A Brief History of Organic Farming at ZFF

A Brief History of Organic Farming (at Zettel Family Farms)

By Ted Zettel

Part One: Beginnings

In 1982, on the day of my first contact with a real organic farmer,  I was a progressive young dairy farmer working in partnership with my Dad, who had taken over the family farm from his Dad. I got into farming for what are now called “lifestyle aspirations”.  When my girlfriend Christine and I were planning our post-secondary studies, my Dad announced that he would be getting out of cows when I left to go to the city. That threw a monkey wrench into our idea of getting our academic credentials and returning later to raise a family on the farm.  We knew that without the cows, there would be no viable farm business to come back to. If we wanted to have children and be farmers, now was the time. We decided to postpone university, get married and dive into the adventure of family farming. When our first son Sam was born in January of 1979 we were both 20 years old.

Despite the lack of any formal education in business or agriculture, it didn’t take long to figure out that to be successful as farmers would mean changing from the traditional methods my father had used and achieving “progress”.  Later, after conversion to organics, my fellow organic farmers and I would laugh at ourselves, remembering what we called our “progress phase”. My father had been an innovator in his own time, being one of the first to specialize in milk and trade his dual-purpose beef/dairy cows for Holsteins.  I was intent on adopting every innovation that would intensify the production of the land and the cows and push for the greatest labour efficiency and highest financial returns. Farming was experiencing a sort of slow revolution at that time, driven by economic analysis. Farms of the past had evolved as a way of life that served the family’s needs primarily and expected financial returns only as a secondary goal.  Mixed farming (what is mixed farming? An explanation might be helpful for the non-farmers) was the norm, as it provided all the staples a household could need in the way of food. The old farmers lived on the land, worked hard, and provided for their families. All of their neighbours were the same– relatively content with a steady, plodding self-sufficiency. The farm production was ordered to that end. But by 1979, the joint forces of Ministry of Agriculture and the University of Guelph had planted in the younger, more progressive ones (like myself) an ethic of bottom line thinking.  Farms were becoming larger and more specialized. The family could purchase food at the supermarket and the farm needed to produce only those commodities that had a good financial return. That equation of “returns to investment” was all about management and I attended scores of seminars and courses teaching me how to employ new technologies and methods that would accelerate production and drive profits. My production decisions were based not on what a family consumed, but on the imperative of making bank payments and keeping afloat financially.

As a matter of necessity, every increase in productivity which was proposed had a price-tag upfront.  Fortunately, my Dad who was still a partner, acted as a kind of “chamber of sober second thought”. I would come home excited and ready to spend more money, and he would ask questions and slow things down.  Nevertheless, the farm was moving steadily and rapidly toward greater reliance on resources from outside to get to the staggering new yields of corn, alfalfa and milk which we anticipated.

It was right there, in 1982, in the middle of this intoxicating “progress phase” that I bumped into an organic farmer who introduced me to a world of ideas that had been unknown to me, concepts that were so irrefutable that they would radically change my perception of the farm and lead to a fundamental paradigm shift.  I was learning to see the management of the farm through the lense of the science of ecology, and it rang true. In the spring of 1983 after a winter of deep questioning and research, we decided to take the plunge and convert “cold turkey” to organic farming.

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