Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What does chemical free mean?

In the garden this week the weeds grew. It is amazing how we turn our back on the weeds for a week or two and they are suddenly knee high! In some ways the dry, hot days have been helpful. They make the weeds grow more slowly and die more easily when hoed out. In the paths of the big field we had planted a clover cover crop. In some areas it has done well, outcompeting weeds and blooming nicely (the blooms help attract beneficial insects). But in others the clover didn’t take as well and the weeds quickly filled the void (nature does not like bare ground). No the weeds are kind of like a cover crop as long as we don’t allow them to seed, so we mowed them all down. Many weed seeds can survive for up to 7 years in the soil without germinating. This is called the weed seed bank. Every time you till seeds are brought to the surface to grow. This is like a withdrawal form the bank. If you allow the weeds to seed this is like a deposit. Unlike most accounts, this is one where you don’t want to make any deposits. Overtime, if no plants go to seed we can reduce the number of weeds we have to contend with.

Depleting the weed seed bank is the primary weed control strategy available to organic farmers. In the short term we can weed, cultivate, and mow. But in the long run that is time consuming and tiresome. By eliminating the seeds we can prevent a problem before it occurs. Weeds are such a challenging problem that even farmers who have reduced or even eliminated pesticide use cannot imagine giving up their herbicides. This has led to some confusing labeling in the marketplace. Is “pesticide free” the same as “chemical free.” In either case is the farmer still using chemical fertilizers? (because the fertilizers don’t typically come into direct contact with the plant many farmers will say “chemical free, except fertilizers”). There are responsible and irresponsible ways to use many of the chemical tools at our disposal at farmers. But, as confusing as this sounds, never assume that a broad statement like “chemical free” means the vegetables were raised in anything like a balanced organic system. Always ask.

At Bluebird Farm we raise all of our produce following the organic standards for fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and all other growing techniques. In addition we strive to work with the ecology of the soil, our plants, and insects instead of against them. We work to establish patterns that encourage our vegetables instead of discouraging weeds. We try to increase beneficial insect populations instead of eliminate pest insects. In other words we are trying to build a positive ecological system of growth rather than a negative system of suppression.

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