Pushing the envelope in agriculture

Photo by Rebekah Fraser.
Jack Kittredge is the editor of The Natural Farmer.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) was started in 1971, and is a nonprofit organization of nearly 4,000 farmers, gardeners and consumers working to promote healthy food, organic farming practices and a cleaner environment. NOFA has chapters in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

The NOFA Interstate Council provides coordination between the chapters, conducts the annual NOFA Summer Conference and acts as an umbrella organization for projects of collective concern to NOFA chapters, such as the Northeast Interstate Organic Certification Committee. Each of the seven state chapters comprising NOFA provides educational conferences, workshops, farm tours and printed materials to educate farmers, gardeners, consumers and land care professionals.

The Natural Farmer, the quarterly newspaper of the NOFA Interstate Council, publishes features on organic farming techniques, certification issues, environmental developments as they impact farmers and growers, organic market conditions and other topics of interest to the Northeast organic community.

After leaving the city in 1982 to start an organic farm in central Massachusetts, husband and wife Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson became involved with NOFA when the Massachusetts chapter was created in 1984. Rawson is now the executive coordinator for the Massachusetts chapter, and Kittredge is the editor of The Natural Farmer. Together, they run the annual interstate NOFA conference.

The history of NOFA is closely linked to the growth of the organic movement in the Northeast. Kittredge says when NOFA started in 1971, it was basically a self-help organization for people who didn’t know much about farming, but had gone back to the land and wanted to know how to farm. In 1989, an Alar (daminozide) scare boosted membership as consumers eschewed conventional apples in favor of organics. Alar is a plant growth regulator that was sprayed on fruit from 1963 to 1989 to regulate growth, make harvesting easier and enhance color. It was voluntarily withdrawn by the manufacturer in response to public fears over a controversial study that found that Alar residue could produce tumors in mice. At that time, organic certification was purely a private thing. Kittredge says that like other certification programs, NOFA’s program was formed by a group of farmers who wanted to be certified. Together, they created a set of standards and certified themselves and others based on those standards.

These practices changed in 1990 when the federal government passed the Organic Food Production Act, which preceded and enabled the national organic program. According to the EPA Web site, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 requires the secretary of agriculture to establish a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which identifies synthetic substances that may be used and non-synthetic substances that cannot be used in organic production and handling operations. Kittredge explains that one of the rules was that accrediting bodies could not have certified farmers on their boards because it was a conflict of interest. Certified organic farmers were dominant on the NOFA certifying board, so the organization split into two: a certifying board without certified farmers and the NOFA Interstate Council, a loose federation of state chapters. “It’s a legal necessity,” says Kittredge. “And, it’s now totally arm’s length, but we have a friendly relationship.”

Despite the close ties between NOFA and the state of organics in the Northeast, Rawson is not sure that NOFA affects farming practices in the region as much as reflects them. “Consumers really call the shots,” she says. “Certainly, NOFA has been around, [but] we’ve always been a fringe group. We’ve never been mainstream, unlike Audubon. Nowhere is NOFA a household word. Who knows what really pushed the consumer? I wouldn’t say we are the reason consumers got into organic food. We tend to be on the leading edge on a lot of stuff, but it’s usually way out there on the leading edge, where it’s almost esoteric on one level.” While the slow creep of information about organics into the consciousness of the general public may or may not have spurred the consumer drive toward organics, Rawson believes that it was consumer push that caused the USDA to get into organics. “[Consumers said] we can’t have any more pollution in our groundwater and we can’t have anymore chemical pollution in our food,” says Rawson. Once the USDA started certifying people, organic became more known. Rawson also claims that with the USDA’s involvement in organics, the organic label lost a lot of its potency. “A lot of big companies got into organic and fiddled with the standards and made it easier,” she says.

As the country adjusts to organic standards, NOFA’s Massachusetts chapter is pushing the envelope once again, exploring the science of nutrient density utilized in biological farming. Rawson says the practice goes hand-in-hand with certified organic practices. Kittredge notes that at this point only a small group of organic farmers are investigating the practice. The organic movement is not focused on nutrient density, but rather on the processes of pest management and weed control.

This form of agriculture seeks to work with biology in order to produce food, fiber and forage in a nontoxic environment with adequate nutritional support. Thus, biological farming enhances the soil microbial activity to its highest level, while also making the highest level of nutrients available to the plants. This process focuses on the end result: a crop of highly nutritious produce.

“It’s really a very simple understanding of chemistry. We need a lot of calcium and a lot of phosphorus, particularly in the Northeast,” says Kittredge. Biological farming uses a lot of micronized (very small, thus very accessible) nutrients on the plant leaves to uptake that directly. At the same time the practice builds the soil with soil microbes and inoculates it with friendly bacteria. “Those guys can do their work and better utilize the minerals that are in the soil,” Kittredge explains. “You build the microbes by feeding them properly with calcium, phosphorus and other materials they need, and then you inoculate them with soil inoculants that are live packets of microorganism that multiply to rebuild the system.”

The inoculants are available from companies such as International Ag Labs, which also does soil testing.

Rawson also suggests talking to people at International Ag Labs (www.aglabs.com) about soil testing. At its most basic level, a soil test is a chemical analysis of soil nutrient levels derived by mixing soil with water and an additional chemical that extracts or dissolves nutrients from the soil. This mixture of soil, water and chemical extract is then filtered and tested to determine the level of nutrients in the soil.

International Ag Labs uses a weak acid test, which relies on a chemical extract (the Morgan Extract) patterned after the exudates that roots give off. The Morgan Extract is a “universal” extractant, meaning all major nutrients (including phosphorus) and many micronutrients can be measured in the one extract. International Ag Labs claims this test more accurately reveals biologically active nutrients that the plant can actually utilize from the soil. According to the company, when the soil is balanced according to the available nutrients, it produces an abundance of high-quality produce.

In addition to using the resources available from Ag Labs, growers interested in boosting the nutrient density of their soil and exploring biological farming learned more at a three-day seminar hosted by NOFA/MA in Barre, Mass., February 5-7. Arden Anderson, M.D., a farmer, soil scientist and author,  led the seminar. Anderson is one of the primary proponents of nutrient density/biological farming in the United States.

Even as NOFA enters the still-somewhat obscure territory of biological agriculture, the organization holds to its roots. NOFA continues to educate people about organic land and lawn care and hay production, as well as organic beekeeping, animals and crops. “We try to really keep a broad focus on all the things people do to keep the certification coming,” says Rawson. “Homesteaders come to us, too. That’s a huge focus of this chapter. Jack would call himself a homesteader. I call myself a farmer.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.