Flossing Your Way to Organic Health: Musings on the Ethics of Organically Approved Pesticides  (and why you should visit the dentist)

Becky Maden is the Assistant Farm Manager at Intervale Community Farm (ICF), a thriving member-owned CSA farm in its 21st season of growing organic produce in Burlington, Vermont. Becky has worked on several diverse vegetable farms throughout the country and around the world. At ICF, Becky is either found in the greenhouse, on a tractor, or jogging between the two. She also writes the farm newsletter, Bottom Land News. In her time spent away from the farm, Becky loves to travel, write, bike, run, ski, and cook bounteous meals with glorious produce.

When I first began flirting with farming, it was closely tied to my commitment to a natural and organic lifestyle.  It came about at the same time that I stopped washing my hair regularly, sprinkled nutritional yeast on my popcorn, and stopped visiting the dentist. But after six years of using baking soda or tea tree oil toothpaste, my teeth were in sorry shape.  Apparently, despite all of that healthy nutritional yeast, my blind rejection of what I considered conventional dental care had cost me.  Rejecting one system of care leaves behind a vacuum, and I learned that my assumption that nature would simply take over when convention was left behind was naïve and negligent of me.

Similarly, it didn’t take me long to understand that rejecting conventional approaches to agriculture requires a degree of understanding that is sophisticated, attentive, and scientific.  Furthermore, it is not always clear which “organic” materials align with the integrity and philosophy of a farm business.  For the years I’ve been farming, it’s been a very slow road to gradually learning the complex decision making involved in what materials we use to manage pests and diseases on our Certified Organic farm.  As in my dental health decisions, I admit that 15 years into all of this, I have grown less radical, but just as I value having healthy teeth above all else, I also want to manage a farm that is sustainable in a profitable sense as well as an environmental sense, and one step to achieving this sustainability involves unraveling the ethics of our decisions as organic farmers.

Intervale Community Farm Tomato harvest at the Intervale Community Farm

In my view, the intention of organic agriculture is to create a healthy system that is robust and resilient to pest and disease issues.  But despite many of our best efforts, the truth is that planting two acres of butternut squash or one acre of salad mix is never going to be a fully healthy, balanced system simply because the volume of food we are growing defies the principles of a balanced ecosystem.  We can’t just plant even a small mono crop and assume that just because we have a rich soil, healthy transplants, or that we’ve even “zone-tilled” and planted directly into our rye cover crop, we are escaping the problems with weeds, pests, or diseases.   The question for us is two-fold; first, how to consistently improve our farm health to be less vulnerable to problems, and second, how do we manage the problems within the bounds of our organic farming principles.

According to the Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) standards, a vegetable producer must first implement the following disease control measures:

  • Resistant varieties
  • Rotations
  • Plant spacing
  • Raised beds to improve drainage
  • Sanitation and removal of diseased plant materials
  • Control of insect and weed vectors

The standards further state that, “Only when the above practices are insufficient, a producer may use biological or botanical substances or a synthetic substance from the National List.”

The National (OMRI) List of approved materials ranges from relatively benign products to some that require careful application and can be dangerous to humans, animals, or the environment.  On our farm, we diligently try to implement our best farming practices before we resort to any sprays.  Generally, we struggle most with Colorado potato beetle control and diseases on our onions and it is these problems that are most commonly sprayed for on our farm.  However, the moment we realize we need to spray our potatoes, eggplant, or onions, I feel stirrings of discomfort.  First of all, the fact that we have a problem that requires a quick fix alerts me to an overall weakness in our system.  Perhaps our crop rotation needs more attention, or perhaps our sanitation practices need improving. Perhaps the fertility in our soil is lacking so the plants are weak and vulnerable.  Perhaps our horticultural practices, like plant spacing or plastic mulch, have contributed to problems.  Or perhaps we ought to be communicating more with the many neighboring farmers and gardeners about how we can all keep diseases and pests at bay.

Beyond the deep questioning of how we ought to avoid fundamental causes of the problem, I find myself examining the ethics of the actual material that we choose to apply.  I struggle with this on several levels: first, my farmer-self who wants to protect her crops comes into conflict with my eco-self, who wants nothing to do with spraying anything, particularly materials manufactured by big agro-chemical companies (as many organically approved sprays are).   Secondly, I examine the ethics of what we apply to our crops from the standpoint of our customers (we are fully transparent about our farming practices with them), many of whom are philosophically opposed to the companies that manufacture many of the organic spray materials.  Finally, the fundamental ethic of importing a material onto our farm seems counterproductive to our long-term goals of sustainability.  Even the small amount of spraying we do implies a reliance on fossil fuels in the production, packaging, transportation, and application of the materials.  It seems to me that we ought to figure out how to grow potatoes without this dependency, but at this point, we have few other options for Colorado potato beetle control on our farm.

Example of a boom sprayer. (Photo credit: University of Georgia)

All of this said, the weight I throw into thinking about the ethics of our organic fungicide and pesticide applications is far out of proportion to the weight it holds on our particular farm.  We use our boom sprayer from 6 to 15 times per season (more often in years when late blight is a threat) and our expenditures on organic chemicals is less than 0.3% of our total budget.  We spent as much money on having our dumpster emptied or on renting a port-a-let as we do on organic spray materials.  I ought to feel as concerned about our impact on the landfill or where the blue material from the port-a-potty ends up as I do about purchasing a few gallons of organic sprays each year.

Sometimes what we fear most is incongruous with the weight it holds in actuality, like people won’t swim in the ocean because they are scared of sharks but are perfectly comfortable driving on the highway each day.  Likewise, I know that I could be a better environmental steward in so many bigger ways than in examining the occasions when we load up a sprayer tank with a chemical to combat or prevent a problem on a crop.  But truthfully, there’s no way for me to comfortably stomach the fact that each jug we buy of the organically approved material Entrust means dollars heading to Dow AgroSciences, even if it is a tiny part of our budget and a much less significant amount of money for them.  It’s still symbolic of how far we have to go to be a fully sustainable organic farm, and it also signifies the dependency we have on the companies that we like to believe we are separate from.  Perhaps this is a reminder for me to understand that in rejecting so much of conventional agriculture, we must fill in that gap with an open-minded but scientific comprehension of how to grow delicious, beautiful food in a long-term, sustainable manner.  It’s just like going to the dentist and being reminded that flossing every night doesn’t mean you’ve subscribed to some conventional philosophy, but is instead the best way to prevent trouble.   If only farming were that simple…