2014-08-17

A stroll through the topic of Organic vs Conventional Methodologies...

So the initial question is:  If I were to take my 150 acres and move to organic soil maintenance methodologies of growing my rotating crops of corn, beans and wheat, what would be available to me to use for fertilizer and soil amendments?  

What follows are rambling observations I made while trying to answer this question.  ( I still do not have a definitive answer).

I took about two hours looking into this thus far.  My parameters are fairly loose.  I target "Wisconsin", "organic", "fertilizer" in my searches and see where that takes me.  When approaching the question of organics, I am of course somewhat biased in that I think in terms of 'my farm'.  Questions regarding availability, volume, application methods, application costs, equipment requirements etc... all factor in pretty heavily when sub-consciously analyzing information.

One thing I notice is that the the 'method' of thinking about fertilizer is very different between organic and mainstream(conventional).  While this may seem obvious, I think it worthwhile pointing out that there are more nuanced(subtle?) implications.

The mainstream deals in component parts, attempting to balance nutrients for uptake with individual elements targeted at a 'known' formula (NPK for example) based on specific plant development time-lines.  The target/measurement is production/yield of end product with soil health discussed as sort of a medium for transfer of nutrients.  Soil is treated as a delivery mechanism.

In contrast, the organic approach is targeted at the soil itself,  Measurements are of the soil(in terms of quality/health), with production/yield discussed as a derivative of active soil maintenance.

To say it another way, the organic discusses feeding the soil, whereas conventional talks about feeding the plant.

It seems to me that a major portion of the challenge organic faces is that we(in general) don't have an economic dialect with which to articulate the differences and similarities between the two methodologies.  We discuss organic methods in the language of conventional methods in context of the economic perspective.  We need a 'dialect' which encompasses both, with sub-dialects for each I think.  I suppose all three of those have been developing along the way, but that there is a long ways to go, and the organic method is steeped in a more broad philosophy whereas conventional is basically steeped in terms of money/efficiency.  This gives organic a tough row to hoe, so to speak, in terms of becoming a good economic alternative.  We really don't have a good language for discussing the contrast.

Interestingly, from the consumer perspective, there is not much dialogue  about conventional methods at all.  Consumer goes to store, buys stuff, consumes stuff and might discuss price a bit.  A lot is hidden(or assumed as compared to actively hidden) and the consumer likes it that way for the most part.  There is plenty of dialogue about organic(and other descriptives such as sustainable) on the other hand.  A search on "organic farm products" will bring up numerous hits that match the target of the search pretty clearly.  In contrast, try searching on "conventional farm products" and the results are almost meaningless in their seemingly random diversity.  Consumers don't think(they assume) a great deal about what they purchase(value) on regular basis.  When they take an interest in thinking about it, however, the available information requires a whole different set of 'search' parameters or study methods.  There does not seem to be a common language mapping between products derived from conventional methods to those derived from organic methods.

I noticed that there seems to be more focus on organic fertilization in developing countries than in developed ones.  The developed countries have lots of 'data' type information; studies, white papers and targeted experimental work.  The developing countries seem to be more 'hands-on' in their approach.  I am sure there are numerous reasons for this which could be easily listed, but the contrast itself is notable to me.

One thing that occurred to me is that the term 'precision' agriculture is easier for me to grasp within the context of conventional methods as compared to organic methods.  Conventional, while not simple, provides for clear breakdowns of component elements that result in good yields assuming other factors are considered(soil type, weather zones, crop, hybrid, etc...).  Organic method/tasks are much harder for me to 'picture' because one is dealing with a more complex and involved system.  Conventional methods 'simplify' method tasks because the goal(measurement) is very specific(yield).  There are a lot fewer measurements/tasks involved in conventional methodologies than in organic methodologies.  To say it another way: Organic methodologies seem to require a more 'holonic' (roughly meaning inclusive in this context) approach whereas conventional methodologies make use of targeted, isolated specialized approaches.  Yet another way of contrasting would be to say the conventional method is more binary whereas organic is analogue(sort of multi-wave sinusoidal).

Without question, there is an entire economic, physical and political infrastructure established around conventional methods.  Organic must compete while attempting to template itself on top of these infrastructures.  Intermediate scaffolding is really not in place to encourage the development of adaptations which would allow successful template-ing.  Additionally, there is a built in impediment in our current attitudes:  Go to many of the major suppliers of agricultural equipment and other suppliers, and see how many are "addressing the challenges of feeding a growing population".  This is clearly a statement reflecting a focus on capacity and volume issues being at the forefront of the global food security concerns.  Organic however, is discussed in terms of 'quality' and 'sustainability' which does not line up well at all with the 'accepted global issues'.

There is a subtext in the contrast of these two methodologies that revolves around 'time' as well.  Conventional methods attempt to reduce the amount of time required/volume produced.  Organic methodologies by comparison oft times simply state that 'more time' and 'greater effort' is involved in producing the end product.  Time and effort are substantial concerns from a producers 'personal' perspective.  This gets not only into the economic equations of efficiency, but also into the 'life-style' choices when looking at choosing between methods.  Many conventional farmers live pretty much the same as the salaried employee when it comes to life-style.  That is not likely to be the case for those who choose the organic methodology.... .