By Cassidy Jensen, Concord Monitor:

New pests driven north by climate change. Drought followed by record-breaking rain. Large competitors that charge lower prices while capitalizing on a trendy label.

These are just some of the 21st century challenges facing the state’s organic farmers, as the New Hampshire chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association honors 50 years of promoting organic food.

The regional Northeast Organic Farming Association, now in seven states, was originally founded in New Hampshire and Vermont in 1971 by Samuel Kaymen, who went on to start Stonyfield Organic Yogurt.

Today, the New Hampshire association has 400 members, and supports organic food producers that range from vegetable and chicken farmers to home gardeners through education and advocacy. 

What does it mean to be organic?

“Organic” can be a squishy term when used colloquially, applied to food that appears sustainable, healthy or free of toxic materials. But there are firm standards for farms that are certified organic, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those standards prohibit the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides to manage weeds and pests, and include practices to encourage soil health.

“The organic certification is a proof to the consumer. The consumer ideally can trust the certification and know that the product meets the standards versus just someone being able to say, “oh, I grow my products organically,” said NOFA-NH Operations Manager Nikki Kolb. Her organization helped develop state-level rules for organic produce in the 1980s, before the federal standards were set.

In New Hampshire, the state Department of Agriculture certifies farms as organic under those records, requiring growing operations to submit records on crops and the use of fertilizers and pesticides and to pass yearly inspections.

Olivia Saunders, a fruit and vegetable production specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said that the organic standards are not too onerous for farmers.

“If you like to keep records, it’s really no trouble at all,” Saunders said. “It’s not a barrier that should really impede someone. Integrating that practice from that start makes it much easier to meet that certification.”

Some farmers use organic pesticides, which are allowed as a last resort for pest or weed management. David Miller and Kathleen Jacobs own Grounding Stone Farm in Contoocook, where they grow blueberries in the summer. Miller said that he always starts with preventative techniques to ward off pests, but sometimes falls back on organic pesticides to finish off the spotted-wing drosophila, an insect which infests berry bushes.

“Most organic pesticides are pretty benign, you can use them in your garden,” he said. But using the same pesticide repeatedly lets fruit flies build up a resistance, which is just one of the reasons Miller employs other measures first. “That’s a challenge, how do I get through this season without having to spray?” he said.

Organic standards regulate what materials farmers can put on their soil and crops, but they don’t encompass all aspects of sustainable farming.

For instance, a farm can be certified organic but still use practices that are ecologically harmful, according to Marley and James Stever, who started Generation Farm in 2012. The couple, who are in their thirties and part of a new generation of younger farmers, met when Marley was working at the Concord Food Co-op. At their Concord farm, the Stevers grow salad greens like kale, lettuce and chard as well as microgreens.

A certified organic farmer can still deeply till and plow, contributing to the erosion of topsoil. “Organic doesn’t touch the amount of diesel that you use in your tractor in order to do a lot of cultivation of your field, and it doesn’t touch how much energy you’re burning to say, heat your greenhouses all winter,” Marley Stever said.

Changing climate for farmers

Other sustainability issues like the use of fossil fuels are on the Stevers’ minds as they begin to cope with the effects of climate change on the farm, including pests that years ago would never have appeared in New Hampshire and more extreme weather.

This year’s record-breaking July rainfall was a “nightmare,” at Generation Farm, wiping out of whole rows of greens. “We just had catastrophic loss,” Marley Stever said.

Miller said Grounding Stone’s blueberry crop also suffered, since the berries need sunlight in order to ripen. “Berries don’t like to get their feet wet,” he said.

The prospect of long droughts also worry the Stevers, especially since hot, dry summers can bring different pest varieties.

“We’ve had some really bad pest issues that I think are definitely made worse by climate change,” James Stever said. They are also seeing new bugs, brought north by the shifting climate. “Pests that normally wouldn’t even be in New Hampshire and plant diseases are coming in. We’re getting these diseases that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

The effects of climate change can also highlight the value of eating locally, as big agricultural states like California experience even worse droughts.

“Without being too much of an alarmist, I think the country and maybe even the world is facing a potential food shortage,” said Karl Johnson, president of NOFA-NH’s board of directors. That means a need to produce more vegetables locally, in places like New Hampshire.

Saunders said when it comes to policy priorities to help New Hampshire’s farmers, taking action on climate is vital. “We certainly need to have broad support for climate change action,” she said.

Other new challenges

While she primarily consults with farmers on managing pests, diseases and weeds, Saunders says a recent business challenge for organic farmers comes from the growing popularity of organic food. “Now you can get this industrial organic produce that might have been from California or Mexico or from abroad,” she said. “That’s a challenge for New Hampshire producers because now they’re in greater competition with people from bigger companies.”

Kolb and Johnson say it can be hard to educate consumers about the hidden costs that go into a cheap, out-of-season apple, grown by a big company and shipped around the world.

“If you look at the higher price tag, globally, economically, health-wise speaking, of so-called cheap food, the true price tag is so much greater than the price tag that we see on an organic product that was sourced and grown locally,” Kolb said.

The high cost of land in the state is another obstacle for new farmers. “It’s hard for young people to get started farming in New Hampshire because our property values are pretty high,” Johnson said. Loss of farmland is one of his biggest worries, especially as land values rise.

Despite all that, the state has advantages for local growers.

“Because New Hampshire is a smaller state with a smaller population, we have more small natural food stores and farm stands and small country stores, whereas in like other states, you just have these mega-grocery stores,” James Stever said.

That strong network of local stores makes it easier for small local farmers to get their produce on shelves without competing with big operations that can produce perfect-looking produce all year.

Miller says that local enthusiasm for pick-your-own berries helps Grounding Stone stay successful. “People are coming to us, and as long as they come for the experience and they come for the quality of the product I think they’re going to continue,” he said. “How much they pay isn’t going to matter as much.”

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