Organic, Conventional, or Sustainable?

Student Researcher and Writer: Alyson Campbell Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams, PhD Saint Michaels College December 15, 2015 “To be interested in food,” Wendell Berry once explained, “but not in food production...
Garden Picture
Photo by Rachel Proctor

Student Researcher and Writer: Alyson Campbell

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams, PhD

Saint Michaels College

December 15, 2015

“To be interested in food,” Wendell Berry once explained, “but not in food production is absurd.” When it comes to buying food, personal values play a huge role in the decision making process. Do we value the local economy, organic produce, environmentally sustainable practices? The list goes on, but knowing where the food is coming from is the first step, and it all starts in the soil.

Soil is the second largest carbon sink on Earth, after our oceans. Carbon sinks are defined as a part of the natural environment that absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The United States accounted for about 15 percent of the global carbon dioxide emissions in 2013 which amounted to more than 36 billion metric tons, a number which has grown about 35 percent since 1995, according to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. Unsustainable farming practices release anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of carbon in soil into the air, which then contributes to climate change. Experts at Saint Michael’s College, a small private Catholic college in Colchester, Vermont, are passionate about educating and exercising organic, sustainable farming practices that not only plateau carbon releases, but soak up more carbon and diminish it.

The recycling building on St. Michael’s North Campus does not seem like any place for an office, but it is indeed the Office of Sustainability. Three large recycling dumpsters line a brick structure, leading to a propped open door that reveals a dark room with piles of furniture. A white sign to the left sticks out and reads “Heather Lynch” to confirm that it is indeed her office. Lynch, the coordinator of the Office of Sustainability, started working at St. Michael’s in 2008, and since then she’s created a small quarter acre organic garden. For her, choosing organic was a no brainer.

Lynch explains organic farming as a way of treating the land properly by “not putting harmful inorganic chemicals into the soil that are then going to run off and harm the surrounding environment, let alone the people that are eating that food,” Lynch notes. “Whatever chemicals you put into the ground are taken up by the plants and then you consume that. It’s being responsible about how you’re utilizing the land and what you’re producing from it.”

Organic farming includes some practices that are better for the land, the plants and their consumers than conventional farming, but “organic” is only one type of practice. If we look at the larger picture to include a holistic view of the land and our food system, we open a whole toolbox of sustainable agriculture practices. This opens up the conversation beyond just how we grow food to how do we create a lasting environmentally sustaining food system.

St. Michael’s has acquired another 1.7 acres of land for what is going to be called a permaculture site meaning that some of the food system will be regenerative and self-maintained. In order to keep up with the expansion of the garden program, Kristyn Achilich was hired to run this new project. Achilich has a passion for educating students about how to grow nutritious vegetables through sustainable methods. She received her B.S. in Biology from St. Michael’s College in 2005, and received her Masters of Science in Food Systems from the University of Vermont. She currently serves as the co-chair for the education and workforce development working group, part of the state-wide Farm to Plate Network and is also completing her Masters of Education in curriculum, instruction and assessment at St. Michael’s College.

“If you are a certified organic farm it doesn’t mean that you don’t use a tractor, that you don’t till your soil and that you don’t add fertilizer,” Achilich explains. “You can do all of those things and you can use some pesticides also. Those pesticides are often natural derivatives of something instead of a chemical pesticide. However,” she concludes, “fossil fuels are still used to produce these necessary farm inputs and the process of tilling releases sequestered carbon from the soil.”

The make-up of fertilizers and pesticides might be different “organic” versus “conventional,” but the carbon cost that goes into producing, packaging and transporting fertilizers and pesticides might not differ all that much. With organic farming, the inputs are cleaner, but the manufacturing of the inputs still have a carbon cost.

Some argue that organic and sustainable farming practices create lesser yields than conventional farming. However, according to a study done by Lauren Ponisio, a graduate student in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, “Today’s well-managed sustainable agriculture yields nearly as much as conventional equivalents, suggesting that it is possible to farm sustainably without sacrificing yields and, therefore, profits.”

Farming over time

According to Achilich, industrialized agriculture came out of the industrial era that overlapped with World War II. During this time, new technology was developed to mass produce food and sell it for a lower price. For a wife whose husband was at war and still had a house full of children to feed, this cheaper, more convenient option was very appealing. By way of the increased mechanization, society made a shift from sustainable to industrial agriculture.

“It’s important to change our food system because it has significant environmental and human impacts the way it is currently structured,’’ said Jason Niebler, director of the Sustainable Agriculture Education Initiative at Seattle Central Community College.

The convenience factor is what keeps industrialized agriculture alive, but Lynch explains that “conventional agriculture is going to ruin our food system and we’re going to have a lot of hungry people so we need to change it really quickly.” This is where organic and sustainable practices come into play.

Sustainable practices at St. Michael’s

The three biggest ways to practice sustainable agriculture are to use crop variation and rotation, cover crop open soils, and reduce tilling practice.

Imagine acres and acres of land covered in one crop. You may have never thought anything of it before, but what mono cropping does is extract the same nutrients from the soil that are needed to produce that one crop. Therefore, the soil is being depleted of the same nutrients time and time again. This is called “monoculture.” This method will grow a healthy crop for a while, but not forever. In order to grow a healthy nutrient-filled crop forever, you need nutrient dense soil. This can be achieved through crop variation and rotation.

“If you played field hockey year round, your body would be beat,” Achilich said. “But if you play field hockey in the fall, and run track in the spring and either take the winter off or cross country ski, your body is well tuned.” Achilich explains the same idea applies to crops. The farm first needs to grow a variety of crops that take up different nutrients from the soil, and then throughout the season, they need to switch the locations of those crops to rest and replenish nutrients. It is essential for crop variation and rotation to know what nutrients the vegetables need and what nutrients the soil has to give. “Tomatoes are heavy feeders that take up a ton of nutrients from the soil versus lettuce which is a light feeder and doesn’t take as much nutrients,” Lynch said. “If you keep the tomatoes in the same spot it’s going to deplete that soil. So we swap them around, musical chairs, musical soil.”

In the new site at St. Michael’s, there are going to be a variety of trees planted that will produce a crop every year. This is considered the permaculture section because it is setting up a growing space that will continue to grow food by only disrupting the soil once. There will also be a section dedicated to attracting pollinators to the garden such as honey bees, wasps, and butterflies. Rather than spraying organic pesticides, these insects naturally keep bad pests away. In addition, an organic vegetable garden with a variety of crops will be included, as well. Although each of these individual pieces to the greater whole have organic, sustainable practices within them, looking at the bigger picture is what really makes the site sustainable. The diversity found within the 1.7 acres is what will lead to a long-lasting food production site.

Cover cropping also helps create a more sustainable food system. To avoid losing nutrients, cover the soil by pairing a grain with a legume: oats and peas in the summer, for instance, and rye and vetch in the cooler off months. This is used during the off-season (if there is one) to keep the soil ready for the next season. Without cover cropping, the wind can easily sweep away all of the nutrients in the top soil, or the rain can pound on it and the nutrients will run off. “Rye produces a lot of biomass and it sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere into the soil and makes that carbon available next year for the plants to grow. And the vetch sequesters nitrogen into the soil,” Achilich said.

Tilling is the process of fluffing up the soil by turning it upside down, and though occasionally needed, it usually releases carbon from the soil. Soil is not just dirt, it is full of life forms that give the plants nutrients. When this ecology is flipped upside down, it is hard to dish out nutrients in the same way.

“Having that life form in your soil is what makes nutrients available to your plants, so when you till them and flip everything over, it’s like rocking your house,” Achilich said. “You’ve turned everything over you can no longer dry your hair in the morning because your hair dryer ended up in the basement.”

The reason why this happens is because the most nutritious layers of soil are the top three horizons, but when you mix in the bottom layers, the nutrients aren’t as readily available. According to Achilich, changes to the tilling process from flipping to stirring are in the works. The stirring motion is apparently better to reduce the release of carbon, as well as maintain the soil ecology.

St. Michael’s has a gas powered tiller, but they are conscious of using it very minimally, according to Lynch. They also have another tool called a broad fork that operates manually and can sometimes replace the need to run the tiller.

So, how do we have an impact?

Educating college students about organic and sustainable agriculture is crucial, because if some of us aren’t already, we are on the brink of buying our own food. Not to mention that as we get older, the more we can educate and influence those around us, such as our parents, to make those buying choices as well.

Walking through the grocery store, you’ll see a variety of labels using the term “organic.” For instance, you might see: “organic,” “100% organic,” “made with organic materials,” and “contains organic materials.” When overwhelmed with the several labels, common sense could help you in your purchasing decision. If it is an organic banana, it is most likely 100% organic. But if it is organic chocolate chip banana bread, it could say made with or contains organic materials meaning that maybe only the bananas were organic.

“Some folks get caught up in “organic” because all they are ever see is the label at the grocery store,” Achilich said. “They don’t really understand how that food was grown/produced. That’s really where your carbon footprint begins.”

Most college students would argue that organic foods are more expensive, so they choose the less expensive option. Lynch argues, “If you’re looking long term, investing now in really healthy regenerative food system that will not die and that you’re then not eating not healthy vegetables that you’re then going to have health issues in the long run, paying those doctor bills.”

Some things are more crucial to buy organic than others. For example, a banana that is protected by a peel from any chemical pesticides or fumes from a tractor is more okay to buy non-organic than salad greens that exposed all the time. However, keep in mind that we vote with our dollar every time we are in the grocery store. So we need to think about what message we are relaying to those producing our food. Personal values come through with where you place your dollar.

Achilich said, “We are so separated as a consumer from what it takes to grow food. That is our effort and our mission in the garden is to educate young people.”

The practices we see exercised in the gardens at St. Michael’s College go along with the mission of the college. “For me, for the sustainability program at St. Mike’s, it’s thinking about the mission of the college: social justice, caring for one another, caring for our community,” Lynch concludes. “What bigger community is there than the planet? And if we’re not acting in ways that really care for it, respect it, what are we doing?”

Campbell is a junior at Saint Michael’s College majoring in Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts.

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