discussion of “contending philosophies” in Box 1-7.) Organic farming systems represent an expression of the agrarian philosophy and can provide cost data for that position of the spectrum.

  • There is an ongoing database of the numbers and types of certified organic farms, which features their production and marketing characteristics in the United States (USDA-ERS, 2009b; USDA-NASS, 2009) and on a global basis (Willer et al., 2008).

  • Farmers have developed organic cropping systems for most major crop commodities and are located in nearly all major agricultural ecoregions of the United States (USDA-NASS, 2009).

  • While they represent a small portion of total U.S. crop production, organic crop farmers had $1.1 billion in sales from 14,900 farms in 2007 (USDA-NASS, 2009).

As discussed in Chapter 1, many nonorganic farms lie somewhere between the conventional and organic continuum because they include some organic approaches and materials in their farming systems out of concern for the environment, human health, input costs, and other factors (for example, the Bragger Farm, Thompson Farm, and Green Cay Farm in Chapter 7). Yet, because much of the research literature is based on comparisons of a stylized organic farm versus a stylized conventional farm, many comparisons in this section can be considered assessing farms at opposite ends of the continuum. In selecting organic as an alternative example, the committee is in no way implying that U.S. agriculture should completely turn aside from modern, synthetically derived nutrients, pesticides, or pharmaceuticals. The example illustrates, however, the success that farmers have had with an ecological approach and the degree to which it can be environmentally and economically competitive.

Principles and Practices of Organic Farming

Organic farming has evolved over many years since it started in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. Several “schools” of philosophy and practice are used to some extent today, as articulated in an extensive practitioner-written literature over the last 100 years (Harwood, 1990). The principles, in most cases, are consistent with scientific theory for ecosystem functioning (Drinkwater, 2009). Several guidelines for biodynamic systems are outside of present scientific theory. However, the majority of organic farms today are guided by either local or international certification requirements assembled through broad farmer and industry collaboration to regulate the rapidly growing marketplace for organic products. Some practices have been reasonably well researched, while studies on others are sparse. Products of some specialty approaches, such as biodynamic, have local or highly targeted niche markets. The following principles and practices, from popular organic literature, represent popular beliefs and values of practitioner-derived systems:

  • Understanding and managing biological processes to regulate balance, flow, and timing of nutrient levels and availability; achieve pest-predator balance; and maintain healthy and productive crops and animals.

  • Avoiding synthetic chemicals. Organic agriculture does not permit the use of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. An organic management approach needs to go beyond substitution of chemical inputs by approved organic inputs and needs to include the principles and practices explained here.

  • Building healthy soil. Organic farming focuses on building healthy and fertile soil that has high microbial activity, is rich with beneficial and diverse microorganisms,

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