Organic farming uses natural methods of fertilizer production (like compost or manure), techniques such as companion planting, mixed crops and crop rotation, while nurturing predator species to control pests. In most cases, organic farming generally does away with all forms of synthetic fertilizers, plant growth regulators or pesticides. Use of antibiotics or hormones in livestock is forbidden, while use of nano-materials and genetically modified plants or animals is shunned.
Amongst the earliest proponents and developers of organic farming concepts were Sir Albert Howard, F.H. King and Rudolf Steiner. J.I. Rodale began publishing the Organic Gardening and Farming magazine in the 1940s.
Masanobu Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution (find on Amazon US, UK, IN) is a great starting point. Masanobu’s journey from plant pathologist to enlightened farmer is an inspiration to read besides being highly educational.
When compared with conventional farming, organic farms have much lower input costs and their use of water is minimal. But, until the soil being cultivated attains high degrees of health, organic farms tend to initially produce lower yields (~25% lower | SRC: britainnica.com); and the amount of manual labor involved is high. The direct result of this is that organically farmed produce, tends to be more expensive than conventionally produced foods.
Interestingly, by 2019, 170 million acres of farmland was labelled as organic, but even this impressive scale, only represented 1.4% of all global farmland.
Essentials of Organic Farming
Soil Management is pivotal in any organic farming venture. Composting and green manure are vital to improving soil health over time and is a means of replenishing nutrients extracted by previous crops. For compost to be rich in nutrients, a wide verity of organic material such as green waste like de-watered fecal sludge, animal manure and bedding, leaves, hay and weather exposed wood-chips may be introduced into a decomposition mix.
A number of composting methods exist such as compost heap decomposition which may be carried out at an industrial scale, vermicomposting which uses worm species such as red wrigglers and earthworms to process vegetable and food waste, and fermenting organic matter using lactobacilli.
Crop diversity is a key feature of organic farming. It involves poly-culture principles (planting a variety of plants in the same plot) and multi-cropping (planting co-dependent plants together). It also promotes utilizing a variety of genetically different sources for same or similar plants, to mitigate against pests and diseases.
There’s a story about how a Japanese-American orchard owner David Masumoto went against the trend of replanting heirloom peach trees with pest resistant verities which produced more attractive fruit which handled shipping much better; instead opting to plant flowers which attracted beneficial insects. Masumoto’s orchard still produces the sweetest Suncrest peaches. His book Epitaph for a Peach (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) is a must read.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a systems approach to creating conditions which allow beneficial weeds, insects and mites, worms and nematodes, bacteria and an assortment of mycorrhiza to flourish. Biological pest management techniques ensure an all-round organic approach is maintained to curtail and mitigate against pests which may harm crops.
Paul Jackson’s Organic Pest Control: The Practical Guide (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) and Jessica Walliser’s book A Natural Approach to Pest Control (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) make for informative go-tos at any stage of your organic farming venture.
Some of the more frequently practiced methods of organic pest management include:
- rotating crops across plots to halt onset of established pests which attack specific crops
- continuously preparing and applying organic pesticides and some acceptable kinds of herbicides
- encouraging beneficial insects to establish themselves in the farm by providing them habitats like bug homes and hedgerows
- allowing weeds to germinate in unused beds and then destroying them before they seed
- remove pest habitats and using barriers such as frost blankets
- inter-planting pest repellent vegetation and encouraging beneficial microorganisms
Economics of organic farming
An organic farm (when started from scratch) takes time to become established. Many organic practices like building soil health and pest management take significant trial and error efforts, before micro and local ecosystems become established enough to produce in volume. While not as capital intensive as traditional commercial farming, there is a need for a farmer to be able to sustain through and initial growth phase. Jon Newton’s case study based organic farming book Profitable Organic Farming (find it on Amazon US, UK, IN) covers scenarios for vegetable, fruit, poultry and livestock; and includes crop and produce identification, financial management, distribution, marketing and ways to measure success.