Energy and Organic Farming

Owner of Schuler Farms in Caledonia, Michigan. Organic farming.
View more information about Bruce Schuler.

Transcript: (Recorded 4.22.13) How would you define organic? It’s easy to say, “pesticide-free.” Is there a broader definition of it?

Bruce: There are a lot of definitions for organic. Organic, to me, is a partnership with nature. It’s working in tune with nature. It’s a holistic system. And it has to be done kind of carefully. It’s done with lower-tech inputs, a lot less fossil fuel, and a little more labor than conventional farming. I guess basically organic farming is a holistic system where everything is connected. And no matter what you do, there’s going to be an outcome for it. And you have to plan on that. What are the energy imputs that you’d see in a more conventional farm? You’re growing vegetables in California —.

Organic farming systems reduce the dependence of farmers on energy, basically oil and gas. You know, we need a little gas to put in our trucks and such, but we don’t use a ton of fuel. And the inputs that we’re putting in the ground are all naturally derived. They’re mined or dug up. But they all exist naturally on the earth. They don’t have to be created synthetically. The largest and most readily measured differences are associated with the energy required to manufacture, ship, and apply pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers. That kind of says it in a nutshell. They put a lot of their energies into creating their fertilizers. A lot of money, a lot of the oil cost and energy cost goes into building the fertilizers and then getting them to the site, and then distributing them. That’s the main difference, in my opinion. What are the elements? What are those two options? One of them’s lengthening your seasons. One of them is a bigger farm. What’s the trade off?

Bruce: In organic farming, you don’t need a whole lot of land. What you do need is a lot of intensive energy to farm the land you have and to keep it always in production. Organic farming is more of a cyclical process, meaning it’s always in play. The soil is always in play. No matter what month it is, there’s something to be doing to do the soil to make it better for what you’re trying to grow. Organic agriculture is the oldest form of agriculture in the world. Before the ‘20s, before World War II, that’s all there was, was organic agriculture. And then in World War II BASF invented… They found ways in their bomb-making procedures to invent fertilizers that work for agriculture, like anhydrous and such. And that changed everything. So at least most everybody went down that path. But before any of that was going on, what was called organic farming… What’s called organic farming now, basically, back then was just called good farming practices. Things like crop rotation, animal manures, green manures, cover crops, just all the basic things that a farmer would do if he didn’t have access to modern-day chemicals. That’s basically what we’re doing is going back to age-old methods that have worked forever. Tell me about the preparation-of-the-soil issue and how it relates to energy.

Bruce: Well, the preparation of the soil for organic farming is basically just using a lot of processes that happen in nature. You’re just enhancing the biological processes. You’re bringing in animal manures and bringing in minerals and rocks to make the soil more of an ecosystem for whatever lives in there. You’re building a world in the soil. And that is kind of the premise of organic farming, is building up the soil so the soil will feed… You’re feeding the soil so the soil will feed the plants. And you spend a lot of time working on your soils, making sure they’re healthy, keeping them covered with cover crops in the winter so the worms can stay alive underneath there and the funguses can stay alive. And just keeping everything in play all the time. If I’m a farmer, I would think, “Well, I’ve got to buy a petroleum-based pesticide, petroleum‑based fertilizers. And then I have to use my petroleum-based tractor.” That would seem to be more expensive. What’s the cost differential? What is that about?

Bruce: The cost differential is, in conventional farming, there’s a lot more output. But the output isn’t necessarily the same type of output you would get in an organic farm. The yields are way higher. But what you are yielding is different than the organic situation. Because plants are real responsive to nitrogen. In the organic world, we use quite a bit… One of our goals is to use a lot less fossil fuels to run our operation. We’d like to keep it as stripped as possible with electricity, gas, and oil. So our main focus is trying to utilize the sun and get the biggest advantage we can from either lengthening the time of photosynthesis or making it bigger, getting more land. So usually we try to lengthen it, because there’s only so much land, by expanding our seasons.

We definitely know the price of gas is going to keep going up. So the profit model, if you’re using a lot of fuel, is going to get dicey, I think. So people are going to have to figure out how to grow their vegetables in smaller spaces and more aggressively. And it only makes sense to do that organically. Nature works. Nature’s the best model.

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