MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A recent report from finds that West Virginia has the 7th smallest share of organic farmland in the US, with fewer than 1% of farming acreage in the state being certified organic. Organic farming is a management system that often rejects modern farming techniques, like synthetic fertilizer, to focus on more natural processes. The goal of organic farming is generally to make food production more environmentally friendly and healthy. Some organic advocates argue that organic food contains more nutrients and tastes better. However, organic benefits can be a polarizing debate in the farming community.

“The debate between the nutritional value of organic food and conventional food has gone on for a long time, and to a very large extent, without a lot of data to support it one way or the other,” said Dr. James Kotcon, Associate Professor of Plant Pathology at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture.

Organic Pros and Cons

Dr. Kotcon said the nutritional debate is one of the projects West Virginia University has been working on with other states, and they’ve found, for the most part, that the levels of most vitamins and nutrients are largely indistinguishable. Organic food does, however, tend to be higher in a few nutrients that fight cancer and reduce aging, like antioxidants. Experts surmise that it could be because of an increase in soil health.

Dr. James Kotcon, WVU Davis College of Agriculture

“Other than those few specific nutraceuticals, the only real advantage is a significant reduction in the level of pesticide contamination,” said Kotcon, “That’s not to say that conventional food is generally unsafe, but there is a larger number of traces of some of those chemicals that can be found in conventional food.”

Organic activists argue that using synthetic pesticides on plants is harmful to the environment, the consumer, and the farmer. In addition to less exposure for consumers, they believe that using organic practices provides a safer working environment for farmers who would not be exposed to synthetic chemicals. They are also concerned with the pesticides leaching into the soil and polluting the water as well as the effects of pesticides on the pollinator population, such as bees and butterflies.

However, conventional farmers have argued that organic farmers’ process of using manure can also leach harmful bacteria into waterways. Also, organic farmers can use organic pesticides, which generally need to be applied more liberally for the same effect and can still be toxic to humans. Dr. Doolarie Singh-Knights, Sustainable Agriculture Expert at the WVU Extension Service, said sustainability is less about choosing between conventional or organic and more about the farming process as a whole.

“You use what we call holistic management,” explained Dr. Singh-Knights, “Which is, I can use chemicals, but I also want to use those soil improving techniques. I also want to use proper management–not having all my animals in one place, but rotating them just like I rotate my crops, and so on. So there’s a lot of management techniques within whichever system you’re growing that could help you positively contribute to sustainability.”

The State of Organic Farming in West Virginia

Dr. Kotcon and Dr. Singh-Knights explained that the process of getting USDA Certified Organic tends to be expensive and labor-intensive. First, you have to prove that the land has been free of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer for three years. Then, the cost of the certification can be costly. The farmer must invite a USDA-accredited certifying agent to their farm for inspection every year, and there are no agents located in the state. In addition to those costs, organic plants often have a lower yield than conventional because of losses associated with pests, disease, and being unable to use GMOs.

Dr. Singh-Knights, WVU Extension Services

“People in the organic field joke, ‘Of course it costs more because we’ve got to squash bugs by hand,'” said Dr. Singh-Knights, “So they’ve got to monitor, and they’ve got to look for where these bugs are and introduce all kinds of different types of initiatives and management strategies to keep the bugs and the diseases away, which is labor intensive.”

Dr. Kotcon explained that most West Virginia farms are smaller than average, in part due to terrain. For those farmers, it may not be worth the cost risk. He added that the organic industry has developed more in the Eastern Panhandle because growers can market to larger cities, such as Washington DC and Baltimore.

“For many West Virginia growers, if they’re marketing to local farmers markets or roadside stands, etc., the income is not sufficient to justify that cost,” Dr. Kotcon reasoned, “The larger the grower, the better the return for being certified in organic, and that’s when they’re marketing wholesale to larger grocery chains and those types of things where that organic certification carries with it a premium price.”

Dr. Singh-Knights explained that just because a farmer is not certified organic does not mean they are not using organic practices. In fact, through working with the Extension office, she met farmers in the state who say that they do everything organically without the certification. She added that she believes the vast majority of West Virginia growers, conventional or organic, are always thinking about doing right by their customers.

“I have yet to see a farmer, whether that’s an organic farmer or conventional farmer, douse their plants with chemicals because, oh, I want my plants to be pristine, and I don’t want to have just even one bug bite. Farmers are generally not like that,” Dr. Singh-Knights described, “Farmers in your local communities, for the most part, are these trustworthy, very upstanding members of your community that do right by their customers every day.” 

How can we eat more sustainably?

At the end of the day, the most important ways to purchase food that is healthier and better for the environment have nothing to do with eating organic or conventional, according to Dr. Singh-Knights. It’s all about eating locally and eating in season.

“A lot of the benefits accrue when the product comes off your farm. As long as that marketing chain becomes longer, we lose the benefits,” Dr. Singh-Knights explained.

When people purchase out-of-season fruits and vegetables, they have to be shipped from somewhere where they are in season, for example, getting avocados from Mexico. But, that means the food is less fresh and the transportation causes more air pollution. The other thing Dr. Singh-Knights highly recommends is getting to know your local farmer to build trust.

“Get out there and engage in an agritourism visit. Visit a farm and see what they do and how they do things, and we can start with Mountain State Maple Days, which is coming up February 19th and March 19th,” she said, “Two days where you can go, you can see people tapping maple trees and so on.”