The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to American life, drawing more and more people off the farm and into cities. The internal combustion engine allowed tractors to take over the work of horses (and many field hands). The development of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides did away with the need for expensive and time consuming land management practices and increased the productivity of farms run by fewer and fewer people. In the 19th century, for example, the ideal size of the family farm was 160 acres, the basis for the size of claims in the Homestead Act. By the end of the 20th century, the size had increased to over 400 acres, with each acre increasing in its productivity.
Science, it seemed, had solved the problem of supplying our ever-growing cities with food.
Or had it? Already in 1926, Sir Albert Howard began studying the relationship of healthy soils and healthy communities while in India and found their “traditional” agricultural practices superior to the industrialized agriculture of the West. He went on to develop organic farming techniques and influenced other scientists and farmers. In 1942, Jerome Rodale introduced the magazine “Organic Farming and Gardening,” with Sir Albert Howard serving as his associate editor. The Victory Gardens of World War II brought gardening back to the masses, and “Organic Farming and Gardening” brought knowledge of organic principles into the mainstream.
Well, almost, anyway.
Today, we have less faith in the science and technology that has brought us incredible yields at a lower cost. The demand for chemical free food is growing as awareness of the potential dangers of long term exposure increases. With this has come a standardization of practices and a legal definition of what can be considered “organic.” From the USDA National Standards Board Definition (1995):
Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
While I doubt many of my readers are interested in actually becoming certified organic growers in order to put more healthy salads on their tables, it is important to note that the legal definition of the term “organic” refers only to food, and not even all types of food. The use of the term for honey or seafood, for example, is not regulated. It is up to the producer to decide what organic means in these cases, and oftentimes their practices are no different than standard agricultural practices. The law also does not define what organic means for garden products so do not assume that because a fertilizer or pesticide is labeled organic that it is any different from any other fertilizer or pesticide on the market.
The most important aspect of organic gardening is its attention to the health of the soil and the chemical free approach to pest management. There is a lot more to maintaining a healthy garden, however, than a good compost pile and refraining from spraying any chemicals. It is a whole system of management, emphasizing the integration of cultural, biological and mechanical practices. And even if you plan to spray for garden pests because you just can’t bear to lose any more cucumbers, your garden will benefit from implementing other organic practices.
Organic gardening really is about good gardening . . . good stewardship, of our land, which oftentimes makes spraying unnecessary because a healthy plant has its own defenses against pests and disease.