What Is Organic Farming?

Definition & Examples of Organic Farming

Farmer harvesting what in a field

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Organic farming is a set of agricultural practices that focus on growing food through natural ecosystem management instead of synthetic outside inputs.

Although it is often referred to as "alternative farming," organic farming is actually a more traditional form of agriculture than much of modern-day farming. Learn more about the defining features of organic farming, how it's practiced, and what it means to be "certified organic."

What Is Organic Farming?

There is no universally accepted definition of organic farming, but most major agricultural organizations consider it to be a specific production system that aims to avoid the use of synthetic and harmful pesticides, fertilizers, growth regulators, and livestock feed additives.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines state that farmers use agricultural methods that preserve the environment and avoid synthetic farming and agricultural materials.

How Organic Farming Works

Almost all organic farming systems rely on what some call alternative farming methods, such as crop rotation, mechanical cultivation, animal manures, green manure, and integrated pest management to maintain healthy soil, grow healthy plants, and control pests and weeds.

As a general system, organic farming is built on the premise that a healthy ecosystem is made up of healthy interdependent parts. It avoids using any substances or methods that might damage one part of the ecosystem at the expense of another.

Oddly enough, these "alternative" farming methods are older, from a historical perspective, than newer farming methods that include using pesticides and other synthetic farming applications to control growing conditions. These modern methods have largely been built to support the modern-day agricultural system, which is often criticized as being designed to produce massive amounts of food as quickly as possible.

How to Become Certified Organic

A farmer doesn't need to be officially certified by the USDA to grow organic food or implement organic farming practices. However, if they want to be able to label and market their products as "organic," in most cases, they will need official USDA certification.

Any farmers marketing more than $5,000 worth of products annually must be certified to label their products organic. While those marketing less than $5,000 worth of products annually do not need to apply for certification, they still must abide by labeling standards.

Farmers can have their agricultural goods certified organic through the USDA. This involves submitting an application and required fees to a certifying agent accredited by the USDA, as well as submitting to an on-site inspection. Land used to grow these goods cannot have been farmed with any prohibitive substances for at least three years. The National Resources Conservation Service offers to assist farmers seeking certification in assessing their current operations and developing a conservation plan.

The USDA website lists different types of organic labels that can be used on food. Not including salt and water, 95% of a product's ingredients must be organic for a product to be labeled as "organic." If 100% of the ingredients are organic, a product can be labeled "100% organic." Labels also can indicate that a product is "made with organic" if at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

The Benefits and Challenges of Organic Farming

  • Encourages soil vitality and prevents erosion

  • Reduces water pollution

  • Mitigates climate change

  • Encourages greater biodiversity

  • Limits GMO usage

  • High implementation costs

  • Education-intensive

  • Inconsistent returns

  • Vulnerability to major losses

  • Long transition for certification

Benefits Explained

  • Encourages soil vitality and prevents erosion: Central to organic farming are practices to encourage soil development, including cover crops, crop rotations, and minimal tilling. These methods strengthen the natural vitality of the soil and help it to remain more compact, minimizing erosion.
  • Reduces water pollution: Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are a significant contributor to groundwater pollution. These products are prohibited in organic farming.
  • Mitigates climate change: Agrochemical production relies heavily on fossil fuels, and organic farming's avoidance of these reduces fossil fuel consumption. Organic practices also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by keeping carbon in the soil.
  • Encourages greater biodiversity: Organic farming helps to maintain the diversity of biological flora and fauna, pollinators, and pest predators.
  • Limits GMO usage: Much is yet to be learned about the impact of using genetically modified ingredients. Organic farming avoids these as a precaution until more information can be collected.

Challenges Explained

  • High implementation costs: Although organic farmers avoid the costs of outside inputs, the process of organic farming is labor-intensive and includes many other implementation costs that can be difficult for a farmer to bear.
  • Education-intensive: Many organic farming practices are unfamiliar to modern farmers, requiring extensive education to learn proper methods and best practices.
  • Inconsistent returns: Because organic farming relies on crop rotation, not all crops bear the same returns for farmers. The mainstream system incentivizes dependence on one or a few crops.
  • Vulnerability to major losses: Without reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, farmers may be at risk of losing significant portions of their yield. Education and support is essential to building a sustainable system that produces sufficient yields for farmers.
  • Long transition for certification: Crops must be grown on organically farmed land for three years before they can be labeled organic and priced accordingly. This means farmers bear the costs of transition during those three years without being able to charge commensurate prices.

Sustainability and Organic Farming

Sustainability is a term that is often associated with organic farming, but it a distinct concept. The National Organic Program (NOP), part of the USDA, develops standards for organic farming, but these standards don't cover the maximum extent of sustainable farming practices. There is no consensus on whether or not sustainable practices are a necessary component of organic farming, further contributing to the lack of a universal definition.

The USDA website states that sustainable agriculture is a term that defies definition, while also noting that it has sparked "innovative thinking" within the industry. The 1990 Farm Bill, as reported by the USDA, states that sustainability should have a long-term goal of:

  • Meet all human needs for food and fiber
  • Improving the environment and strengthening the natural resources that are foundational to our agricultural economy
  • Using nonrenewable resources and farm resources efficiently while integrating natural biological cycles and controls wherever possible
  • Supporting and maintaining the economic viability of farm operations
  • Raising the quality of life for farmers, their families, and society

Numerous U.S. states, regions, and local farmers have additional organic farming standards in place that exceed basic NOP standards. Additionally, other countries have established organic farming standards that differ from U.S. standards.

Key Takeaways

  • Organic farming focuses on natural ecosystem management instead of outside, synthetic farm inputs.
  • The methods of organic farming—crop rotation, encouraging biodiversity, integrated pest management, and more—are actually much older than today's conventional farming methods.
  • In most cases, U.S. farmers that want to label and market their products as "organic" must receive USDA organic certification.
  • Organic farming offers many benefits to human, animal, and plant life, but farmers face many challenges in implementing its practices.
  • Sustainable agriculture is often associated with organic farming, but it relies on distinct criteria.