Organic, Conventional or GMO? This Farming Mom Tested Them All:

By Jennie Schmidt, RDN

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Carpooler In Chief, Homework Enforcement Officer, President of Lunch-Packing, Bedtime Efficiency Strategist

When you’re a mom, you never wear just one hat.

And over the years — as a working mom of two kids; a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and a farmer who’s grown with organic, GMO and conventional methods — I’ve worn them all.

Scouting the vineyard for pests and diseases – a fun workday when the autumn weather is this nice! Photo by Curt Dennison.

That may sound like an odd mix, but I like to think there’s a core philosophy in everything I do. Call it rigorous experimentation or basic trial and error to figure out what works — for me, there’s a ton of scientific thinking that goes into raising kids, just as there is for treating patients and certainly for growing crops.

I didn’t always think about my three “jobs” in this way, but looking back, I can trace this scientific approach all the way to my days training and working as an RDN.

When my kids were born, I took time off from the hospital where I worked conducting nutritional assessments for critically ill patients. It was meaningful work, and drove home the critical importance of following evidence over opinions in a way textbooks never could. But as I began to chip in more with our day-to-day farming duties back home, I found I enjoyed working outside on the farm — and being closer to my babies — a whole lot more.

So that’s what I did: I set about learning to drive just about every piece of farming equipment I could, and proved that I was just as capable as any of the guys.

On our vineyard tractor – not the biggest on our farm, but perfect around the grape trellises.

I was happy to discover that my background in science really helped. My husband’s family had been farming with scientific thinking for generations — even if they didn’t call it that. Early on, my father-in-law found out about “no-till agriculture,” a technique that works hand in hand with GMO Farming to avoid plowing the soil at all, leaving it undisturbed to help boost soil health, save water and reduce erosion and runoff into local waterways. We farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where agricultural run-off like this can be a big source of sediment polluting the Chesapeake Bay — imagine topsoil carried off in heavy rains, or excess fertilizers that weren’t absorbed by crops. So we tested out “no-till”, saw it worked and kept it. Today, “no-till” is still considered a cutting edge trend in sustainable farming, but to us it was just another tool to try.

I see a lot of talk about which farming method is best — organic, GMO, conventional — but we’ve just always farmed. It’s not about one practice or another; it’s about using the best tools from each approach to grow the healthiest crops with the least environmental impact.

We’ve worked hard to meet and surpass some of the highest conservation stewardship certifications around, going beyond baseline soil and water conservation practices on our many acres.

On our farm, there’s a place for any method that helps us farm smarter, and we test every good idea we find — which is why we’ve not only been using GMO Farming since the late 90’s, we’ve also been certified organic.

We first tested organic farming on about 100 acres, hoping to make our farm even more sustainable. But we quickly found that pure organic methods made our environmental impact worse, not better. For one, we had to start tilling our fields again, ripping up our soil and causing more erosion and sediment runoff — a non-starter given our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay.

We also found we had to control for weeds as often as every ten days, taking up to eight passes over our fields with a heavy tractor, compacting and doing more damage to our soil. It worked directly against what we knew was best for the environment and the Bay, which is to disturb the soil as little as possible. We could make higher profits selling organics, and tried a few modifications to make it work, but at the end of the day we saw the results, knew we could do better and decertified from organic.

A blooming cover crop of buckwheat in the fall, keeping our soil healthy and full of nutrients for the next season.

As a mom thinking about what I was feeding my kids, not to mention our customers, it helped that I knew from my RDN training that all crops carry the same nutritional value, regardless of how they were grown.

And a few years later, we found out we weren’t the only ones to see similar results. A group of scientists working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation studied pesticide residue and farm runoff in the Bay, and credited the “no-till” approach we use with GMO Farming for helping clean up the Bay.1http://chesapeakestormwater.net/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2016/03/Final-Report-on-Ag-and-Wastewater-Toxics.pdf

I see a lot of surprised faces when I tell people I’m a farmer, especially if they ask me about organic and GMO Farming methods. So many people assume “GMOs” mean overusing pesticides to grow less healthy (or worse, dangerous) food, while they believe “organics” mean healthier food grown with zero pesticides. But neither is true, and no part of farming is ever that black-and-white.

One of the more daunting farm implements I learned to drive in the early days — here we’re planting “no-till” soybeans that will help keep farm run-off out of nearby waterways.

With so many public misconceptions about how our food is grown, it’s all too easy for clever marketing to drive us to choose our food based on myths, not facts. But just like today’s farmers don’t all have red tractors parked in quaint wood barns, modern farming can’t be simplified into one-size-fits-all approaches.

As an RDN who applies science to my everyday life, a farmer who has been growing food for years and a mom who could have used a reminder to worry less when my own kids were younger, my advice for every parent and anyone else who asks is simple: Be smart with your budget, buy lots of fruits and veggies and don’t worry if they have the “right” food labels or not. Farmers and RDNs like me don’t find those labels useful to describe how we farm or what we grow for our family. Our crops are safe, nutritious, and grown sustainably by using the best tools in our farm’s toolbox.

This post is sponsored by A Fresh Look, a 501(c) (6) organization, whose mission is to provide trustworthy research-based info to consumers about the benefits of GMO Farming methods.

A Fresh Look, Inc. A family farmer-led non-profit