In the past organic farm production was often considered as being only for radicals or hippies. Now it is seen as a viable economic move – with benefits to the farm soil, to the environment, and to the purchasers of the products. An organic approach can contribute toward making a farm more financially viable in several ways.
Demand for organic produce has boomed over recent years and supermarkets from Australia to England now devote significant shelf space to organic produce, and organic certification schemes have emerged and flourished.
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There are many definitions of organic farming. A commonly accepted definition is “farming without the addition of artificial chemicals”. An artificial chemical is one that has been manufactured or processed chemically; for example super phosphate (one of the world’s most important fertilisers).
All kinds of agricultural products are produced organically – vegetables, fruit, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, and fibres such as cotton and wool. Many processed foods are also produced organically (e.g. bread).
Most farms still operate as a monoculture (or series of monocultures); but problems associated with such practices are increasingly having an impact on the financial long-term viability of those farms.
Some poly-culture options which have benefited farms to date include:
Growing trees in paddocks provide shade for animals, and then eventually the trees can be harvested and sold for timber, woodchip or firewood.
2. Animals grazing in orchards
Sheep, free-range poultry or other animals can be grazed below fruit or nut trees.
Alternative farmers increase the efficiency of their land by diversifying harvestable product. One example is to have a marketable plant species (eg. pecan nut trees) and allow fowl to free-range beneath. Both pecans and fowls are harvestable. It provides a mutually beneficial situation. The trees provide shelter for the birds and the birds return the favour by fertilising the trees, eating suitable insects/pests. To ensure the birds do not eat the nuts, they can be kept locked in pens till after harvest.
Almost any animal can be used in this type of production system. Cows, sheep, deer, etc - are all possibilities. The farmer only needs to ensure the animals will not eat or destroy the trees/plants, and that the plants are not toxic to the animals.
3. Inter-row cropping
Inter-row cropping involves establishing the principle crop in rows then to plant another crop between them. A slow crop such as corn may be planted with lettuce between the rows. Compatibility of the two crop species is important. Do they need the same amount of watering and fertilising? How will light affect the two crops? Is one root system more dominant than the other? These questions will need to be answered for each combination.
Long-term fruit tree crops may be planted with vegetables between the rows. In this case, consider the spread of the tree roots. Most tree fruiting plants do not appreciate root competition. Spacing used in most fruit tree orchards adequately allows for a row of vegetables to be planted.
Biodynamic farming and gardening is a natural practice developed from a series of lectures given by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. It has many things in common with other forms of natural growing, but it also has a number of characteristics which are unique.
It views the farm or garden as a "total" organism and attempts to develop a sustainable system, where all of the components of the living system have a respected and proper place.
There is a limited amount of scientific evidence available which relates to biodynamics. Some of what is available suggests biodynamic methods do in fact work. It will, however, take a great deal more research for mainstream farmers to become convinced widely of the effectiveness of these techniques, or in fact for the relative effectiveness of different biodynamic techniques to be properly identified.
Principles of biodynamics:
- Biodynamics involves a different way of looking at growing plants and animals.
- Plant and animal production interrelate. Manure from animals feeds plants. Plant growth feeds the animals.
- Biodynamics considers the underlying cause of problems and attempts to deal with those causes rather than dealing with superficial ways of treating problems. Instead of seeing poor growth in leaves and adding nutrients; biodynamics considers what is causing the poor growth - perhaps soil degradation, wrong plant varieties....or whatever? It then deals with the bigger question.
- Produce is a better quality when it is "in touch" with all aspects of a natural ecosystem. Produce which is produced artificially (eg. battery hens or hydroponic lettuces) will lack this contact with "all parts of nature", and as such the harvest may lack flavour, nutrients, etc., and not be healthy food.
- Economic viability and marketing considerations affect what is grown.
- Available human skills, manpower and other resources affect what is chosen to be grown.
- Conservation and environmental awareness are very important.
- Soil quality is maintained by paying attention to soil life and fertility.
- Lime, rock dusts and other slow acting soil conditioners may be used occasionally.
- Maintaining a botanical diversity leads to reduced problems.
- Rotating crops is important.
- Farm manures should be carefully handled and stored.
- Biodynamics believes there is an interaction between crop nutrients, water, energy (light, temperature), and special biodynamic preparations (ie. sprays) which result in Bio-dynamically produced food having particularly unique characteristics.
- Plant selection is given particular importance. Generally biodynamic growers emphasise the use of seed which has been chosen because it is well adapted to the site and method of growing being used.
- Moon planting is often considered important. Many biodynamic growers believe better results can be achieved with both animals and plants if consideration is given to lunar cycles. They believe planting, for example, when the moon is in a particular phase can result in a better crop.
Permaculture is a system of agriculture based on perennial, or self perpetuating, plant and animal species which are useful to man. In a broader context, permaculture is a philosophy which encompasses the establishment of environments which are highly productive and stable, and which provide food, shelter, energy etc., as well as supportive social and economic infrastructures.
In comparison to modern farming techniques practised in Western civilisations, the key elements of permaculture are low energy and high diversity inputs. The design of the landscape, whether on a suburban block or a large farm, is based on these elements.
There are nine key guiding principles of permaculture design:
1. Relative location
Place components of a design in a position which achieves a desired relationship between components. Everything is connected to everything else.
2. Multiple functions
The designer will determine a number of different functions for a design (eg. produce fruit, provide shelter). When a design is prepared, each function is then considered one by one. In order to make the design achieve a "single" function, the designer must:
- deal with several different components which influence that function
- make different and distinct decisions about each of these components
Every function is supported by many elements.
3. Multiple elements
In permaculture, the term "element" is used to refer to the components of a design such as plants, earth, water, buildings. A design must include many elements in the design to make sure functions are achieved. Every element should serve many functions.
4. Elevational planning
The design must be on a 3-dimensional basis, giving consideration to length, width and height of all elements (ie. components). Particular emphasis is given to energy impacts.
5. Biological resources
-Priority is to use renewable biological resources (eg. wood for fuel) rather than non renewable resources (eg. fossil fuels).
-Design so that biological resources are reproduced within the system.
6. Energy recycling
- Energy use should be minimised.
- Waste energy should be harvested (eg. often pollution can yield useable energy).
- Design the system to optimise collection of energy by plants and animals. (eg. Using plants that catch light, produce bulk vegetation and then rot to provide a store of nutrients). This way energy is caught, stored and reused in the system.
7. Natural succession
- Design in a way that plant and animal life is always rich by ensuring new organisms emerge as old ones die.
8. Maximise edges
The edge of two different areas in a system has more things influencing it than other parts of the system. This is because there is greater diversity there with components of two different areas having an effect. As such design of an edge is more critical, and potential for an edge can be greater.
Design should be a poly-culture (i.e. a system where a greater number of species are growing together). This ensures greater biological stability.
Design can be seen to have two elements: aesthetics and function. In other words, design (of any kind) can be influenced to varying degrees by the aesthetics or appearance of what you are trying to achieve; and/or by the function or purpose to be served by what you are trying to design.
Permaculture concentrates on function and gives low priority to conventional ideas of aesthetics. As such, a permaculture system does not need to look 'nice', but it does need to serve its intended purpose.
Reference: Permaculture Design Course Handbook by Mollison et al.
Crop rotation consists of growing different crops in succession in the same field, as opposed to continually growing the same crop. Growing the same crop year after year guarantees pests of a food supply – and so pest populations increase. It can also lead to depletion of certain soil nutrients. Growing different crops interrupts pest life cycles and keeps their populations in check. Crop rotation principles can be applied to both broad acre and row crops alike. The principles may even be applied to pastures.
In the United States, for example, European corn borers are a significant pest because most corn is grown in continuous cultivation or in two-year rotations with soybeans. If the corn was rotated on a four or five year cycle, it is unlikely that corn borers would be major pests. This kind of system would control not only corn borers, but many other corn pests as well.
In crop rotation cycles, farmers can also sow crops that like legumes that actually enrich the soil with nutrients, thereby reducing the need for chemical fertilisers. For example, many corn farmers alternate growing corn with soybeans, because soybeans fix nitrogen into the soil. Thus, subsequent corn crops require less nitrogen fertiliser to be added.
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