13 Things You Never Knew About Organic Farming

Here's the dirt on organic farming.

organic farming illustration by serge blochSerge Bloch for Reader's Digest

It’s not always from a small farm

People assume that organic products come from small family farms, but many of the foods labeled organic in supermarkets are actually produced by large corporations. For example, Conagra owns Alexia; a private-equity company owns Bolthouse Farms; and organic produce grower Earthbound Farm is itself a giant, earning nearly half a billion dollars in 2018. Big or small, a farm must follow the same rules to be certified organic: fertilizing soil with natural ingredients such as compost and manure, planting with organic seeds, rotating crops to prevent soil erosion and disease, and allowing animals to graze.

Using pesticides isn’t completely forbidden on an organic farm

“There are about 25 chemicals that have been approved for use,” says Jessica Shade, PhD, director of science programs at the Organic Center in Washington, DC. “But before organic farmers can even use those 25, they have to prove that they have used every other method possible for controlling their pests and weeds.”

The cows sometimes still get sick

Organic farmers aren’t supposed to use antibiotics, but their cows do sometimes get sick. “You do have to give your cows medicine if they need it,” Shade says.“But if organic cows are treated with antibiotics, their milk can’t be sold as organic.” Allowed: ­aspirin. (Cows get swollen joints too.)

There aren’t many certified organic farms

While it may seem that there are all-natural farms everywhere these days, less than 1 percent of the 911 million acres of farmland in the United States are certified organic, according to the Pew ­Research Center. The most organic state: Vermont, where 11 percent of farms have the USDA designation. Be sure to avoid these organic foods nutritionists never waste their money on.

Lots of organic farmers are women

Nearly half of all organic farmers are women, even though women make up only 29 percent of all American farmers, according to the USDA. Organic farmers are also younger (average age: 52) than farmers overall (58), according to Modern Farmer.

There was no need for “certified organic” before the mid-20th century—because organic was the only way to farm

But in the 1940s, after World War II, nitrate factories that had been making bombs switched to producing synthetic fertilizers. Ironically, the era of mass-scale ­chemical fertilizer and pesticide use is commonly referred to as the Green Revolution because of the dramatic increase in crop yields worldwide. For instance, the yield of rice in India increased by 164 percent from the 1950s to the 1990s.

It’s not cheap

We know it’s good for our health, but eating organic can put a strain on the budget. According to the USDA, organic produce carries a premium of 10 to 30 percent. Fortunately, a study has shown that the risk of ingesting pesticides is relatively low with certain foods, primarily because their thicker skins or outer coverings protect us. At the top of the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” list: avocados and sweet corn, with less than 1 percent of the samples showing any pesticide residue. Looking for a more budget-friendly option? Here are the cheapest ways to order groceries online.

The biggest organic retailer isn’t Whole Foods

The biggest organic retailer in the country isn’t Whole Foods—it’s Costco, which sold about $4 billion in organic products in 2017, compared with $3.6 billion at Whole Foods.

The top-selling products are…

The top-selling organic products, in order: cow’s milk, eggs, chicken, apples, lettuce, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, and corn, according to the Pew Research Center. (See No. 7 above for why organic corn might not be worth the cost.)

Do you know which residents of organic farms aren’t all that environmentally friendly?

The cows. They burp and fart up to twice as much methane as conventionally reared cattle. Methane is 20 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than CO₂.

Don’t even think of saying your farm is organic if it isn’t

The government will fine you as much as $17,952 for each time you falsely sell or label a product as organic. The USDA has a list of people fined for “fraudulent certificates” on its website. Keep in mind these secret grocery shopping tips everyone needs to know.

Perhaps the most famous organic farmer in the United States today is Joel Salatin

He is the author of books such as The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs and has appeared in documentaries such as Food, Inc. The Virginia-based Salatin also enjoys a burgeoning friendship with Prince Charles. The fellow farmer and future king has invited Salatin to his residence in Dumfries, Scotland.

Organic farming isn’t just about feeding you

According to Statista, pet owners will spend $6.8 billion on organic food for their dogs and cats this year, more than double than a decade ago. But beware, animal lovers: Foods marked “natural” do not carry the same requirement as those that are certified organic.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Australia

Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery is an associate editor for Reader’s Digest. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Prevention, Rhode Island Monthly, and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.