For as long as I can remember, one of the clearest divisions that has existed among farmers in Pennsylvania and around the country has been the distinction between organic and conventional growers.
Having spent most of my early career working on an organic farm, I was under the impression that these two groups were separated by an irreconcilable difference; that one could never see the merits of the other without devolving into a discussion on poorly understood science, or on long-held misconceptions of either side.
For more than a year, I’ve been traveling around visiting farmers all over Pennsylvania to provide technical assistance on behalf of Rodale Institute as their lead crop consultant. Rodale is a nonprofit research and education institution in Kutztown that is dedicated to growing the organic movement through science, farmer training, and consumer education. In 2019, the institute launched its Organic Crop Consulting Service, which, thanks to the PA Farm Bill, is currently a free service for Pennsylvania farmers to help them with any aspect of transitioning to organic.
I’ve met farmers in all stages of life, from every background, both conventional and organic, with varying levels of experience. During this time, I’ve noticed a few things that I think are worth sharing.
The first is that the gap between organic and conventional growers, on a personal level, is smaller than we think. While there certainly are important differences between organic and conventional farming practices, whatever cultural line I thought may have existed all but disappeared the moment I started visiting farms. What I found was that there is invaluable diversity of thought and practice in the agricultural community here, and that variation is what makes Pennsylvania one of the best farming states in the nation.
Pennsylvania farmers have an indomitable spirit. They’re resourceful, self-sufficient, and they take every passing obstacle in stride — somehow neither dwelling on the events that are out of their control, nor underestimating their significance. But above all, I’ve noticed that farmers in this state are compassionate. Not for one moment have I felt unwelcome while visiting a farm, even when there are hints of division or disagreement. We operate on a sense of mutual respect, and sometimes even open admiration of our counterparts’ ability to adapt and innovate.
Our preconceptions around organic and conventional farming just aren’t accurate when applied to reality. If you’re an organic farmer, you should know that there are countless conventional farmers in this state that care deeply about sustainability, water quality, soil health and animal welfare. There are plenty of farmers who would prefer to reduce their use of synthetic herbicides where possible, and some that are making that effort every day. If you’re a conventional farmer, you should know that there are scores of organic farmers who became certified because they wanted to explore new markets and gain back some of their autonomy, not because of some wholesale rejection of the conventional farming lifestyle.
In fact, organic farmers have a lot to learn from conventional no-till grain growers who are cover cropping and “planting green.” Conversely, conventional no-till growers could learn quite a bit from the organic no-till movement — getting certified doesn’t have to mean utilizing more tillage.
Coupled with the fact that organic farmers can make two to three times as much per bushel on organic corn, soybeans, and other products, why wouldn’t we all want to work toward that goal? What a missed opportunity it would be to prevent ourselves from innovating together.
I can think of no better time for us as an agricultural community to let go of some of our misconceptions and to operate as one; to start making a concerted effort to understand each other, to have an open mind, and to make the decision to work together. It’s my goal to make this a reality by working with farmers across the state — whether they are actively pursuing certification or want to adopt a few regenerative practices on their conventional farm.
I look forward to meeting more farmers and helping to bridge the gap by focusing on what we have in common. As Pennsylvania farmers, we should take pride in the strength of our community, our diversity, and our compassion for each other.
Sam Malriat is the lead organic crop consultant at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He earned a B.S. in agricultural sciences from Cornell University, and has over 12 years of farming experience in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland. He can be reached at Consulting@RodaleInstitute.org or 610-684-1416.