3 Reasons Growing The Same Crop Every Year Is Bad For Organic Farms

A monoculture is a bad thing, even if it's organic.

December 14, 2017
farmer with wheat crop
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Close your eyes and imagine a farm. Chances are, you imagined the classic family farm: a little ecosystem that feeds the livestock, the farmer, his family, and maybe creates enough surplus to take to market.

While this was once the norm, today it's higher-yield conventional monoculture farms—particularly those producing animal feed crops like corn and soy—that have taken the place of these traditional polyculture farms in the United States. And that trend is extending to the growing organic food market (around $47 billion at last count), with an increased instance of “organic monoculture” farms, something that Mark Kastel, co-founder of the organic watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute, says is a contradiction in terms.

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“They’re not organic!” he says, noting that not only do monocultures skirt the rules of the organic regulations; they are unsustainable in the long-term, chiefly because, as Casey Holland, farmer at Chispas Farm points out, they go contrary to the way that plants grow in nature. “If you look in a forest or if you're looking at a prairie, there are hundreds if not thousands of different species all growing in tandem with each other and supporting each other in all of these really unique ways that make that system thrive,” Holland explains.

(Whether you're starting your first garden or switching to organic, Rodale's Basic Organic Gardening has all the answers and advice you need—get your copy today!)

By purposefully growing the same crop on the same land year in and year out, a farmer is contributing to a number of problems he then has to find a way to resolve, sometimes via solutions that go against the organic mindset in a big way. Here are 3 reasons why monocultures are a bad thing, even if they're organic. 

1. Monocultures require more chemicals.

Insects are part of any ecosystem, but when a farmer is attempting to produce food to consume or sell, seeing his radish crop become a buffet for the harlequin beetle is problematic. On an organic polyculture farm, however, farmers have a built-in solution: imitating the ecosystem created by nature by planting a variety of crops, attracting pests away from their food sources.

 

“You’re kind of creating a balance,” says Holland. “Once you create a really healthy ecosystem, those pests are now a food source for all those beneficial insects that you have.”

Of course, properly executing this technique is complex. “For biocontrol against many insect pests like aphids and caterpillars, you need to have enough plants that attract the beneficials planted and ready to flower before the outbreak occurs,” explains Linley Dixon, PhD, senior scientist at the Cornucopia Institute. (Here are 14 natural ways to control garden pests.)

Making sure that this is carried out properly can mean quite a bit of trial and error. That said, when the ecosystem has formed, it can be very rewarding and relatively simple to maintain. “Parsley, for example can be harvested repeatedly all season and then overwintered and allowed to flower the following season,” says Dixon. “Parsley attracts so many beneficials you can see thousands of predatory insects buzzing around and crawling on the plants.”

Without the biodiversity afforded by polyculture, monoculture farms are left susceptible to pests and diseases that could easily wipe out the entire harvest. This is what happened during the Irish potato famine, when one potato variety was planted throughout the country and was subsequently wiped out by rot caused by Phytophthora infestans, leading one in eight Irish people to die of starvation.

Monoculture farmers are therefore forced to prevent pests and disease in another way: with chemicals – and that goes for organic monoculture farmers too. Contrary to what many people believe, organic farmers are actually allowed to use herbicides and insecticides as long as they’re not expressly prohibited by the National List. That said, treating with these chemicals is intended to be a last resort once organic farmers have exhausted all of the natural practices that can act as a pest deterrent.

 

Related: How Crop Rotation Can Help You Manage Pests And Improve Soil Quality

“In organics, it's incumbent upon farmers to create conditions that prevent health problems in plants and animals rather than using weaponry to remediate them after the fact,” explains Kastel. “So we farm in concert with nature rather than trying to dominate nature through chemicals.”

With monocultures, however, this is rarely the case. “People practice what we call, ‘organics by substitution,’” says Kastel. “So instead of truly farming organically, they spray like hell, just like conventional farmers spray on some timetable, but they spray something that's approved for use in organics.”

Not only is this going against the spirit of organic, it’s actually creating a bigger problem: resistance. “You spray the same herbicides year after year on a certain plot of land, the weeds themselves begin to become resistant to that,” explains Holland. “So you're needing stronger herbicides, you're needing more severe weed control measures.” Holland notes that when a farmer first comes into a new piece of land, using these organic-approved herbicides and pesticides might be necessary. “As you build up your soil health and the plant health and as you get the rotations kind of going,” though, the need for external chemicals is depleted.

Related: Could Young Organic Farmers Stop Climate Change?

“I've seen that last year I didn't need to spray or use any sort of external pest management methods,” she says. “Instead, I was able to rely on just the natural biodiversity in the fields. The pests are still there, but they're not a problem. They don't take over, like they would otherwise.”

farmer working with soil
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2. Polyculture is better for the soil.

One of the main tenants of organic is to grow and improve the health of the soil, but as is evident from the recent NOSB decision to certify hydroponic operations organic, this characteristic of organic is often ignored. Still, growing soil is essential: not only is healthy soil an effective carbon sink and one of the best ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, but healthy soil also means healthier food.

Related: Are Veggies Organic If They Aren't Grown In Soil?

On a monoculture operation, however, the soil is not fed; it is mined. “You’re just taking, and eventually, every mine is done. You've mined the whole seam,” says Annie Metzger of Laughing Earth Farm.

“Planting the same crop year on year depletes the soil and weakens the diversity of soil life (pray and predators) that keep the soil system balanced,” explains Finian Makepeace, co-founder of Kiss the Ground, a non-profit organization committed to increasing awareness about soil health. This, he notes, creates vulnerability to pests and disease, but it also takes nutrients out of the soil without giving anything back naturally.

In a traditional polyculture farm, each crop gives and takes something different out of the soil. A great example is the traditional “Three Sisters” grown by various Native American groups: the corn forms a structure for the beans to climb; the beans provide nutrients to the soil absorbed by both the corn and the squash; the squash provides shade and moisture to the soil that is essential for the corn and beans to thrive.

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“My husband and I farm together, and our overarching philosophy is that we're trying to grow soil,” says Metzger. When a farmer is growing monocultures, he needs to depend on outside sources for nutrients, namely petroleum-based fertilizers, which introduce unhealthy inputs into the soil—a Band-Aid that could be avoided if the soil were properly fed by polyculture crops.

Watch some strange—but successful—tricks from organic farmers:

3. Polycultures are better for feeding your community.

We hear a lot about eating local, but we don’t talk enough about how hard this is to do. After all, if you live in an area where most farmers are farming commodity soy, it can be tough to actually shop and eat locally. Polyculture farmers grow in the same mindset as family farmers of the past: the variety that is present on their farms, from meat to dairy to eggs to plant crops, make them the ideal people to feed their communities and increase local connection to the land.

Related: 9 Tips From Professional Organic Farmers That Work Wonders In Your Own Garden

“We want to be feeding the people who are closest to us,” says Metzger. “We have some members who get the majority of their diet from us during the summertime, and that's mostly how we eat, too.” Metzger hopes that by farming this way, she can become a better representative for what organic can and should be. “It's sort of one of those cases where hopefully by being in the system you can change it, rather than shouting at them from the outside.”