Organic farming methods

Organic farming methods combine scientific knowledge of ecology and modern technology with traditional farming practices based on naturally occurring biological processes. Organic farming methods are studied in the field of agroecology. While conventional agriculture uses synthetic pesticides and water-soluble synthetically purified fertilizers, organic farmers are restricted by regulations to using natural pesticides and fertilizers. The principal methods of organic farming include crop rotation, green manures and compost, biological pest control, and mechanical cultivation. These measures use the natural environment to enhance agricultural productivity: legumes are planted to fix nitrogen into the soil, natural insect predators are encouraged, crops are rotated to confuse pests and renew soil, and natural materials such as potassium bicarbonate[1] and mulches are used to control disease and weeds. Organic farmers are careful in their selection of plant breeds, and organic researchers produce hardier plants through plant breeding rather than genetic engineering.

Contents

Crop diversity

Crop diversity is a distinctive characteristic of organic farming. Conventional farming focuses on mass production of one crop in one location, a practice called monoculture. This makes apparent economic sense: the larger the growing area, the lower the per unit cost of fertilizer, pesticides and specialized machinery for a single plant species. The science of agroecology has revealed the benefits of polyculture (multiple crops in the same space), which is often employed in organic farming.[2] Planting a variety of vegetable crops supports a wider range of beneficial insects, soil microorganisms, and other factors that add up to overall farm health, but managing the balance requires expertise and close attention.[citation needed]

Farm size

Farm size in great measure determines the general approach and specific tools and methods. Today, major food corporations are involved in all aspects of organic production on a large scale. However, organic farming originated as a small-scale enterprise, with operations from under 1-acre (4,000 m2) to under 100 acres (0.40 km2). The mixed vegetable organic market garden is often associated with fresh, locally grown produce, farmers' markets and the like, and this type of farm is often under 10 acres (40,000 m2). Farming at this scale is generally labor-intensive, involving more manual labor and less mechanization. The type of crop also determines size: organic grain farms often involve much larger area. Larger organic farms tend to use methods and equipment similar to conventional farms, centered around the tractor.

Plant nutrition

Soil fertility

The central farming activity of fertilization illustrates the differences. Organic farming relies heavily on the natural breakdown of organic matter, using techniques like green manure and composting, to replace nutrients taken from the soil by previous crops. This biological process, driven by microorganisms such as mycorrhiza, allows the natural production of nutrients in the soil throughout the growing season, and has been referred to as feeding the soil to feed the plant. In chemical farming, individual nutrients, like nitrogen, are synthesized in a more or less pure form that plants can use immediately, and applied on a man-made schedule. Each nutrient is defined and addressed separately. Problems that may arise from one action (e.g. too much nitrogen left in the soil) are usually addressed with additional, corrective products and procedures (e.g. using water to wash excess nitrogen out of the soil).

Organic farming uses a variety of methods to improve soil fertility, including crop rotation, cover cropping, reduced tillage, and application of compost. By reducing tillage, soil is not inverted and exposed to air; less carbon is lost to the atmosphere resulting in more soil organic carbon. This has an added benefit of carbon sequestration which can reduce green house gases and aid in reversing climate change.

Pest control

Different approaches to pest control are equally notable. In chemical farming, a specific insecticide may be applied to quickly kill off a particular insect pest (animal). Chemical controls can dramatically reduce pest populations for the short term, yet by unavoidably killing (or starving) natural predator insects and animals, cause an ultimate increase in the pest population. Repeated use of insecticides and herbicides and other pesticides also encourages rapid natural selection of resistant insects, plants and other organisms, necessitating increased use, or requiring new, more powerful controls.

In contrast, organic farming tends to tolerate some pest populations while taking a longer-term approach. Organic pest control involves the cumulative effect of many techniques, including:

  • allowing for an acceptable level of pest damage;
  • encouraging predatory beneficial insects to control pests;
  • encouraging beneficial microorganisms and insects; this by serving them nursery plants and/or an alternative habitat, usually in a form of a shelterbelt, hedgerow, or beetle bank
  • careful crop selection, choosing disease-resistant varieties
  • planting companion crops that discourage or divert pests;
  • using row covers to protect crops during pest migration periods;
  • using pest regulating plants and biologic pesticides and herbicides
  • using no-till farming, and no-till farming techniques as false seedbeds [3]
  • rotating crops to different locations from year to year to interrupt pest reproduction cycles;
  • Using insect traps to monitor and control insect populations.

Each of these techniques also provides other benefits—soil protection and improvement, fertilization, pollination, water conservation, season extension, etc.—and these benefits are both complementary and cumulative in overall effect on farm health. Effective organic pest control requires a thorough understanding of pest life cycles and interactions.

Organic pest control is similar to integrated pest management in some respects.

Livestock

Raising livestock and poultry, for meat, dairy and eggs, is another traditional, farming activity that complements growing. Organic farms attempt to provide animals with "natural" living conditions and feed. While the USDA does not require any animal welfare requirements be met for a product to be marked as organic, this is a variance from older organic farming practices.[4] Ample, free-ranging outdoor access, for grazing and exercise, is a distinctive feature, and crowding is avoided.[citation needed] Feed is also organically grown, and drugs, including antibiotics, are not ordinarily used (and are prohibited under organic regulatory regimes).[5] Animal health and food quality are thus pursued in a holistic "fresh air, exercise, and good food" approach.

Also, horses and cattle used to be a basic farm feature that provided labor, for hauling and plowing, fertility, through recycling of manure, and fuel, in the form of food for farmers and other animals. While today, small growing operations often do not include livestock, domesticated animals are a desirable part of the organic farming equation, especially for true sustainability, the ability of a farm to function as a self-renewing unit.

Organic farming systems

There are several organic farming systems. Biodynamic farming is a comprehensive approach, with its own international governing body. The Do Nothing Farming method focuses on a minimum of mechanical cultivation and labor for grain crops. French intensive and biointensive, methods are well-suited to organic principles. Other techniques are permaculture and no-till farming. Finally, newcomers as the Agro-ecologic system [6] focus on a blend of a more large-scale approach with imbedded natural/organic farming techniques. A farm may choose to adopt a particular method, or a mix of techniques.

While fundamentally different, large-scale agriculture and organic farming are not entirely mutually exclusive. For example, Integrated Pest Management is a multifaceted strategy that can include synthetic pesticides as a last resort—both organic and conventional farms use IPM systems for pest control.

See also

General

Citations & notes

  1. ^ FiBL (2006) Use of potassium bicarbonate as a fungicide in organic farming
  2. ^ Fargione J, and D Tilman. 2002. "Competition and coexistence in terrestrial plants". Pages 156-206 In U. Sommer and B Worm editors, Competition and Coexistence. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany. [1]
  3. ^ False seedbed description
  4. ^ "Clouds on the Organic Horizon". CropWatch. http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=11712. Retrieved 14 March 2007. 
  5. ^ "Organic Foods Standards and Labels: The Facts". USDA. http://www.ams.usda.gov/NOP/Consumers/brochure.html. Retrieved 14 March 2007. 
  6. ^ Mentioning of agro-ecosystem

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