By Dennis T. Avery

Center for Global Food Issues.

Hudson Institute.

CHURCHVILLE, VA (B)--Jon Watts and Jenny Tutlis grow five acres of organic crops in northwest Michigan, and their Meadowlark Farm is featured in the May-June issue of Organic Gardening magazine.

Both of the young farmers grew up in the suburbs, went to college (art history for her, biology for him), then to New Guinea with the Peace Corps. They learned about organic production on a community-supported farm in Wisconsin.

Now they grow produce for 40 nearby families on a "subscription" basis--$460 a year for a weekly box of in-season fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

On a given summer day, they may have four varieties of eggplant ready for harvest, along with fancy salad greens, flowering basil and broccoli. The artichokes may be nearly ready too, and the garlic drying in the rafters of the old barn needs to go into the customer boxes as well.

Then the boxes have to be driven to the drop-off points. The kids need supper, and some of the bills are due. That's all besides the eternal battle with weeds, insects and the planting schedule for later in the season. It's a tough life.

Last year, they had 80 families. They had to work 16-hour days, fitting in their two little kids and the housework as best they could. It was too much, so this year they'll do more off-farm work in the winter. She's a waitress, he's a movie projectionist. They also hope that cutting back will help regain control over the insects.

They say that with the 80 families, they brought too much land into production too fast. They couldn't get at the weeds when they were small enough to pull or hoe easily.

They may have planted too soon after the cover crops were plowed down, before the green manure had fully decomposed. They may have over fertilized with turkey manure. In the complex biology of an organic field, it's hard to get precise answers.

Whatever the cause, they were inundated by root maggots, squash bugs and other pests. They keep chickens on the farm, which are good at eating bugs and scratching up beetle grubs but they also eat some of the produce as well.

At least one field is always in buckwheat, which the two organic farmers call "organic Roundup" because of the way it suppresses weeds. They plant one-third of their land in flowers, which the customers like almost as much as the lady bugs, bees, green lacewings and other beneficial insects that visit them.

Watts has come up with a novel method of insect control: a field vacuum. Carrying a Shop-Vac and a portable generator in a wheelbarrow, he moves up and down the rows sucking insects off the plant leaves.

But it takes time, because it has to be done over and over. The Michigan organic farmers sound like wonderful, hard-working folks. But if organic farming like this is the hope for feeding the world, we aren't going to eat well.

When a field is in flowers to attract beneficial insects, it isn't producing bread or feed grain. When the squash bugs ruin much of the squash crop, that means we must devote more land to squash and less to wildlife habitat. Ditto for the free-range chickens wandering the produce plots.

Organic farming is also very labor-intensive. I greatly admire the willingness of Watts and Tutlis to work hard. But how would we draft another 25% or 40% of the population to weed crops and vacuum insects by hand, instead of pursuing lucrative urban careers?

Then there's the shortage of organic biomass. It's not that big a deal on five acres of organic vegetables, but the eco-activists are telling us that all farming should be organic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says America has less than one-third of the organic nitrogen (found in manure and stalks) to support today's farm output, let alone tripling it for the future.

Thus we might have to clear half the forests east of the Mississippi for green manure crops like buckwheat, clover and rye, that aren't used for food or feed, but just plowed back into the soil.

What would the effect be on wildlife habitat of a 40% yield reduction on the world's 1.7 billion acres of cereal grains? Watts and Tutlis haven't even been able to buy their farmland. They need to be near their customers, so the land they need has development potential and is priced accordingly.

The most poignant part of the story is when Watts discusses his ruined squash crop.

He flipped over a butternut squash with his sneaker, and the grounds warmed with the squash bugs that were sucking the life out of his crop.

"There are thousands of them in here--thousands upon thousands...It's ruined."

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