Organic and conventional: Q&A with a farmer

By Brandie Piper

Cannon Michael’s family has farmed the same land for more than 150 years. He’s part of the sixth generation to be involved in the family’s farming operation in Los Banos, California.

Throughout the generations the farm was divided into two family groups, and in the 1960s, his grandfather and great-uncle joined together to create Bowles Farming Company, which currently farms 11,000 acres.

What’s unique about Bowles Farming Company is that beginning this year, they will harvest about 500 acres of organic production, along with 10,500 acres raised using conventional practices.

Since the farm was started six generations ago, only conventional production practices were used. But they have always been willing to innovate and change and this year they will harvest their first certified organic crop on about 500 acres.

We asked Michael to share what he’s learned about growing organic and conventional. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: What are all the crops you grow?

A: Conventionally, we mostly grow processing tomatoes, but do some GM cotton and a small amount of GM alfalfa. Processing tomatoes are used for products like pizza and pasta sauce, ketchup, and tomato paste. If we grow a grain we grow durham wheat, which is a high-quality wheat used for bread flour. We’ll also grow corn for snack foods. We also grow melons, cantaloupe, and watermelon. Sometimes we grow onions or carrots, depending if there’s market demand.

The only organic crop we grow is tomatoes, and we’ll harvest our first crop this year. We started managing the ground as organic in 2013, but it takes three years to be able to certify the crop as organic. Now that we’re done with the prolonged process, we’ll have 500 acres of organic tomatoes.

Q: Why did you decide to jump into the organic market now?

A: We’ve been watching the organic industry for quite some time, and we have good relationships with a tomato processing facility, and we’ve seen their level of interest increase. We’ve also worked on other projects with large retailers that have conducted market surveys looking for trends. They’ve allowed us to tap into their intelligence, which helped us come to the decision.

Q: Why did you choose tomatoes?

A: Tomatoes are versatile. Processing tomatoes are used in many products, and with the abundance of organic products on the market right now, tomatoes are one of the most in-demand organic crops. For example, tomatoes are used in many salad dressings.
So if you’re going to do an organic salad dressing, you’ll need to source organic processing tomatoes for that. Same goes for pizza and pasta sauces, ketchup, canned diced, and paste.

Q: Do you plan to add more organic crops in the future?

A: Yes, we’re just getting started. We’re currently transitioning other acres, and we plan to grow 15 to 20 percent organic within the next five years.

“Many people think chemicals can’t be used on organic crops, but that’s a misconception. We can use some chemicals, but there are restrictions.”

Cannon Michael

Q: What’s the hardest part about growing both types of crops?

A: It takes time to transition the ground from conventional to organic, and there’s a lot more risk in growing organic. The organic market hasn’t always been a clear winner; people say at the beginning of the year they want organic, but when it’s time to harvest, they can’t pay as much. There also aren’t as many production tools available for organic crops if something goes wrong.

But we have one tomato processor with a devoted organic line, pricing has stabilized, and our talks with large retailers show it’s clear they want the product. There’s also now consistent demand, which helps us grow organic tomatoes profitably.

Q: Are there any differences in how you farm conventional and organic crops?

A: There are differences. Weeds are the biggest problem when growing organic crops because there aren’t a lot of ways to control weeds. With organic, farmers can only use special tools. We have to make more trips across the field than we would growing conventional crops because we have to use special GPS-guided, fine-tuned equipment that can lift the weeds and not the plants, which means there’s more labor involved.

Many people think chemicals can’t be used on organic crops, but that’s a misconception. We can use some chemicals, but there are restrictions. We have to spend a lot of time learning what it is we can and can’t do. It requires a lot of reading and a lot of conversations with university extension folks who know. It’s really a group effort.

Q: Is there anything you’re worried about venturing into the organic market?

A: We have some hesitation about what we’re going to do during rotation. You can’t just grow tomatoes forever. We can grow them for three years in a row and on the fourth we’ll have to find something else. It will have to be an organic crop to preserve the organic certification of the land, but it will also need to be something that is in demand.

Q: There are a lot of articles that talk about synthetic vs. natural fertilizer. Can you explain what that means?

A: Synthetic is produced inside a manufacturing facility, like synthetic nitrogen, which is mass-produced. Natural fertilizers are an animal or plant byproduct.

“You can’t fight the flow or change everyone’s minds. At the end of the day, I’ve got to figure out how to grow things for people that they want, whether I agree with every part of it or not.”

cannon michael

Q: Is one method of crop protection better than the other?

A: There have been no studies or anything that I’ve read that was peer-reviewed that said one method was better than the other or that health benefits are any different. But perception is reality. There’s a lot of social pressure, especially in large urban areas, about what is acceptable and not acceptable, even if those ideas are not based on facts.

Q: What treatments will you use on your organic tomatoes to control pests?

A: It will depend on what bugs we face, but some of the common products are copper-based or garlic-based. With some of the chemicals, there’s a labeled amount that is acceptable that is different from what is acceptable on conventional.

Q: Are your organic and conventional crops equally sustainable?

A: As a sixth-generation farmer, we have sustainability figured out. This is a long-term business, and we would never do anything to harm the soil or harm the environment around us. Some environmental activists try to downgrade what agriculture does, but to use those of us who are on the ground, live it, and work the fields – work side-by-side with the guys who help us grow the crops – it doesn’t make any sense. No rational person thinks the farmer is going to poison workers or soil. We’re intelligent people, and we know our soil is what makes us profitable year in and year out and our people are a huge part of our ability to farm.

Q: What do you want people to know about farming?

A: You can’t fight the flow or change everyone’s minds. At the end of the day, I’ve got to figure out how to grow things for people that they want, whether I agree with every part of it or not. My livelihood is supplying the world with the food it wants.

Many solutions for a growing world

To meet demand and conserve the planet, we need both the brightest minds and the most innovative thinking. We hope to play a role in helping farmers, scientists, government and the public find ways to both nourish people and preserve the planet. No matter how it’s grown, the safety, accessibility and nutrition of food should be valued above all else.

Published March 9, 2016 on

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