By Brooke HatfieldUniversity of GeorgiaOrganic farming is on the rise in the United States, and it could change the way U.S. farmers tend to their soil.”With an organic farm, we have a whole-farm approach,” said Luanne Lohr, associate professor of agricultural and applied economics with the University of Georgia.”You don’t choose one practice and apply it,” she said. “You have to come up with a combination of things you can do that work for your particular farm ecology.”Organic farming is defined as an ecology-conscious system that strives to minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals.For a vegetable crop to be “certified organic,” a state or private certification organization accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture must vouch for it.According to the USDA, sales of organic fruits and vegetables increased from $181 million in 1990 to $2.2 billion in 2000. Sales of organic livestock and milk are also increasing.Lohr said this is due partly to consumer support, citing a 20-percent annual growth in retail sales for each of the past 12 years.Large companies like Pillsbury and Heinz have entered the organic market as well. This not only makes shoppers more aware but puts more organic food into mass-market grocery stores.More information for farmers on converting regular farmland to organic farms and on the regulations on growing organic crops is also available .Health reasonsMany people choose to go organic for health reasons, Lohr said. But the benefits of fruits and vegetables grown without synthetic chemicals could extend beyond the consumer.”One can expect to have better overall farmer health with reduced exposure to chemicals,” Lohr said.Organic farming can help the environment. “(With conventional farming) there are greater water-quality concerns, both for drinking water and for (water used in) recreation,” she said.As organic farming expands its foothold in agriculture, more limits are being placed on chemicals used on all farms.”The Environmental Protection Agency is now reviewing all organophosphate insecticides,” Lohr said. “Many uses are becoming more restrictive, particularly in fruits and vegetables that will be consumed raw.”Starting a farmGetting an organic farm up and running can take more time than starting a regular farm.”Choosing an organic method requires some practice,” Lohr said. “It requires a slow pace to get established. It requires that the farmer to know a lot about his own property and farm ecology. Most farmers know that information, but maybe they aren’t applying it yet.”An organic farming community helps ease the transition.”Organic farmers tend to share information very freely and are more likely to network,” Lohr said. “About 98 percent of organic farmers get information from other farmers about practices to try on their own farms.”Future of organicOrganic farming is growing. “Farmers are looking for alternatives,” Lohr said.This increase may help conventional farmers. “It isn’t necessarily true that only organic farmers benefit from organic methods,” Lohr said.”Aside from some methods that are experimental on farms,” she said, “(about a dozen organic) methods can be applied on a farm that does use chemicals as a way to reduce chemical use.”The Southern Organic Horticultural Workshop will be in Statesboro, Ga., Feb. 21-22. It will include a roundtable discussion and isn’t restricted to organic farmers.The workshop will be followed Feb. 23-24 by the Georgia Organic annual conference, also in Statesboro. For more information, go to www.georgiaorganics.org. For information on late registration, contact George Boyhan at firstname.lastname@example.org.