No farms, no food... something we can all agree on, right?

There’s no escaping it: we live in a world that loves to pick sides.  Red state conservatives, or blue state liberals.  Urban living, or country homesteading.  New York Yankees or… any team other than the Yankees.  You get the idea.  As a farmer, I can attest that agriculture is no exception, with firmly entrenched opinions on both sides of the fence.

Of course, fences can come in handy at times, especially when one type of farming operation abuts another.  After a recent visit to Accokeek Farm, where the subject of ‘conventional versus organic’ originated over pizza one night, I asked myself: who better to examine these fences than farmers themselves?

In this week’s blog, I’ve called upon three very different farmers, a grain researcher, a dairyman, and a vegetable grower, and asked them to look at this issue from both sides of the wire.

Garrett Dudley, working on a corn research test plot.

Garrett Dudley, Eastern Research Manager at FFR, from Portville, New York

What is the one thing you would tell an organic farmer about conventional agriculture?

Regardless of our individual opinions about current methods of conventional production, we have to understand that without conventional methods there would be no movement towards sustainable agriculture. For better or worse, our factory farms and the framework that supports them is the same framework that allows sustainable production to grow and flourish.

What the one thing you would tell someone in the conventional agriculture field about organic farming?

That sustainable agriculture, in its many forms, is here to stay.  And that those with passion for sustainability are not just a bunch of hippies. We have to view each individual as an economic agent placing their “vote” in the marketplace.

How can farmers markets function as spaces where these bridges are built?

Perhaps by bringing the old-school traditions back to life. Allowing local FFA chapters and 4H clubs to have a booth if they do not already. Highlight a local grower who is not bringing his products to market…but is considering his “next best alternative” more and more lately…

What kind of event would you plan, if you we’re bringing folks together from sustainable and conventional agriculture backgrounds?

I would plan a square dance.  A square dance is the type of community tradition whose popularity has died out, but could certainly be revived with the forward thinking nature of those supporting and practicing sustainable agriculture.

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Chester Beahm, arriving at market with his son.

Chester Beahm, Fields of Grace Farm, Dairyman and Cheese Maker, Remington, Virginia

What might we highlight that conventional and organic farming already have in common?

That we both depend on factors that are out of our control.  Though we may follow different schools of thought, we are producing a product necessary to everyone, which is the food we eat.  A part of our population is more concerned about where their food comes from and how it is produced.  Providing this sector with products they want meets this demand for higher quality and flavors.

How can farmers markets function as spaces where these bridges are built?

By letting the public know what it takes to produce our products.  How we are affected by weather, seasons, economics, laws and regulations, labor requirements, and the fact that being at the market is our real job, not just a hobby.

What kind of event would you plan, if you we’re bringing folks together from sustainable and conventional agriculture backgrounds?

Highlight common challenges, and common goals.  Challenge each other in why we do what we do.  Establish basic definitions so we know what we are talking about.  We as agricultural producers do not always agree on the best methods of production.  A lot of different factors can enter into this equation.

One fact we must remember is what has made our country great: the ability to not only feed ourselves, but to provide for and give a lot to the rest of the world.  When I view the corn and soybean fields in the midwest as far as the eye can see, when I view the vast orchards around Niagra Falls, when I have driven a combine across the vast wheat fields of Kansas seeing on the horizon many grain elevators, and knowing about the efficient livestock, vegetable and processing capabilities we have in this country, I know why we have a great country!

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Lana Edelin with early spring vegetables at the Falls Church, Virginia farmers market.

Lana Edelin, Vegetable Farmer, Homestead Farm, Faulkner, Maryland

What does the word ‘sustainable’ mean to you?

We all define “sustainable” in different ways. For me, this means doing what I need to do to stay in business the following year and beyond.  At our farm, I use integrated pest management practices and often import bugs to my farm to help deal with pests.  I buy ladybugs in bulk, and collect praying mantis nests in my fridge until I need to release them to do their job in a certain area at a certain time.

What is the one thing you would tell an organic farmer about conventional agriculture?

That small farms like ours can be sustainable, too.  We only do what our soil test results call for, not over doing it with broad based fertilizer applications, like many large farms will do.

How can we build bridges between these two groups?

This starts with mutual respect.  Each side must understand that these farmers have made a professional decision about how they want to raise their crops, and manage their farms.  Our goal should be to learn from one another, not change one another.

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Like any good fence-post conversation, this interview is just a start.  Later this summer, I’ll do a second interview with three more farmers of different agricultural backgrounds, continuing the dialogue.  In the meantime, head to your local farmers market, and start a discussion with your local growers, whether organic or conventional.  I’d enjoy hearing their responses.

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