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Ask Dr. Universe: What are some of the challenges of growing organic food?

UPDATED: Fri., July 16, 2021

A selection of organic produce from Huckleberry’s Market.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
A selection of organic produce from Huckleberry’s Market. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University

Dr. Universe: What are some of the challenges of growing organic food? –Sabrina, 11, Scarsdale, New York

Dear Sabrina,

There are all kinds of things to think about, along with a few challenges, when it comes to growing organic food.

My friend Lynne Carpenter-Boggs is a soil scientist at Washington State University who works with many farmers and knows a lot about what it takes to produce food that is organic.

First, she told me about seeds. Whether you want to grow a pepper plant, a flower or any other crop, when people grow organic food, it all starts with organic seeds.

Once you have your organic seeds, you’ll want to put them in healthy soil. People who grow organic food must keep track of everything they put into the soil.

“They can use anything that’s considered natural unless it hurts people or the environment,” Carpenter-Boggs said.

The seeds will grow up into a small plant called a seedling, and their roots will grow deeper down into the soil. When the leaves start to form on the plants, that’s often when insects will show up. They like to chew on plant leaves or lay their eggs in the plants. That can sometimes make the plants sick.

One challenge for growers is that they have to find ways to manage the insects and keep the insects from causing damage to the plants. They can’t use most products made by humans to kill the insects.

But one thing they can do is bring other insects that like to eat those pesky pest insects into the field or garden. We can actually find lots of beneficial insects on farms – from pollinators to the pest-eaters.

It’s also important for people growing organic foods to pick the right varieties of plants for their farm. The plants need to be able to grow well in a particular climate or environment.

Those are just a few examples of the challenges farmers sometimes face, but Carpenter-Boggs said there are actually about 90 pages of rules that people who grow organic food must follow.

“Every year, the growers have to prove they’re following the rules,” she adds. “They keep track of everything they do, everything they buy, everything they feed to their animals, every fertilizer, anything that they put into the soil and even the seeds that they buy.”

As people grow organic food, they often learn how all these different elements on the farm work as a whole system. They may also try out different techniques they learn about through research to help grow better fruits and veggies. That’s good news for all of us who like to eat dinner.

While farmers and farmworkers might face challenges, they work hard knowing they’re bringing food to people who need it. Who knows, maybe one day you will help us learn more about growing organic food, and maybe you’ll even have an organic farm of your own.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a project from Washington State University. Submit a question at askdruniverse@wsu.edu.

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