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Benefits of organic food still being weighed

By Katie Larsen
On April 24, 2014

As the growing season begins for farms in Cache Valley, the USU Student Organic Farm is already selling produce. Every Wednesday beginning as early as March, the organic farm sells its produce from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the TSC Patio.

The farm, which is managed entirely by students, provides workers with experience and skills many employers value.

“Our interns and students managers have gone on to do wonderful things once they have graduated,” said Jennifer Reeve, assistant professor of organic and sustainable agriculture. “We’ve heard back from many of them saying the student farm has provided a lot of credibility on their CV (curriculum vitae) and a lot of applied hands-on knowledge. Basically, these students are running a business.”

While the students who help run the organic farm benefit from the experience, do people benefit from eating the produce?

“It depends on what you are looking at,” Reeve said. “There’s quite a bit of evidence, or growing evidence now, that organically produced produce tends to have higher levels of antioxidant compounds, but they’re not necessarily considered nutrients, so the research is really mixed.”

In order to be considered an organic farm, certain regulations regarding fertilizers and pesticides must be met. No synthetic fertilizers can be used on organic farms, which is part of the reasoning behind the claim that organic farming is better for the environment.

“The biggest positive thing about gardening organically is you add the organic matter to your soil, and increasing the organic matter in the soil makes it more long-term sustainable,” said Jeanette Norton, professor of soil microbiology at USU. “So the organic matter in the soil helps the soil structure, it helps the soil nutrient supplying capacity and it stores water better in the soil.”

What makes compost and manure different from synthetic fertilizers is it puts carbon back into the soil while adding other components, including nitrogen. These nutrients contribute to the structure of the soil, unlike synthetic fertilizers which don’t replace organic matter to the soil. Without organic matter, the soil quality decreases.

“You don’t have the organic matter to bring individual soil particles and bind them into clumps which adds structure to the soil,” said Astrid Jacobson, assistant professor of soil chemistry. “So you start breaking down the soil functions over a long period of time.”

Organic farms use cover crops and crop rotation to add nutrients back into the soil. Jacobson said the student managers of the organic farm have done well over the years in regards to cover crops and crop rotation.

“They found some very nice combinations that work great in Cache Valley and work very well in the student farm,” Jacobson said. “So if you go out there, the soil looks beautiful. It looks like crumbly, chocolate cake.”

Care must also be taken in regards to what type of compost is used on organic farms.

“It depends on where you get the compost,” Norton said. “If it is dairy manure, you have to be careful about the salt content. If the compost has weed seeds, you have make sure it was heated enough to kill the seeds.”

While the pesticides for organic farms are not synthetic, toxins are still present.

“In general, the pesticides allowed in organic farming are less toxic, but they are still toxic,” Reeve said. “The question is then are the residues or any possible residues of toxic pesticides on produce toxic to human health? The honest answer is we don’t know.”

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