Some fall harvest still involves manual labor, especially certified organic squash | TheFencePost.com

Some fall harvest still involves manual labor, especially certified organic squash

by Tony Bruguiere

Not all fall harvest is done with big machines. Many vegetables are still harvested by hand in pretty much the same way that they were generations ago.

Mechanized harvesters have been developed for some produce crops, but most produce is just too fragile for anything other than hand labor. For crops such as winter squash, which grows on a ground vine, running a machine in the field is out of the question.

Anna Schnorr of Schnorr Farms in Fort Collins, Colo., grows varieties of winter squash and takes all the issues involved in hand labor one step farther by growing U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic squash and beans.

The key word in that is "Certified." Anyone can put "organic" or "naturally grown" on their labels. To be USDA Certified Organic means that the grower followed a strictly regulated and monitored method of growing crops according to USDA Standards. It is not enough to say that a crop is grown organically, you have to be able to prove it through meticulous records, documented procedures, audits and inspections.

Before the first seed of an organic crop goes into the ground, the entire field has to be tested, inspected, and certified organic by USDA standards. If crops had been previously grown in the field using conventionally accepted methods, the field cannot be certified organic until it is free of all residual traces of non-organic chemicals. Depending on the type of soil and the weather, this can take up to three years. Even the storage areas have to be tested and certified as organic.

After all of this is tested, inspected, and certified, Schnorr is finally ready to plant and do some farming. Well not quite — before she can start, Schnorr has to submit an Operating Plan to the USDA stating what she intends to plant, which approved organic chemicals she will use, and what methods she will use throughout the year.

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One other thing that Schnorr has to include in her plan is any problems that might possibly crop up during the next year and what methods she will employ to fix the problem. Schnorr has three organic fields, and will plant pie pumpkins and green acorn, butternut, spaghetti, and delicata squash.

All of this work is done and not a single seed is in the ground. Finally, Schnorr has gotten her fields and storage areas tested and approved and the USDA has approved her Operating Plan and planting can begin. The season is moving right along. The weather is cooperating and the squash are growing well. Unfortunately, the inevitable weeds are growing well also.

Weeds will steal nutrients and water from a crop resulting in lower yields. They compete for space and can over-grow a crop. Pests and disease can also be brought in by weeds. Weeds have to be removed, which, in a conventionally grown crop, is not a huge problem. A weed specific herbicide is applied to the field to kill the weeds.

However, in a Certified Organic field no herbicides are allowed. There is only one solution available to Schnorr — manual labor. Schnorr has three employees whose sole job is to go into the fields every day throughout the season and chop weeds with a hoe. In this high tech world, weed control in Certified Organic fields is done the same way and using the same tools as it was centuries ago.

All of the higher labor costs, testing, audits, lower yields, and inspections involved in USDA Certified Organic produce will add to the final cost of the product that reaches the produce department of your local supermarket.

American shoppers are given a choice as to how their produce is grown. Hopefully, this will help the consumer understand why organically certified produce costs more than produce that is conventionally grown. ❖

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