Gardeners beware: Organic not as simple as you may think
Community supported agriculture
Know your farmer.
That's almost more important than the "organic" or "green" label slapped on everything from Dole bananas to the beans grown on a small farm in south central Wisconsin.
Talk to farmers at the farmers market. Or even better, participate in community supported agriculture.
Farmers involved in CSAs provide shares of vegetables, fruits and sometimes even flowers to local buyers for a fixed cost. Often, CSA members can buy organic beef, poultry, lamb, eggs and other kinds of products from the same farmers.
Buyers pick up their weekly shares of food at drop-off points in cities, farmers markets or at the farm itself.
These farmers often encourage visits to their farms and sometimes even let you participate in the harvest. While at their farm, ask what practices they use to manage pests, weeds and disease.
CSAs have been popping up all over south central Wisconsin. A few choices include:
-- Wright Way Farms, 9002 W. County H, Beloit. Contact Denny and Susan Wright, (608) 362-6872, WrightWayFarm@yahoo.com or go thewrightwayfarm.com.
-- Tipi produce, 14706 West Ahara Road, Evansville. Contact Beth Kazmar & Steve Pincus, (608) 882-6196, email@example.com or go to localharvest.org/tipi-produce-M4077.
-- Roots Down Farm, 4146 E. County N, Milton. Contact Kyle Thom (608) 868-1611, firstname.lastname@example.org or go to rootsdowncommunityfarm.com.
-- Wholesome Harvest, W8180 County C, Fort Atkinson. Contact Chris Zastrow (920) 675-6113, email@example.com or go to wholesomeharvestcsa.com.
-- Amazing Grace Family Farm, 1438 N. County H, Janesville. Contact Janet Kassel-Blakeney or Don and Chris Blakeney, (608) 876-6311, firstname.lastname@example.org or go to amazinggracefamilyfarm.com.
-- Scotch Hill Farm, 910 Scotch Hill Road, Brodhead. Contact Dela and Tony Ends, (608) 897-4288, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to scotchhillfarm.com.
JANESVILLE The word "organic" has acquired a halo of unimpeachable goodness.
But gardeners—and consumers—beware: Using organic products requires the same care and discretion as the use of synthetic chemicals.
So how do you know what's best and safest for you, your family and your garden?
The key for gardeners is to evaluate each product, buy products from stores with knowledgeable staff and strongly consider getting a copy of Jeff Gilman's book such as "The Truth about Organic Gardening."
The news that "organic" isn't the same as "safe" might come as a blow to folks who thought the label guaranteed safety. But it's something local organic farmers already knew.
Denny Wright and his wife, Susan, run Wright Way Farms near Beloit. The farm is a community-supported agriculture venture. At the beginning of each growing season, community members buy "shares" in the farm and in return get a season's worth of vegetables.
All of their vegetables are grown using organic practices, and the farm is certified by the Midwest Organic Services Organization.
Denny Wright uses what he calls "holistic systems" to keep his plants healthy. Scientists refer to it as "integrated pest management."
Integrated pest management involves using practices such as rotating crops, integrating compost and "green manure" into the soil, using cover crops and interplanting.
Wright compares it to keeping yourself healthy.
"When kids come out to the farm, I explain it by telling them that you don't give kids only candy to eat, or you don't like them play in the cold," Wright said.
Such habits would lead to illness and require medicine, he tells them.
If you focus on eating a variety of healthy foods, exercising and washing you're hands, you're less likely to get sick and need medicine.
"It's the same thing with plants," Wright said.
That means adding amendments to soil, rotating crops and practicing good plant hygiene.
"There's lots and lots of plant diseases," Wright said. "When I get a disease, I ask myself, ‘What did I do wrong?'"
An example of bad plant hygiene would be planting tomato plants too close together or watering them from the top. Both practices encourage blight.
Patient and thoughtful care of the soil is an important part of integrated pest management.
Wright has sandy fields that he's been preparing for several seasons, plowing under cover crops and adding other amendments to increase the soil health and help it retain water.
Because of their farm's organic certification, the Wrights stay away from all chemicals, even those that are considered "natural" or "organic."
UW Horticulture Agent Mike Maddox said every gardener should own Jeff Gillman's book, "The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks and the Bottom Line."
In the introduction to his book, Gillman, an associate professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota, writes that he believes: "In general, organic gardening has been a boon to society. However, the term organic has been used to promote some practices that while they may be ‘natural' are not necessarily in the best interests of humans, animals or nature."
How can that be?
It turns out that chemicals are chemicals, whether they're natural or synthetic.
Gillman's book looks at products for soil enrichment and weed, disease and insect control. In each case, he reviews products with and without synthetic chemicals. He considers methods that involve no chemicals such as crop rotation, intercropping and watering practices.
He also asks people to consider the "environment impact quotient" for each product they use.
The quotient represents a product's potential impact on the farm worker or consumer and the ecological impact on fish, bees and beneficial insects.
Consider these numbers:
-- Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt, an organic pesticide used to protect broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage, has an EIQ of 13.
-- Sevin, a synthetic product that's used to control a variety of insects, has an EIQ of 22, which is still considered fairly low.
-- Copper sulfate, an organic control for blight and other fungi, has an EIQ of 62.
-- Armicarb, which contains potassium bicarbonate, also is an organic control for black spot and has an EIQ of 8.
Gillman said EIQs aren't perfect but provide a "single coherent value that summarizes the potential risk a chemical application poses both to the environment and us." He said EIQ information isn't meant to "frighten or intimidate you but rather illustrate the fact that pesticides, both natural and synthetic, have a certain degree of risk associated with them."
Patty Bailey runs Patty's Plants, a natural and organic garden supply store in Milton.
Bailey understands that organic products must be treated with the same respect as synthetics.
"Something like herbal oils are totally safer, but it's still not something you want to get on your skin," Bailey said.
Diatamious earth, another highly effective organic product that's considered very safe, should not be inhaled.
She reviews all of her products before putting them on her shelf. Just because a product is approved for use by organic farms and gardens doesn't mean she'll carry it.
Rotenone is one example. It's a highly effective organic pesticide, but Bailey—along with some scientists—have been concerned about a possible link between Parkinson's disease and the pesticide.
Bailey also recognized that products with natural ingredients that are not certified organic could be helpful, too.
She also sells what organic gardeners refer to as beneficial insects. These critters help control the insects that are damaging your vegetables.
The bottom line for Bailey?
"Know what you're buying, and make sure the sales person can explain what it is and what it does," Bailey said.
Author: Bugs can help in garden
In his book, "The Truth about Organic Gardening," University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Horticulture Jeff Gillman considers the benefits and draw backs of synthetic and organic products.
Readers often want to know where he stands.
Here's what he said:
"So who wins, organic or synthetic? This is entirely your decision, but for the record, I'm siding with the organic choices right up until you start looking at the pesticides. Once these things enter the picture, all bets are off for me. In my opinion, the best choice is not to apply any insecticides at all."
So what's a gardener to do? Let the garden be devoured?
Of course not.
Gillman offers several tactics to minimize pesticide use. Many of the techniques are used by local organic farmers.
-- Using floating row covers. Row covers are made of a lightweight material that lets in light and keeps out most insects.
-- Keeping your garden tidy, and cleaning it up in the fall. This reduces the amount of habitat for insects.
-- Hand picking bugs or hosing them off. If you're opposed to squashing bugs with your fingers, drop them in a bucket of soapy water.
-- Using intercropping or "companion planting." Don't plant all the plants from the same family together. For example, potatoes and tomatoes are in the same family. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage are in the same family.
Then, to make it even trickier, for the pests to find your plants, find a list of "companion plants." Gillman recommends Louise's Riotte's "Carrots Loves Tomatoes," but he has reservations. He likes her companion-planting idea, but he isn't crazy about her herbal sprays.
-- Introducing beneficial insects that eat the bugs that are eating your plants. Patty's Plants in Milton sells beneficial insects. They also can be ordered online.
-- Using "good cultural practices." These include not crowding plants and watering the soil—instead of the leaves—of tomatoes and other plants.
-- Rotating crops. Even in a small garden, you don't want to grow the same crop in the same place, year after year.