Our fertile ground: Farming is science

A lot has changed in the food market since Oxbow got its farming start in 1999. A slew of investigative books and documentaries have shed light on the catastrophic effects for the health from our over-consumption of processed foods. Increased attention to this state of affairs is having an impact. Demand for fresh produce across the country is on the rise. The USDA reports growth in the number of farmers markets as well as in programs across the nation trying to incorporate fresh, locally-grown produce into school lunches.

Meanwhile, paralleling initiatives around the country, Seattle recently issued its own Local Food Initiative, which calls for adding 250 new farmers and 4,000 acres into production over the next 10 years. Americans indeed seem to be rediscovering the value of fresh food and the local farm.

At the same time, concerns about the ecological footprint of agriculture is growing. Runoff from fertilized farms has long been implicated in oxygen-free dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. And Ohio’s toxic water crisis in August of last year, which left half a million residents without a public water supply for several days, provided a frightening glimpse into the future if something doesn’t change. So what NEEDS to change?

It is not as simple as mandating organic practices. Research has shown that nutrient leaching from intensive organic farming operations is a major contributor to groundwater pollution. Besides, organic is a legal label and does not always indicate that practices are in fact ecologically sound.

At Oxbow, we believe in small, measured steps and investments of time and thought to learn how to appropriately care for the land we farm.

While farming ecologically is gaining appeal, relatively little research on these farming methods has been done. Many gaps remain in our understanding of how different practices affect yield and impact the environment. But those gaps are closing. Under the lead of Doug Collins, Washington State University researcher, Oxbow farmers have collaborated on a series of studies over the past few years designed to build farmers’ collective understandings of the relationship between plants and soil in an organic system.

We’re excited about an upcoming new study that will help us measure the relationship between soil health and crop yields. The research will assess the return on investment to farmers of applying ecologically sound soil-building practices, including cover cropping and organic soil amendments. The critical issue at hand is this: too little fertilizer reduces yield, decreases farmer income and leaves the plants susceptible to disease, while too much risks leaching, pest outbreaks, and polluting the water table.

So, how to maximize profit while minimizing environmental damage? This is a question central to the sustainability of food production, and one that only farms like ours (with support from consumers like you!) are actively working on answering. Achieving both ecologically sound and economically viable farming, in a word, eco-agriculture, is key to the long-term success of local food initiatives.