“Your Typical Organic Farmer”

Posted on March 22, 2013

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Quick, have a look at these two pictures and tell me which one is the organic farmer:

guy in a suit

Chances are, you picked the one on the right. You’d be correct. Of course, you’d be equally correct if you picked the one on the left, too. That’s because they’re both older photos of me. That’s not usually how we see it though, is it?

A few conversations in real life and on Twitter over the past week or so have got me thinking about perceptions and identity; the things that divide us, and the things that unite us. There’s a hotly-debated anthropological theory which states that diversity within groups exceeds diversity between groups, and I certainly think it applies to the farm community.

Our Commonalities > Our Differences

Basically, the concept is that an organic farmer may well have more in common with her conventionally-farming neighbour to one side than she will with another organic farmer living across the road. It’s not hard to imagine: after all, they may both be milking cows, while the farmer across the road is growing vegetables. In my work, I am often asked to describe a “typical organic farmer” or a “typical organic farm.” I used to stumble over the answer as images of all the farms and farmers I know tumbled through my head. Now, if the questioner is not from a farm background, I’ll reply that there is no “typical” organic farm or farmer. And if the person inquiring knows farming (and I’m feeling a little cheeky), I’ll shoot back, “what’s a typical conventional farm look like?” Either way, people usually get the point: the diversity within the organic farming community is just as great as the diversity within the non-organic farming community.

I’m not trying to suggest that there are no significant differences between organic and conventional farms: organic farms operate according to a set of principles and abide by a set of standards which gives them a very different set of tools to work with, and this usually necessitates a new approach to dealing with challenges (indeed, an organic farm’s success is often defined by how well they can shift their mindset). But the fundamental concepts of agriculture remain the same, and the challenges that must be addressed are largely similar. Organic and conventional farms often share similar goals, too – they just choose different paths to reach them.

The Risks of Division

There’s an unfortunate tendency among certain groups and people (and I’ve probably fallen victim to it a few times myself) to attempt to draw a clear line between “conventional” farmers and “organic” farmers, as if they were separate species of agriculturalists with nothing to learn or gain from one another. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Having grown up on conventional dairy and cash crop farms, I cringe at the mistakes that some new organic farmers make when they’re just getting started; the costly lessons that could have been learned by simply listening to some of their more established neighbours. Too often , they assume that their neighbours have no useful advice to offer simply because they are “not organic.” The reality, of course, is that certain basic concepts are common to all of agriculture (organic livestock are no more likely to respect poorly-maintained fences than non-organic livestock for example!). Furthermore, many of these farmers probably carry knowledge of the “pre-chemical” era – I’ve gleaned some great kernels of organic farming wisdom by listening to my father describe how my grandfather operated his farm, and then applying those concepts using the knowledge and technology available today.

It’s not a one-way street, of course: organic farmers, especially newcomers, are often not trusted nor welcomed by the “old boys club” and their ideas are dismissed outright. The reality is that the rookies’ unprejudiced perspectives and non-traditional backgrounds could yield new insights into farm management; I think this is particularly the case when it comes to marketing. Necessity being the mother of invention, some of the restrictions imposed by organic standards also serve as a catalyst for the development of new products and technologies that can benefit all farmers.

Thankfully, I see these barriers breaking down, and as the number of organic farmers grow, the old divisions are starting to fade. At the same time, a renewed emphasis on soil health and reduced input costs are driving more and more farmers to adopt practices like cover cropping and composting which were once considered the domain of organic growers. And the explosion of computer-related technologies like smartphones, GPS guidance systems, and RFID devices can benefit organic and conventional producers alike.

Shifting Identities

Perhaps the greatest unrecognized irony of the perceived division between organic and conventional farmers is that the majority of organic producers today have come from conventional farming backgrounds! And in certain sectors, the most likely source of new organic producers will continue to be conventional producers who make the transition. Once again, it’s not always a one-way street: recent market developments in parts of the country also show a shift in acres from organic back to non-organic production. All farmers need to be careful: the practices you criticize today may be the ones you are using tomorrow!

The bottom line: don’t fall for the divisive tactics of extremists on either end of the spectrum.  Farmers make up less than 2% of the population, and we need to stick together whenever we can. I’m not going to agree with everything that my conventionally-farming friends will do, and I don’t expect them to agree with me all the time either. I’ve probably got different priorities and concerns for the future than some, but we probably share a great many goals and desires, too. The key is to have respect and strive for understanding, recognizing that if we all take a step toward each other, the common ground will appear beneath our feet.

Thanks for reading – let me know what you think!

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Posted in: Agriculture