How We Grow Our Produce

The most frequent question we are asked about our farm is “are you organic?”.   The short answer is no, but the issue is much more complicated and it takes a while to explain the practices we use.   Traditional conventional farming and “organic” farming each have their limitations and negative impacts as well as certain benefits and advantages.  We believe that by blending and balancing practices from both types of production systems we can actually produce the safest product available in the most environmentally sustainable way.  Since we market almost all of our produce directly to the consumer we can explain our production practices in much more detail and don’t have to rely on a label to convey the message of how the product you are buying was raised. 

In order to sell agricultural products as organic the farm must be certified by a third party certifying entity that regularly inspects the farm and conducts audits of the farm’s records to ensure the operation meets the USDA National Organic Program standards for organic production.  This is a costly and cumbersome process that lends itself better to larger farms that can spread the cost over more units of product.   For a farm that markets its products wholesale to grocery store this system allows for a standard process to define their growing practices and differentiate their produce from conventionally grown product.  For smaller growers who sell directly to their customers and can explain their production practices firsthand, there is no real advantage to going through the hassle and expense of certification. By not being certified, the grower is also not pigeonholed into only using a certain set of production practices.

At Yankey Farms we use organic fertilizer sources such as manure, compost, and cover crops to provide our crops with many of the nutrients they need.  We also use some commercial fertilizer in our operation.  You see, the balance of nutrients in composts and manure don’t usually match up exactly with the needs of the variety of crops we grow.  What ends up happening is that some nutrients get over applied when compost or manure is used to meet the crops need for another nutrient.  These over applied nutrients can then wash off the land and become pollutants in our streams, rivers, lakes, and bays.  By using commercial fertilizer we can supplement our manure and compost applications so that we can meet the crop needs without creating a water quality problem.  Commercial fertilizer is not allowed if an operation is organic certified.

Weed control is necessary in all crop production systems.  Most organic systems rely heavily on cultivation for weed control.  Tilling the soil, especially repeatedly for weed control is devastating to soil life and usually leads to unsustainable soil erosion.  Maintaining a healthy soil ecosystem and minimizing erosion is very important to us.  To address these issues we try to minimize soil disturbance.  Many of our crops are planted no till, we utilize mulches for weed control in a lot of others.  In order to minimize erosion and promote soil health on our farm we utilize some herbicides in our system.

On our farm we implement a holistic approach to pest control known as integrated pest management (IPM).  With IPM we employ many cultural and physical practices such as crop rotation, planting resistant varieties, companion planting, crop timing, row covers, computer disease modeling, pest monitoring, and others.  By taking these proactive measures we greatly reduce the need for pesticides.  When we do have a pest or disease problem that requires chemical control we use the safest product available.  These are generally insecticides or fungicides approved for organic production.  By employing an IPM program many of our crops never need to be sprayed with any pesticide. 

Another question we get that fits into this discussion is “Are your crops GMOs?”  The reality is that there are only a handful of commercially available GMO vegetable varieties.  A few varieties of summer squash have been modified to carry a gene that makes the plants resistant to a virus that causes a disease in squash plants.  The only other commercially available GMO vegetable is sweet corn.  There are about a dozen varieties of sweet corn that have been modified to express a protein produced by the BT bacteria.  This protein needs to be denatured by acid in order to be digested.  Since caterpillar pests have an alkaline digestive system they can’t digest this protein.  They eat a little bit of the plant, their gut binds up, and they die.  Since mammals have acidic digestive systems humans process this protein with no problem.  This technology has proven to be very safe.  This genetic modification has been in use for 20 years and there have been no documented human health problems.  BT bacteria have been used safely as an insecticide for nearly 100 years.  BT insecticides are approved for organic farming and we spray these BT insecticides for caterpillar control in some of our crops when we need to.   The only GMO we raise is one variety of late season sweet corn that has this BT modification.  We feel that growing this variety is more sustainable than spraying an insecticide multiple times.  In our area, late sweet corn is always infested with earworms, armyworms, and corn borers.  If we didn’t use this BT variety we would have to spray every 2-3 days for the three weeks leading up to harvest with an insecticide.  This is very hard on our beneficial insect populations even using the “soft” insecticides that we use.  When we kill our beneficials we end up with secondary pest problems that then have to be controlled.  The GMO corn has no effect on our beneficial insects.

 As you can see, fertility, weed control, and pest management are very complicated issues and using labels to dictate what practices are used is not necessarily the most sustainable approach.   We do our best to utilize the most sustainable systems and practices that fit the needs of our operation.  Lastly, we eat everything we grow and wouldn’t do anything that would risk the health of our family or yours.