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Organic farming across the country

08/22/03 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) While most people take vacations to relax, this summer commentator Henry Homeyer took a working vacation.

(Homeyer) For some time now I've been wondering about where our food comes from, and how it's produced. I wanted to learn about the differences between organic and conventional agriculture, so six weeks ago I got in my aging van and drove across to Idaho, talking to farmers as I went.

The midwest is a sea of corn and soybeans, extending for hundreds of miles. Most of it is grown as food for the cattle that provide the hamburgers and steaks that we, as a nation, have become addicted to. But it also produces sweetners and fillers for nearly all our processed foods.

Ninety-eight percent of the soybeans grown in America are genetically modified so that farmers can spray them with an herbicide. Round Up ready soybeans don't die when sprayed with Round Up, but weeds do. This saves a lot of time and labor, and Round Up is one of the least expensive herbicides. A soybean farmer told me that he saves $12 an acre by growing Round Up Ready soybeans. The long term effects of using this herbicide are yet to be determined.

I worked as a farm hand for 3 weeks in Shoshone, Idaho. The farm, Ernie's Organics, includes 300 acres of organic potatoes, pinto beans, wheat, forage crops and organic vegetables grown for seed. Cattle are also grazed as part of the process of nurturing the soil.

I understand now why organic foods cost more: it's a lot more work to grow them. Instead of using herbicides, organic farmers use tractors pulling cultivating tools to cut down the weeds. But if the weeds get too big, we, the farm hands, had to cut them down with a hoe or pull them out.

Organic farmers also avoid using chemicals to kill insects, and fungicides for maladies such as late blight, a disease that can devastate a potato crop. The farmer I worked for doesn't use chemicals, but his soil grows such healthy plants that he is rarely bothered by pests.

Organic farmers also grow crops just to enrich the soil. In upstate New York I met organic farmers who grow red clover to improve their soil. Clover takes nitrogen from the air, and turns it into nitrogen usable by plants, all with the help of beneficial bacteria. But, of course, this means the clover fields aren't producing cash crops, and require tractor fuel and labor to tend them.

Some organic farmers also buy or produce compost or manure to feed the soil. Adding organic matter to the soil provides food for the micro organisms that help nourish them, and helps plants survive drought or flooding.

So those extra dollars for organic produce support farmers making a special effort to protect the environment, their farm workers, and ultimately, the consumer. And even though the use of pesticides is highly regulated by the government, I, for one, prefer to buy foodstuffs grown without chemicals whenever I can.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, N.H.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.
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