Organic farming practices | Sunday Observer

Organic farming practices

11 July, 2021

What makes a farm organic?

Organic farming works in harmony with nature. Since organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilisers, GMOs, or pesticides, they have to fight insects, disease and weeds and grow abundant food with the help of other methods.

What connects all organic farming practices is their ultimate goal: to build and improve the soil, quite literally the foundation of our food system and our lives.

Soil health

What is healthy soil?

Healthy soil is that which allows plants to grow to their maximum productivity without disease or pests and without a need for off-farm supplements.

Healthy soil is teeming with bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes, and other tiny creatures. Those organisms play an important role in plant health.

Soil bacteria produce natural antibiotics that help plants resist disease. Fungi assist plants in absorbing water and nutrients. Together, these bacteria and fungi are known as “organic matter.” The more organic matter in a sample of soil, the healthier that soil is.

Quantifying healthy soil

To determine if soil is healthy, farmers and scientists measure several factors. How many microorganisms are present? How many nutrients—nitrogen, for example—are in the soil? How well does the soil retain water during drought? How much carbon can the soil sequester  from the atmosphere?

At Rodale Institute, our scientists collect soil samples in the field. Back in the lab, they dry and weigh the samples before analysis. Our research has shown that while conventional systems erode and deplete soils, organic systems  improve and build the soil over time.

What are cover crops?

Cover crops are different from cash crops, which are those that a farmer sells for profit, such as corn or soybeans.

Cover crops’ primary job is to improve the soil. They get planted in fields that would otherwise be bare, in between growing seasons, for example, to protect the soil from erosion and nutrient loss.

Cover crops also help smother weeds, control pests and diseases, enhance water availability, and increase  biodiversity on the farm. Think of cover crops as a living mulch.

How it works

Every time a farmer grows her cash crop, the plants draw nutrients out of the soil. After the harvest, those nutrients need to be returned so that the next crop is equally bountiful.

Certain cover crops have the unique ability to ‘fix’ nutrients like nitrogen from the atmosphere and return them to the soil, making them an indispensable tool in maintaining and increasing soil fertility without chemical use.

Uses on the farm

Cover crops are an integral part of  Organic no-till. They help return nutrients to the soil and, when rolled by the roller crimper, create a weed-suppressing mulch.

Many cover crops do double duty, they can be planted either for profit or fertility and weed control depending on the farmer’s intent. Examples include Austrian winter peas, alfalfa, rye, mustard, oats, and buckwheat, among others. Cover crops also keep something green and growing year-round, helping farmers  sequester more carbon to fight greenhouse gas emissions.

What is crop rotation?

Crop rotation is the practice of planting different crops sequentially on the same plot of land to improve soil health, optimise nutrients in the soil and combat pest and weed pressure.

For example, say a farmer has planted a field of corn. When the corn harvest is finished, he might plant beans, since corn consumes a lot of nitrogen and beans return nitrogen to the soil.

A simple rotation might involve two or three crops, and complex rotations might incorporate a dozen or more.

What is compost?

Compost is created from the aerobic decomposition of many materials usually considered waste, including food scraps, animal manures, leaves, straw, and more. Composting occurs when carbon-rich materials (browns), like straw and leaves, are mixed with nitrogen-rich materials (greens), like food scraps and manure.

Add oxygen, time, some skilled management, and the help of  billions of microorganisms. The finished result is crumbly, sweet-smelling, and nutrient-packed compost.

What is tillage?

Tillage is the practice of digging up, turning over, or otherwise agitating the soil with mechanical tools, typically a plow or disc. Tilling breaks up soil compaction, helps eliminate weeds, and incorporates cover crops for boosted soil fertility. These are important benefits, but tillage also leaves soil vulnerable to erosion and destroys important fungal networks underground. Tillage is also fuel and labour-intensive. Some farmers, both conventional and organic, practice reduced tillage or try to eliminate it altogether.

What is organic pest management?

Bugs and insects are a given on any farm. Some bugs are beneficial, as they prey on the bad bugs and provide valuable pollination. But other insects pose a threat. Pests can damage the appearance of fruits and vegetables, making those products difficult or impossible to sell. Even worse, some pest damage can kill a crop outright. Conventional farmers spray toxic pesticides to eliminate pests. Organic farmers use alternative strategies to reduce and control pests without the use of synthetic inputs.

The strategies

The first line of defence is prevention, healthy soil creates strong plants that are resilient to pest pressure. Farmers can encourage populations of natural predators and beneficial insects like ladybugs. Other strategies includes rotating crops and selecting pest-resistant varieties of crops. When pests become a more serious problem, organic farmers might use pheromones to disturb pest mating cycles, or mechanical controls like trapping. When all other methods have been exhausted and a farmer is faced with a potential significant loss, targeted sprays of organic-approved pesticides may be used. Broad sprays of non-specific pesticides are always a last resort. Source: Rodale Institute