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A checklist of good farm practices

The recent news of Whole Foods getting some push back from organic farmers was food for thought, pardon the pun. You can Google it to read more, but the basic idea is farmers didn't like the idea that the grocery chain was evaluating farm practices on a holistic rubric that would mean some conventional farms with especially well-rounded conservation practices may be able to get a boost in sustainability ratings.

Personally, I understand both sides. Organic farmers put extra work, certification, and care into meeting standards and they'd like to see those recognized in the marketplace. But for those of us who chat in ag-geek circles, the point has already been well-discussed that far too often the "battle" over sustainability has come down to arguments between organic growers and conventional producers. Which is a false duality because there are conventional growers who have excellent farm ethics just as there are huge organic farms that are actually less environmentally friendly than stereotypical bad actors. (That made the news rounds this week over the idea that Big Organic isn't good/better by default.)

So it deserves to be spelled out...certified organic products are a great start, ethically speaking, and frequently can be used as a shorthand for overall good farm management. The standard itself requires practices that are often ignored by conventional farms. But...and this is a big "but"...neither farmers nor consumers should assume that the word organic is the end journey and implies automatic "best practices" or that nothing else could be improved. I'd explain it like this--organic is one model of fairly sound agricultural practices, but farmers should be striving for more and consumers should be asking for more.

Where does that leave us? That's the reason for this post. There are certainly a host of competing certifications when it comes to everything from coffee to livestock. But I've heard lots of complaints that the whole thing (best practices, generally, in addition to certifications) is confusing. Farmers complain that consumers seem to be fickle and confusing in what practices they want to see. And consumers are confused about how to evaluate the food they're buying on so many features.

No farm is perfect. I'm not even sure we could come up with a "model farm practices" list if we tried. Not everything is as applicable to wine grapes as it is to cattle. And water use is a different priority in California's drought than in areas with plenty of water.

Note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive.

--Water use. What kind of conservation practices are in place to maximize the use of rainfall, limit use of groundwater, minimize pollution of waterways? Animals should be watered from their own system to avoid contamination. Farm runoff is an especially important consideration here--see "cover crops" below. Farm practices should not cause drift of hazardous substances via air or downstream.

--Farms should have a diverse number of crops, wildlife buffers, show consideration for important species such as honeybees or migrating birds, etc. and use cover crops when possible.

--Does the farm limit the number of inputs and use technique before herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer? Keep in mind that whether artificial fertilizer or spreading manure, soil samples may show a need to tweak the composition depending on how well fields are managed.

--This one is a bit complicated because many organic farmers till the soil. When using fewer chemicals, turning over the soil for planting reduces the weed pressure on whatever crop is being planted. But no-till is better. Every time the soil is turned, it has some negative impacts so more farmers are going to a "green no-till" combined with cover crops. It's possible to plant directly into crop residue, not till the soil, and keep down pests. So some careful explanation is needed here. Does a farm use "no-till" but rely on more conventional techniques? Is a farm planting one crop, literally, into another?

--Does livestock have access to the outdoors--hopefully lush pasture--when the weather allows? Is the pasture managed for optimal nutrition and environmental impact?

--Does the livestock eat what it is "supposed" to as the primary diet? Chickens like to scratch for bugs. Sheep chew legumes and forbs. Is the hay sampled and tested for nutritional quality to avoid the need to supplement? Note here that grains are bad for ruminant digestion though there are fairly accepted "best practices" when it is appropriate to give grains...for instance, pregnant ewes are often given a calorie boost during the cold winter months when they need extra weight to support new lambs.

--Is good nutrition and testing being used to treat animals medically rather than blanket, preventative antibiotics, etc.. For instance, eyes can be viewed in sheep to determine worm loads for treatment (FAMACHA).

--Has the farm chosen an animal breed that offers well-rounded characteristics and is, generally, healthy with minimal human contact? Especially for the region? Is the farm working to preserve an endangered breed? Is the farm selecting for the genetics of animals who show quality traits across the behavior and health other words, livestock should not be bred simply for size, quick growth, breeding ability, or production related factors. Genetic diversity within breeds is also important.

--Farm labor. Who does the picking, milking, cutting, feeding, shearing, washing, packing, spraying, etc.? If it's a small family operation you bought directly from, you can be fairly confident you know the supply chain. But products that require extra processing present more difficulties to audit. If you're buying handspun yarn, do you want to consider the mill that washed and processed the fleece? Your tomato may have been picked by a low paid, illegal immigrant worker, but there may be a reason for that...many farmers try and fail to hire local workers but find Americans unwilling to work for what the farmer can afford under the conditions that will be expected.

--Does the farm have a good slaughter/culling policy? Sick animals or animals meant for the food supply should be killed quickly, humanely, and with the least stress possible to the animal.

--Size matters. Can a large farm pay attention to all these tiny details of responsibility? I maintain that it's unlikely. But here's the catch...the majority of small-to-midsize US farms are not doing well. Land access is expensive. Equipment is expensive. The few farms that are profitable also happen to be quite large. Hundreds or even thousands of acres. And don't listen to the "family farm" rhetoric. Most US farms--almost all--are family owned. But what does that mean? You think small, diverse family farm. But it could also be a million acre family owned operation with one main cash crop...acre after acre of corn. Or maybe thousands of head of swine or cattle. Still family owned.

Notice that none of the above is exactly filled via the "organic" label. And notice that I said nothing about GMOs, pesticides, or many other hot topics in the US food policy debates. Farmers and consumers alike should be aiming for higher standards...the next time you're buying an agricultural product, ask yourself if and how much you know about the above issues.

Educate yourself. Demand better state and federal agricultural policies. And try to purchase from farmers who are already going above and beyond to meet these examples.