In a world where carcinogens, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers are becoming ever-increasing threats to our health, organic agriculture represents the promise of farming as it should truly be. Organic farming is nothing more than a form of agriculture that is not reliant on industrial, modern day techniques, but rather careful ecosystem management. While such a definition may trick you into thinking that organic farming is exceptionally difficult, the truth is that it’s one of the most natural forms of producing food.
So, if you’re interested in growing your, organic produce in an environment that’s free from synthetic and chemical inputs, including GMO breeds, seeds, fertilizers, additives, and drugs, read on!
Just What Is Organic Farming?
Most city-dwellers are strangers to the idea of farming, not due to a lack of curiosity but because of a lack of proximity. So it comes as no surprise that organic farming sounds even more foreign. This particular form of agriculture, as opposed to conventional agriculture, is centered around two main concepts: its reliance on natural farming techniques and its avoidance of synthetic or industrial farming techniques.
Consequently, organic farms promote the following techniques:
- Careful crop rotation,
- The use of natural compost,
- The use of green manure,
- Biological (natural) pest control and fertilization.
Such practices ensure that soils remain healthy throughout consecutive production years since organic fertilizers release nutrients slowly and promote the soil’s natural capacity of retaining moisture. Furthermore, nitrate leeching is significantly reduced. Aside from crop rotation and using biological fertilizers, organic farmers also use beneficial insects to further improve their crops. Research shows that certain insects, such as soldier beetles, ladybugs, and even green lacewings feed off of harmful insects, which can wreak havoc on crops.
Simultaneously, organic agriculture avoids certain techniques, including:
- Using GMO (genetically modified organisms) seeds or breeds;
- Applying chemical preservatives or using chemical additives on their produce;
- Using synthetic fertilizers;
- Using synthetic pesticides;
- Irradiating produce for longer shelf life.
Long-term Sustainability and Environmental Benefits of Organic Agriculture
Researchers have repeatedly shown that current agricultural practices (including our industrial meat production practices) are detrimental to the environment. Conventional agriculture, they explain, is unsustainable long-term because it depletes soils of the nutrients that plants so dearly require. Of course, conventional agriculture ensures the quick mass-production of the products we’ve become so accustomed to in our daily lives.
As opposed to conventional farming, organic agriculture promises long-term sustainability by considering the effects that agriculture has on the ecosystems it’s practiced in. Currently, agriculture represents the foremost cause of deforestation and as a result of this aggressive pattern, ecosystems become unbalanced. Moreover, it’s estimated that over 13 million hectares are transformed into agriculture land yearly in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. It’s clear that something has got to change.
Organic farming accounts for the local ecosystem particularities so that the production of food doesn’t disturb the ecological balance. Organic practices allow for soil flora and fauna to flourish while also creating stable systems where nutrients and energy cycling compensate for the absence of other types of fertilizers.
Sustainability aside, there are numerous advantages to organic farming:
- Clean water: While conventional farming is often coupled with mineral fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, which leech into the groundwater reserves, organic agriculture prohibits the use of any synthetic products. As such, a well-maintained organic farm will significantly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. Thus far, researchers have also shown that reverting to organic agriculture is also a great restorative measure and governments around the world (including Germany and France) have recommended that organic farming be attempted in areas where groundwater pollution is an issue.
- Soil quality: In states such as New Mexico and California, organic farming has grown considerably, and so can acreage under such production techniques. Research papers suggest that both sustainability and soil quality are superior in the case of organic farming. In fact, among experimental farms, conventional ones were found to be least sustainable. Organic management methods have been shown to strongly affect soil quality indicators, including loss in soil organic matter and a decrease in soil quality biological parameters.
- High-quality food: it goes without mentioning that organic food is rich in valuable nutrients (unlike conventionally grown food, whose nutritional value, mineral and vitamin content are significantly lower). Of course, organically grown food also tastes better!
- Reduction of non-renewable energy usage: Simply by decreasing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides (which are often produced at the cost of large amounts of fossil fuel), organic agriculture plays a massive role in energy usage reduction.
- Fighting greenhouse gases: One very desirable side-effect of organic agriculture is soil organic carbon sequestration. Organic agriculture helps mitigate global warming and greenhouse gas effects by increasing the amounts of carbon that are returned to the soil.
- Limiting GMO usage: Though a genetically modified organism isn’t intrinsically bad (as many studies show), organic farming avoids the use of such products. In fact, they aren’t allowed in any stage of the production of organic food (including transport, handling, storage, and processing).
- Promoting biodiversity: One of the four principles of organic farming is the principle of ecological balance (alongside the principle of health, fairness and care). While conventional agriculture favors seeds and organisms that have been specifically bred to be resilient to pests and climate changes, organic agriculture maintains and cares for habitats that can house biodiverse organisms. As a result, biodiversity erosion is reduced, and a healthy gene pool is promoted.
Organic Farming Practices- A Quick Run-through
As with each type of agricultural process, organic farming is also categorized based on the types of techniques it uses:
- Pure organic farming: based on producing crops with the help of organic materials, fertilizers, and insecticides.
- Integrated organic farming: aside from maximizing the natural resources at one’s disposal, this particular form of organic agriculture involves integrated pest management and nutrient management.
- Integrated farming systems: when local resources are recycled (they efficiently integrate components such as chicken, goat, mushroom farming as well as goat rearing and others).
But let’s move on to the basics of organic agriculture. There is a multitude of organic farming methods which allow the cultivation of high-quality crops. Whenever such a technique (or a combination of these techniques) is used, we can speak of organic farming:
If there is a heart to organic farming, crop rotation is certainly it. While the concept may seem difficult, crop rotation refers to the act of continuously changing the crop type that is grown in a certain area. Basically, organic farmers alternate the type of crops that are grown on their land (cereals one year and legumes the next year, roots one year and brassicas the following). Such a practice adds fertility, increases the crop’s resistance to pests and prevents spoil depletion.
Knowing which crops use up the nutrients and which crops rebuild them is essential in maintaining the balance of such a delicate agricultural ecosystem. Clover, for instance, adds nutrients, so it’s a clever decision to follow up a potato or wheat crop with clover.
As opposed to monocultures (a practice widely used in conventional agriculture), polycultures ensure that crops are resilient, that the soil remains healthy and that pest populations don’t increase in numbers from year to year.
Compost usage is also an essential component of organic agriculture. This nutrient-filled, recycled material is commonly used as fertilizer and for good reason. Compost ensures an improvement of the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of soils. This is achieved by composts’ ability to promote microbial activity and soil fertility, to increase a crop’s disease resilience, to improve the cation exchange capacity, soil structure, and water retention while also reducing the bioavailability of heavy metals.
Of course, the composting process is somewhat complex, and its end-result is a humus-like material that is generously used in organic farming. Unlike the information that you may have received thus far, mature compost doesn’t involve unpleasant odors and can be stored well for prolonged periods of time. More importantly, as compared to raw organic waste, composting also reduces weed seeds and plant pathogens. This resource accurately describes the composting process in great detail.
Relying on green manure (also known as fertility increasing crops) represents one of the cornerstones of organic farming and involves the growing of crops aimed solely to increase soil fertility. Alike other key practices of organic agriculture, green manuring has some advantages, such as increasing organic matter concentrations, improving biological activity and soil structure, preventing soil erosion, decreasing leeching losses and weed suppression.
Basically, green manure is the byproduct of the following process: mown crop portions or uprooted plants are left on a field so that they serve as nourishment for the soil. Of course, there are multiple types of green manures:
- Long-term green manures (pure clover, grass and clover mixtures);
- Winter green manures (vetch, for instance);
- Summer green manures (mustard, phacelia, and even legumes).
Similarly, a multitude of crops can serve as green manure (rye, oats, alfalfa, cowpea, buckwheat, fava beans, millet, mustard, radish, soybean, and sunn hemp).
Organic Pest Control
Efficient insect management is as troublesome for conventional farmers as it is for organic farmers, though in organic agriculture, farmers have come up with creative ways of protecting their crops from pest damage. Organic farmers have to be aware of what specific insects require for survival, whether they interact differently with other species and which insects can be used as natural guardians of their crops.
Organic standards dictate that farmers only use those insect controlling practices that are cultural, mechanical, physical and non-synthetic. So farmers creatively develop habitats where the enemies of certain pests flourish, they use traps, lures, and natural repellents as well as pheromones and other attractants. Insect management requires an eye for detail as well as an astute mind, and luckily, there are also guides that describe the practices that organic farmers are allowed to employ.
Since a single crop doesn’t generally utilize the resources of a piece of land, organic farmers often use intercropping as an efficient agricultural practice. It involves growing at least two different crops in close proximity, however, these crops have to be carefully planned so that they don’t compete with one and other for nutrients, water, sunlight or space. As such, farmers choose one deep-rooted crop alongside a shallow-rooted crop, taller crops alongside shorter crops that require shade and so on.
There are many benefits to intercropping, including support (in the case of plants who are prone to tip over under extreme weather conditions) from partnering crops, weed suppression, shade, protection, physical space maximization and adequate nutrient quantities. There is an endless stream of possibilities where intercropping is concerned, from complete intercropping (or mixed intercropping) where the companion crops are mixed in a given space, to row cropping (where the two or more crops alternate rows), relay cropping (based on the idea that a farmer can sow a fast-growing crop alongside a slow-growing crop and harvest the two at separate moments, since one of the crops matures more slowly)
Organic farmers have a great ally against weeds: tillage. Tillage represents the mechanical alteration of the soil’s structure (by cutting, milling, beating, crushing or rebounding). Throughout history, tillage has been an essential part of agricultural endeavors, mainly because of its numerous benefits. It helps condition the soil, it reduces the prevalence of pests, it reduces weeds, it represents an efficient residue management tool, it helps consolidate rocks and it stimulates nutrient release.
Granted, tillage does have some unwanted side effects (for instance, researchers found that it can also drive nitrogen losses). That’s why organic farmers need to strike the perfect balance between tilling and not tilling.
““We need to make sure we’re making decisions about the timing of tillage operations with consideration to not only our weed management goals but also our nitrogen management goals,” researchers explain.
This article is a great place to get started.
Farm to Door and Having Fresh Produce Delivered
Of course, we don’t all have to become organic farmers to enjoy the benefits of high-quality, fresh produce. The US already houses a number of organic farms (such as the Honey Brook Organic farm) that not only produce and deliver fresh, organic produce in states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania but also offer jobs to those hoping to find a safe and enjoyable environment to work in.
There’s no denying the cost-effectiveness of eating organic, locally grown foods, despite the fact that most of us fear that it’s exactly the other way around. While a fast food meal can seem cheap at first (with $1 menus present in almost any fast food joint), it’s hard to consider organically grown food as a reasonable alternative. The truth is that it’s not only a cheaper alternative, it’s healthier too.
Shopping from local farmer’s markets (especially when doing so in bulk) can save up to 40 percent on your grocery spending. There’s a massive cost difference between conventional grocery stores and farmer’s markets. For one, organic food is advantageous because of reduced packaging costs, little to no shipping costs (since the food travels directly from the farm to your home) and, most importantly, the lack of middlemen involved in the process of selling and distributing the produce.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) and farmer’s markets are great starting places. You can easily get fresh produce baskets or have produce delivered to your home thanks to the great concept of farm-to-table delivery.
States such as Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware have Door-to-Door Organics as one of the main suppliers, with produce options ranging from $25 to $55. Quinciple is a great organic produce delivery service in New York City, while Washington DC, Baltimore and the Northern Virginia area can choose local services such as From the Farmer and Washington’s Green Grocer.
In fact, all across the US, in Phoenix, Arizona, Georgia, Atlanta, Tucson, Texas, Illinois, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Oregon, California, and Florida, there are excellent organic delivery services to choose from, so it’s no longer a matter of choosing organic, but a matter of choosing between a plethora of high-quality suppliers.