Newbie Organic Farmer or Strawman?


In debate and logic, the tactic being used here is called setting up a straw man.
It’s a way of proving your opponent wrong by misrepresenting his
position and disproving the misrepresentation. This kind of anecdote is
often used to prove that commercial organic gardening is impractical.
Well, sure it’s impractical, if you try to do it exactly the way you
did your chemical farming. You have to wonder if this guy did his
homework before embarking on the switch, or if he figured "farming is
farming, except with organic farming you don’t use chemicals." That’s
like saying ice skating is just like roller skating, except you have
wheels instead of blades. Sure, there’s a lot the two activities have
in common, but there are some critical differences as well, and if you
don’t take those into account, you’re going to fall flat on your face.

The article isn’t really about Ernie, but about how major food
companies, encouraged by Walmart’s increased interest in stocking
organic food, are making some tentative forays into that market. It
does mention that "through trial and error, Mr. Costamagna has learned
organic tricks, such as using drip irrigation to reduce weeds and
planting ‘buffer crops,’ such as sugar beets and alfalfa, to attract
bugs away from the tomatoes and cut down on disease." Aren’t there any
other resources for commercial growers who want to make the switch to
organic, besides trial and error? Or is this a case where the ice
skaters don’t talk to the roller skaters, and vice versa? We don’t need
anyone making organic gardening more difficult than it needs to be, and
we certainly don’t want anyone misrepresenting how difficult it truly
is, when the best practices are employed. I don’t care if a commercial
grower is in it for idealism or profit, I want him (or her) to succeed.
And success starts with recognizing that organic gardening requires an
approach differentiated by more than a switch from chemical to manure.

Speaking of manure, in my humble opinion, composted, dry chicken
manure isn’t any more smelly than, say, Miracle-Gro. Wet, that’s
another matter (cough, cough).  Doesn’t he keep it dry, or is this yet
another instance of making organic look worse than it is?
"Planting the Seeds," in The Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2006, page B1, col. 2.


  1. I didn’t read the article but I wonder how much soil preparation was done before he went organic. You can’t expect a soil leached of its nutrients by years of non-organic methods to produce a healthy crop. He would have to have planted cover crops beforehand to increase soil fertility and tilth.

    For the other side, I recommend reading Michael Abelman’s Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It

  2. As a former reporter, I hate to say this, but … be very careful of what you read in the WSJ. When I worked for White Flower Farm, I was interviewed several times by WSJ writers, and it was very clear they had already decided what the story was, and were looking only for quotes that verified their thesis. I tried to tell them politely they were simply wrong. (It was usually dopey “trend” stories, built on a single factoid.) I saw a similar distinct slant to a story about a project in New London, CT, with which I was familiar.

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