I started growing food because I was reading about agriculture, and I was learning about nature and the ecosystem. The idea of cycling nutrients, using waste products as compost, and encouraging microorganisms in the soil made a lot of sense. Plus, I figured it didn't make sense to put poison on my vegetables if I wanted to eat them. It was very simple, and I've been involved ever since.
As we learn more about the biology of soil, it's clear that it doesn't make sense to use the same chemical fertilizers as conventional farming, which diminishes the diversity of soil life. Instead of encouraging and feeding soil organisms, synthetic fertilizers stress or kill them — and it's really the organisms that help produce reach its full nutritional potential. With organic farming, we turn fertility products like compost into the soil, adding good food for the soil organisms and encouraging biodiversity, which are both really important for the resilience and health of ecosystems.
Not using pesticides also obviously creates challenges that make my job interesting. We're always learning ways to control insects using biological materials. And as a consumer of organic products, I feel good that farm workers on organic farms are not out there breathing in pesticides.
-Bill Duesing, owner of Old Solar Farm, Oxford, Connecticut; executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut
Sustainable farming keeps in mind the health of not just humans but that of the greater ecosystem in which the farm exists. As sustainable farmers, we think about how we can be less harmful to creatures and their habitats, about our water consumption and our water pollution.
A lot of the organic standards that the United States government has designed are more oriented toward avoiding synthetic chemicals; as such, organics is largely focused on the health of the person consuming the food. There isn't a United States regulation on what is sustainable — it's more of a philosophy and lifestyle, and it's slightly different from farmer to farmer. The way I choose to farm is very labor intensive. We do all the work by hand and use cover crops that protect and nourish the soil.
Most of our consumers live within close proximity to the farm; they're part of the same community. They are connected to the farm, and they can bring their children to learn about how food is grown. We don't feel we need a third-party agency standing between us and our customers saying, “This is how they're growing.”
-Nancy Grove, owner of Old Path Farm, Sauquoit, New York
Hydroponics means growing without soil. Some hydroponic farmers use stackers — small growing towers that allow us to grow 20 plants in a place where we would normally have one plant in the ground. It started as kind of a hobby. I had one small growing tower, then it grew to ten, and now I have a 1,400-tower farm. Our farm consists of 21,840 strawberry plants and an extra 4,400 spaces for the various vegetables we grow, as well. All of this sits on two-thirds of an acre and uses approximately less than 1,000 gallons of water a day, which is way less than traditional, soil-based farming. We use a mixture of perlite and vermiculite volcanic ashes, which holds in moisture and the nutrients that we feed plants much better than soil does. Plants that grow in dirt seem to dry out a lot faster and need more fresh water.
We're not certified organic because perlite and vermiculite ashes aren't recognized as organic by the USDA. But we don't use any pesticides or herbicides. The bottom line with hydroponics is that we're using less land, we're not depleting soil, and we use a lot less water than other types of farming.
-Deanna Keiper, co-owner of Bane's Hydroponic Farm, Dade City, Florida