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Organic farms suffering mudslides

By Dennis Avery
web posted September 10, 2007

A new danger has beset the nation's struggling organic farms—too much rain. Hundreds of organic farms in southwestern Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota were drenched by a foot of rain in late August. The heavy downpour washed out plantings, eroded soil, and damaged fences and buildings. The owner of Wisconsin's Harmony Valley Farm estimated his damages at $300,000.

"We have a lot of steep, hilly county and we've had a lot of mudslides," said Tom Van Der Linden, a nearby agent for the Minnesota Extension Service.

Now let me get this straight. Organic farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota have concentrated themselves on steep, hilly land that is prone to mudslides? That's a bad idea, given that organic farms already refuse to use the low-till farming systems that protect soil most effectively. The low-till systems depend on herbicides to control choking weeds, but the organic farmers won't use "synthetic" pesticides. They choose, instead, to use the old bare-earth farming systems, with plows and mechanical cultivators that invite erosion.

It sounds to me as though the organic farmers have chosen the wrong land. Disasters like this won't happen often, but mudslides even one year out of 50 is too much for good soil health. Perhaps we need a code of conduct for organic farmers that would bar organic plantings on steep slopes likely to produce mudslides after heavy rains. The county extension agents should readily be able to identify the classes of land suitable for the increased risks of organic production.

Otherwise, the public is being set up to make all kinds of "emergency" payments to organic farmers who had been preparing to sell their produce for "organic premiums" on the high-priced shelves of Whole Foods Markets. The public shouldn't be on the hook for such risky premium-seeking. After all, the organic growers keep bragging that their farming system is more sustainable and more "earth friendly" than conventional farming.

Europe is already caught up in this nonsense. The Cooperative Wholesale Association testified to the British House of Lords in 1999 that weeds were a special problem for organic farmers. Indeed, too often the weeds took over the fields, choking out the crops. The farmer then had to plow down his crop to prevent the weeds from going to seed and ruining the next year's crop as well. The Association said this was "no problem for the farmer, because the EU government compensates the farmers for their weed losses."

We need to remember that the world is short of good cropland. We're already farming 37 percent of the earth's land area, and most of the high-quality land is already cropped. By 2050, we'll need twice as much farm output for more than 8 billion affluent people demanding meat, milk and pet food. The organic farms already lose about half of their crop potential because they refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer and the more effective synthetic pesticides. They're already suing conventional farmers for "pollen pollution," from biotech seeds. Now they're starting to campaign for "disaster payments" on mudslides and weeds.

With the higher yields of conventional farms, we can leave the steep hillsides for wildlife habitat. Shouldn't that be our environmental goal? ESR

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.


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