm, she couldn’t believe that they only milked 30 cows in a tie stall barn. She thought it might be perpetuating come kind of stereotype. But in my opinion, that dairy farm is just as modern as any – they know their customer and they deliver for them.

    There are many farms out there that I think resist changing managment practices for consumer preferences. I think herein lies a disconnect between producer and consumer. Thats why its important to improve communication skills in order to tell our stories and explain why it is that we do what we do – whether its de-horn or dis-bud cattle or choose to become certified organic or not. And when you can overcome that disconnect, or we as an industry can, then I think we’ll truly be “modern.”

  6. Anastasia on August 25, 2010 at 2:51 am

    I get the impression that people who buy organic don’t want it to be modern. There are even people who think hybrid seed is a bad idea. They have this idyllic impossible picture of what a farm is, and it doesn’t include a tractor with GPS or a milking parlor with robots. I guess that’s why agvocacy is so important!

    Liz is totally right, farming isn’t black and white, but I think some consumers think it is. We need to be more careful with labels. They can be woefully inaccurate, and I think they’re actually holding back farming from being as sustainable as it can be (I talk about this a bit in Toward a better agriculture.

  7. Stacy T. on August 25, 2010 at 3:14 am

    Very thought provoking…great post Emily! As a fellow dairy farmer, I had never really thought about whether organic production was “modern”. I agree that organic farmers have done a fantastic job of marketing themselves, we should take a page from their book. We are not organic on our farm, however, we use some organic practices. I am curious though, when I read the line that you are saddened when an organic dairy farm is not included in checkoff promotion, how can you tell from a picture? If organic can be modern than what is the problem if a well managed farm is used for promotion purposes?

  8. Ulla on August 25, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Our farm is not certified organic(there are no organic USDA slaughter plants in NYS) but we are grass-fed. My father stays current with hay making technology which makes it possible for us to finish high quality grass-fed beef during our hard winters. Lot’s of research goes into this and modern equipment and science. Also, if it were not for electric fencing we would not be able to do what we do. Granted we do not use “modern” medicines but my father does use the genetic and breeding methods that he learned in Ag school to breed animals that are healthy and do well on our farm. With that said, we do remark a lot about how old fashioned a lot of our farming methods are..Maybe our farm is a combination of the both!
    This post is super interesting as are the responses.

  9. Wendy on August 26, 2010 at 12:39 am

    I think what makes a farm modern is knowing when to revisit the past. Modern design for instance is basic, simple and clean. Such is modern farming, and in an effort to be bigger and better we as a nation have lost site of that. Being modern also means staying in the moment, appreciating the land and soil for what it can provide for us now.

  10. Jonathan on August 26, 2010 at 11:19 am

    I wish I could agree with your comment that “organic agriculture is more modern than conventional agriculture” I really do. But unfortunatly one of my good mates & his family are organic broadacre farmers. Apart from the using some better crop varieties (more disease resistant) their farming practices have changed little in the last 30 years. They still rely on soil-degrading cultivation for weed control, are unable to plant crops at optimum times because of said weed control and in come cases, disease worries. They don’t seem inclined to push the boundaries of what they do and try new things, and I have no idea why.

    Non-organic farmers certainly don’t have a monopoly on innovation and creativity. So there’s no reason they can’t be innovative and creative! But my friends definitely contribute to the sterotype of organic farmers not being modern. Sterotypes may be sterotypes & not always applicable, but they generally don’t come from nowhere.

  11. Shelley Armour on August 26, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    You make some good points in the article- while I prefer more traditional practices I know that organic farms, and farmers, have their place with today’s consumers. I do see extremes in organic farming however- there are some organic farmers that won’t use modern technology and believe that being “organic” is being old-fashioned. Great concept but there is no way we can feed a hungry world going “old school” (whether that be organically or not). The most facinating thing I find about the organic perspective is there is no use of pesticides or fertilizers- now being I’m not an organic farmer, or totally up with the new laws as they change, I maybe wrong to say this- but please correct me if I am. I am under the impression certified organic farms CAN use pesticides and fertilizers as long as they also are certifed organic products. In a similar way you have to use organic feed for your livestock. The consumers don’t see this aspect of organic ag- it is VERY modern and uses the updated technology.

    I think the misconceptions will always be there but until it stops being organic vs nonorganic we, in agriculture, will never get the whole story out. I also would love some organic and non-organic farmers to education Mrs. Obama- everytime I hear her on the news talking ag I have to cringe…something is always inacurrate….

    One other point that comes up with the organic ag debate seems to be GMOs…Please help me understand if certified organic farmers can use these seeds. I am under the impression they can’t. I saw a really interesting quote recently that said (paraphrasing) “Have you ever seen those against GMOs complain about seedless grapes and watermelon”? How can crops (or animals) improve without selective breeding?

  12. Russell Laird on September 9, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    People are dancing all around the issue but Michelle asks a simple question and the simple answer is no. It is not accurate to describe organic farming as modern and no one should be offended by scientific facts. Using the words modern and organic in the same sentence is contradictory and disingenuous.

    Organic farming by its very nature is not modern but is primitive and antiquated. Of course that is not at all to say that a farm which uses organic practices is immediately deemed as antiquated as a whole since it may be using a lot of modern farming techniques. But if you isolate the discussion to the one issue of organic in the sense of shunning synthetic chemicals which have been proven safe then it is absolutely not modern.

    No matter what all the certification process may entail the common belief held by the public is that “organic” denotes agricultural production which rejects the use of synthetic chemicals. Science does not support the fearful religious belief held by zealots that agricultural inputs derived from “natural” sources (again, a long debate over definitions could ensue) are safer or more beneficial than synthetic chemicals developed through modern advanced technology. It is unfortunate that the public is unaware of the rigorous scientific testing required by the EPA approval process to ensure that any pesticide is safe for use. Proper use is always important and improper use of any inputs can cause problems and waste resources.

    It is great to hear that an organic farm may be using GPS and other modern technologies. Certainly a farm which uses many modern technologies should be described as modern. But to use several modern technologies but then shun one is inconsistent. All modern farming techniques should be employed no matter the source of production inputs. Farmers should employ the technology that fits best in each individual situation. There is a term for it – integrated pest management – and it has been around a long time.
    If using inputs derived from natural sources happen to work well for that farm to produce quality produce in an efficient manner then that is great. But using the “organic” moniker attempts to create a pure image of superiority and feeds into the misperceptions of an already confused public and into the propaganda spread by the anti-technology crowd.

    It is unfortunate that so many in our society have come to the point where they think they are so educated that they have all the answers and have the disposable income to pay higher prices for food which is produced with less efficient methods with no difference in safety.

    No one should begrudge farmers who are getting paid premium prices for organic produce. They are certainly not the first entrepreneurs to make money off of an uneducated consumer. But you have to wonder how long that premium will exist.

  13. Peter van de Pol on September 16, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Dear Michele,

    I think you hit the nail on the head here. I am a organic (ornamental-, check http://www.rozenbottels.nl, our website ) rosehip grower from the Netherlands. The reason I can grow organically is because we invested a lot of time and money in breeding/developing (pick your choicis, banks seem to prefere developing) sorts/breeds that are disease resistant. As it is we are quite succesfull. I consider our nursery/farm (pick your choice, bankers and investors like “company”) completely modern, and even avant-garde. As it is (and as far as I know) we are the only rose hip nursery in the world who grows rosehips 100% poison free. Actually: I challenge everyone to prove different!

    How modern can you be?

  14. John Blue on September 16, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    I believe there is a mythos that has been built around terms like ‘organic’, ‘local’, and ‘farm fresh’ that people want to believe. James McWilliams, in the Freakonomics blog, said it best with “But nowhere has our love for the supposed simplicity of the past been more evident than in food trends.” (The Persistence of the Primitive Food Movement – NYTimes.com http://agtoday.us/c0yACm ).

    So it is up to us in agriculture to keep ahead of the terms, provide meaning and, most importantly, provide a story to share about how we produce food, using the language of the consumer.

    Thanks Emily!

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