What Does Organic Mean?

Take a closer look at the meaning and implications behind one of agriculture’s most-hyped words, and how it affects today’s gardeners.

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COVID-19 stimulated a huge uptick in gardening interest, exhibited by the massive demand for seeds experienced by seed companies of every type. Many people are confronting the term “organic” in a new way, as each of them strives to fit garden techniques into their worldviews and philosophies. With the surge in gardening interest, it seems like a good time to explore the term “organic,” which has been tagged with so many intents and variations over the years that its meaning has become a little murky.

Searching for Organic Clarity

If we just look at the word “organic,” a whole interesting set of definitions pop up. Organic means “related to or derived from living matter.” It can also mean a “form of farming or gardening involved in production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial substances.” Or, it can “denote a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of a whole.” In agricultural terms, it’s perhaps most often associated with the USDA organic seal, which indicates that a product meets certification requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. (See “ ‘Organic’ Definitions” below for more information about what goes into the certification.)

Organic concepts are as old as agriculture itself, though, so it’s not surprising that the term has meaning deeper than a label or a generic definition. What is that meaning, exactly? It probably depends on who you ask.

My dive to further understand the term led me to a series of fascinating and enlightening conversations with three friends whose careers deeply plumb gardening. Each shared special and varied insights into what “organic” means to them and the agricultural world as a whole. (In full transparency, I don’t consider myself a strictly organic gardener, yet. I trend in that direction, however, and I resonate with the phrase “organic intent,” coined by my friend Mike Dunton of Victory Seeds.)

Gardening is an ever-evolving journey that each grower begins from a different starting point.
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Leaving Something Better Than You Found It

My first conversation was with Emily Rose Haga, a horticulturist, former plant breeder at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and current executive director of Seed Savers Exchange.

At the most basic level, from her many conversations with people involved in all aspects of farming, seed saving, and gardening, Emily says she hears one theme repeated when talking about what it means to be organic: Leave something better that you found it — which is exemplified by restorative farming, soil regeneration, and understanding the various interactions in our ecosystem.



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