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SoVa Living May
SoVa Gardening

Is it truly organically grown?

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With the opening of the Danville Farmers’ Market and others in the area, we will be looking to buy fresh, mostly locally grown produce. The question often arises as to whether the produce has been grown with organic methods or not.

There is some confusion about just what the phrase “organically grown” means. To confuse matters more there is another phrase, “naturally grown” that may seem to mean the same thing. Still another statement often heard is that the vegetables were “grown without the use of pesticides.” These phrases do not mean the same thing.

» “Pesticide free” means just that. No pesticides were used to defend against insects, diseases and other plant pests when the grower was producing the crop. For many farmer market shoppers this is sufficient. There is nothing wrong with that. It says the grower did not use the pesticides that some shoppers do not want in or on their foods. But it does not say anything else about how the crop was grown.

» “Naturally grown” produce means that the grower went further to provide the food crops within certain guidelines. Naturally grown means that the grower worked more closely with the forces of Mother Nature to produce the crop. The guidelines are somewhat strict but not as tight as those for organically grown crops. One key is that pesticides are not generally used. Any pest control methods applied to the crop were usually derived from natural sources.

Habitat is created and enhanced to encourage the presence of natural predators of insect pests. The predators include other insects, arachnids, birds and other creatures that prefer to eat the insects that may damage the plants. Low levels of insect pest populations and disease infections are tolerated as just a normal part of the natural way of things. Gardens are managed to keep the plants healthy so their natural defenses against diseases are given a chance to work. Plant nutrition is usually supplemented with things such as compost, worm teas or similar products that are derived from natural sources or which mimic processes that occur in nature. Once again, there is nothing wrong with this and it is sufficient to meet the desires of many farmer market shoppers.

» “Organically grown” refers to a more holistic approach to growing fresh produce. It is as much a state of mind as it is a gardening method. It is similar to “naturally grown” but goes a few steps farther. True organic producers use no synthetic materials in their growing systems. Instead of just buying a bag of fertilizer to add nutritional elements to their soils, they manage and amend the soil so that the soil itself becomes a plant food.

Organic producers see the soil as more than just a place for the plants to take root. To them the soil is their most valuable asset and they work hard to manage the soil to keep it in top condition and enhance its ability to keep the plants healthy and thriving. They use compost, manure and other natural amendments to improve and to maintain their soil in top condition.

They may use tea-like preparations to enhance the life of micro-organisms, earthworms and other beneficial things living in the soil. While they try to avoid the use of pesticides, they may use products that are derived for natural sources such as oils derived from the neem plant, insect control sprays extracted from chrysanthemum plants, organically made soaps to control aphids and other similar products. Even their seeds may come from organically certified producers.

If a producer wants to advertise and sell their products as “organically grown” they must adhere to strict guidelines established by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Anyone who sells less than $5,000 of produce per year is not required to be certified but must still comply with the guidelines. Those who sell more than $5,000 per year are required to be certified and are allowed to display the USDA Organically Grown seal on their products and at their stand at the farmer’s market.

The key to being organically grown is that no synthetic products were used in the process of growing the food or other items; this includes fertilizers, soil amendments, pesticides and anything else used by the producer.

I hope this helps to clear up some confusion.

Sutphin is an extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, Danville Unit Office. Contact him at (434) 799-6558.

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