What Is Organic?

Many of us seek out organic produce, but what does the word mean when it comes to growing?

Watermelon with Vine

Watermelon with Vine

The first step in growing watermelons organically involves finding seed that is not treated with fungicide. Most commercial seed companies coat watermelon seeds with thiram and other fungicides. If the seed is pink, red, green or blue in color, it has been treated with fungicides and cannot be used for organic production.

Photo by: Image courtesy of Rinne Allen

Image courtesy of Rinne Allen

The first step in growing watermelons organically involves finding seed that is not treated with fungicide. Most commercial seed companies coat watermelon seeds with thiram and other fungicides. If the seed is pink, red, green or blue in color, it has been treated with fungicides and cannot be used for organic production.

Ask around and do some cursory online searches, and the definition of “organic” seems almost loose enough to sift through your fingers like sandy topsoil.

In the simplest terms, it means cultivation without synthetic chemicals. For some consumers foraging the aisles for high-end arugula, that explanation is enough. Growers, though, face a more challenging row to hoe. 

“It’s about so much more than what you spray or don’t spray, and, in fact, that has little to do with it, compared to other priorities,” says Jack Gurley, who operates Calvert’s Gift Organic Herb and Vegetable Farm in Sparks, Maryland. “It’s a holistic method that starts with and revolves around the soil. Conventional farming regards soil as a substrate that’s there just to hold the plant in place while the farmer gives the plant what it needs from above. Organic farming fortifies and builds up the soil to nourish the plant from below in a way that ultimately leaves the land - and the animals and people dependent on it - in better shape than before.”

With its emphasis on biodiversity, crop rotation and compost, organic gardening takes a reverent, laissez-faire approach to nature’s dynamics, requiring a light touch with the trowel to nudge all of the biological processes toward inter-species cooperation and away from some of our insistent demands. It means we defer, with a tip of the straw hat, to the ecosystem as it is. The idea is that all life forms, from the bacteria on up, work together with as little meddling from us as possible, so manufactured fertilizers, pesticides, growth accelerants and regulators such as hormones and antibiotics, genetic engineering, sewage sludge and irradiation are off limits. 

The same organizing principles apply to ornamental horticulture. (Even notoriously high-maintenance roses respond sweetly to compost.) Many vegetable growers also use flowers and other blossom bearers as companion plants to attract pollinators and add curb appeal.

So growers work with, not against, the proclivities of pests, and they delegate companion crops as trellises, nitrogen fixers and distractions for predators. 

“When a pest comes around, we just don’t plant its target during that period,” Gurley says. “We’ll wait until the insect is dormant to plant, rather than trying to kill off predators. So you do a lot of anticipating and preventing, rather than reaching for the nearest quick fix on a shelf. You’re always thinking ahead at least three or four years into the future when you look at your plots. It’s a long-view, big-picture way of seeing that requires time and observation and patience and intellectual exercise.”

Growers zoom into the smaller picture, too: the microbes, worms and fungi roiling the decaying vegetation and animal tissue that constitute that redolent and all-important “organic matter,” which absorbs moisture and nutrients, fortifying your plants against flooding, drought, disease and predation. 

Of course, for millennia, all agriculture, including its more decorative flounces and boutonnières, adhered to these guidelines by default. The term “organic farming” was coined by Lord Northbourne, who published Look to the Land in 1940 as part of a small but fervent response to the development of mass-produced fertilizers and pesticides. The practices gained momentum with the back-to-the-land environmental movement of the 1970s, but criteria for organic labeling varied from state to state, and even from farm to farm. Growers and consumers began calling for standardization measures, so in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which eventually established inspection and certification protocols enforced by the United States Department of Agriculture and its accredited organizations. 

Farmers must meet these requirements to display a “USDA Organic” label, but many farms, especially smaller ones that might be reluctant to pay the fees involved, adhere scrupulously to the rules and sell their produce without that label - possibly opting for “Naturally Grown” or some other variant - to cooperatives, CSAs, farmers markets and restaurants. What started as an idealistic movement for health and ecology now is driven more by consumers’ voracious demand than supply.

“I’ve seen the organic industry grow by 20 percent every year for the past 30 years, and it’s steadily increasing as we all become more knowledgeable,” says Bill Brammer, owner of Be Wise Ranch in San Diego. A former president of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), he helped draft state and federal legislation that defined industry-wide organic standards. “Now even the conventional farms - the big players - are setting aside part of their land for organics to meet demand, and that is forcing everybody else to increase their quality to compete. Retailers such as Whole Foods and Walmart are stepping into it. So we’ll see more organic farming in the future.” 

Like any dirty business with inherent gambles, its pay-offs prove that much sweeter.

“Once you become attuned to just how much the soil teems with life, you marvel that lifting even a spade-full of dirt disrupts a thousand cycles,” says Crescent Dragonwagon, a food writer and fixture in organics since 1969 and author of several books on the subject, most recently Bean by Bean. “The closer you get to it, the more you see. Still, my favorite line from Thomas Jefferson is: ‘I am an old man but a young gardener.’ You can never learn it all. The way your garden was last year is not how it will be this year. That’s part of the fascinating and humbling wonder of organic gardening – the infinite variation and the generosity of the earth.” 

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