The corn to above has not been genetically modified. It’s certified organic, grown at Riverview Farms in Ranger, and it’s used to feed the heritage Berkshire hogs that Charlotte and Wes Swancy raise.

No synthetic fertilizers or dangerous pesticides were used to grow it. These inputs inflict significant damage on the soil, water, air, and communities in which they are used; their absence here is partly why this corn is so important.

By its very nature, agriculture impacts the environment, but some farms wreak more havoc than others. Certified Organic and Certified Naturally Grown farms actually protect—even rejuvenate!—the environment.

At a time when Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow, and other manufacturers of the most harmful pesticides and fertilizers in use are claiming to be practitioners of  “sustainable agriculture,” it’s time we take a look at the way eating and growing fresh, pure food using organic practices truly protects Mother Nature.

Agriculture is the No. 1 source of all non-point source pollution in Georgia. (Non-point source pollution is pollution that doesn’t come from a single source.) This is mainly through fertilizer run off, which can cause algae blooms, which in turn depletes oxygen from the rest of the aquatic environment. (See “Dead Zone” breakout box below.)

Conventional agriculture is responsible for about 33 percent of all greenhouse gas production in the world. By avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic farms are decreasing their carbon footprint by a minimum of 83 percent. This percentage is the portion of agriculture’s fossil fuel use that is tied to the use and manufacture of synthetic fertilizers (which are particularly energy-intensive to make) and pesticides.

The silver lining is this: if done right, agriculture could help solve climate change instead of making the problem worse.

Healthy farms use processes already perfected by the natural world to promote growth in their fields. At Riverview Farms, the Swancys use organic methods to control pests, nurture healthy soil, and ensure that their pigs are healthy and happy

“In every aspect we have the land’s best interest at heart,” says Charlotte. “When we are growing the grain for the pigs, we think about how to keep that sustainable, how to not dig too much, not dig at the wrong times, and pay attention to the weather. With the pigs, we have to make sure they don’t dig up the land and destroy the environment. But we also have to make sure they have a humane environment themselves, so that can be a crazy balance.”

Crop rotation is a go-to method that can have two dramatic advantages on a farm: it  adds vital nutrients to the soil and fights off pests.

fertilizer_runoff“If you plant the same thing in the same spot year after year after year, the crops are going to deplete the soil, and through crop rotation the next crop will pull up some different nutrients from the soil that are useful for the next crop,” Charlotte says. “Not to mention bugs will go, ‘You’ve had tomatoes here [in the same field for a while]. I’m going to come back next year and eat those tomatoes.’ You’ll start to have crop failures when you have crop after crop on the same spot. Once you start spraying for pests, you always will have pests.”

Farmers also rely on cover cropping to keep their land rich with organic matter, which is what plants absorb through their roots to grow strong, fight diseases and pests, and produce crops that are chock full of the nutrients and micronutrients that keep us healthy.

There are currently 324 farm members of Georgia Organics—the most in our organization’s history—who support organic and sustainable farming through various production practices.

Gerard Krewer, who runs Harrietts Bluff Organic Blueberry Farm in Woodbine, specializes in blueberry production. His Certified Organic operation has resulted in water runoff that’s so free of synthetic fertilizers that it’s practically clear. “It’s almost drinking quality,” he says. “Almost never is it cloudy and so forth. I don’t have any algae.”

Can farms help us adapt to or even lessen the impacts of climate change? You bet they can.

A study published in Science found that perennial crops, such as grasses found on established grass-fed beef ranches, absorb carbon dioxide and methane from the air, then store them in the soil.

One of the first explorations of the ability of grass-fed beef ranches to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, published in On Earth in 2009, references Georgia’s own White Oak Pastures in Bluffton.

birddemicIf America were to convert all of the nation’s cropland to organic agriculture, the soil and atmospheric shifts would offset 25 percent of our total fossil fuel emissions, per a joint study by the Rodale Institute and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

But it isn’t easy being green. “Weeds can be the toughest thing for a Certified Organic farmer,” Swancy says. “Weeds and enough time in the day to get it all done.”

“The plus side to being Certified Organic? You feel good about what you are doing. To be organic, you really have to pay attention to all these little nuances of the soil and what’s going on on your farm. And I feel good about telling my customers, after 14 years, that this is good for you, this is good for your children. I feel good knowing that they are healthy and I didn’t do anything to harm their health,” Swancy says.

Which brings us back to that corn. It’s part of a system of farming that’s invested in our collective longterm personal health, but also the health of the planet.  Our farmers—you!—are quite literally making a better world. Yes, we’re living with what conventional ag has wrought, but we owe it to future generations to continue the fight.