What is organic farming?

For most people organic farming means "growing without the use of chemicals". For practicing organic growers it means much more than a list of chemicals which we cannot use. For us it is growing with nature as the model and includes many positive practices that replace chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Organic farming is also sometimes referred to as "natural", "biological", "ecological" and various other names. Biodynamics is a special form of organic farming and Permaculture is a design concept which is used by many organic growers to order and plan their property.

Whatever the name we give to a particular form of alternative growing systems, they all share some common goals and objectives and are based upon similar underlying concepts.

Reduced consumption of non-renewable resources

To be sustainable, we should minimise or avoid the use of non-renewable materials, especially fossil fuels for fertiliser and chemical manufacture and for transport. These fuels are not renewable in a time frame relevant to a human lifespan and using them inevitably causes pollution and contributes to climate change.

Soil and clean water are renewable resources in a healthy world but the necessary conditions for them to be renewing are sometimes not present in our modern landscapes. Organic growing recognises these resources as being of prime importance and treats them with proper respect and care.

Effective use of natural techniques

Simply removing the chemical inputs is not enough. Without inputs and management of some type the natural resource base will eventually run down. Successful organic growing therefore depends on understanding and using proven methods such as crop rotation, use of animal manures and crop residues, use of legumes and cultural, biological and (natural) chemical pest control.

Instead of using a chemical for pest control, organic growers use information about the biology or life cycle of the pest to alter conditions in the crop, making them less favourable for the pest. Use of knowledge about the environment to devise management actions, rather than physical inputs, is a key feature of natural growing.

The grower is therefore an integral part of the land. The grower must understand the principles at work in nature and the specific manifestation of those principles on their particular place on earth. While the principles will be common to natural growing anywhere, organics emphasises the importance of intimate understanding of how these principles apply to the local situation. This requires careful observation, cautious experiment and appropriate experience, skill and labour.

Western Australian Orgnaic Wheat
Western Australian Orgnaic Wheat
An ecosystem approach

Good knowledge of crop agronomy, soil science, pest biology etc are important for our progress and improvement of the earth as our home. When this knowledge only exists in the laboratory or in isolated 'lumps' specific to each field of research, its potential is never realised. For knowledge to be really useful it must be shared and it must be made relevant to the whole world in which it operates.

Nothing exists in isolation. Striving for a better understanding of how all the bits fit together is a critical feature of natural growing. If we relied only on simple time-limited observations of herbicide use we would be pleased with the results in almost every case. We apply the herbicide and the weeds die, therefore the desired effect was obtained. Closer examination may reveal poor crop growth, changes to soil biology, accumulation of residues in birds and animals and contamination of water. Only an ecosystem approach can ensure that we are aware of the complex interactions between the various component parts of the farming system.

Biodiversity and habitat

One of the aims of organic farming is to work with nature; we must therefore make room for nature. We do this because the myriad creatures and life forms have beauty and because they give value to us, in our enjoyment and in the many products known or as yet undiscovered, which they yield. Even more important are the intricate dependencies that exist in the web of life, which starts with the flea which bites the flea, but also produces the great achievements of human civilisation.

Agriculture has caused much habitat destruction and species loss. Responsible, sustainable agriculture must take active steps to make room for nature again. Organic farmers will use habitat to reintroduce beneficial effects back to the farm, such as soil stabilisation, climate improvement, and shelter for predatory insects or birds. Organic standards require that at least 5 percent of a certified organic farm is dedicated to biodiversity.

Start with the soil

Maintenance and increase of the long-term fertility of soil is a fundamental principle of natural growing. We utterly depend upon a thin, fragile mantle of soil to produce our food but we have been reckless with it. 55% of arid range lands and 45% of agricultural land in Australia requires treatment for degradation. While conventional farmers everywhere are now realising that they must stop the destruction and nurture the soils they have left, large areas remain damaged and are uneconomic to repair.

Organic growers, with their intimate knowledge of soil and the teaming life within it, are capable of restoring soils faster than nature. Techniques that they use include deep ripping, non-inversion tillage, growth of cover crops, mulching, composting, introductions of earthworms and dung beetles and careful study of the best time for any of these operations.

Soil is the foundation of natural farming principles and development of the soil is important to the health and nutrition of every other living thing on an organic farm. Plants and animals are fed via the soil whenever possible, to encourage biological cycles, and the populations of soil microorganisms that provide so many vital services without charge.

Laurie Merrett
Laurie Merrett
Why grow naturally

Agriculture and gardening, in contrast to all other industries and activities, have the potential to be self-sustaining. Soil and water, if managed well, can be perpetually self-renewing into the far future. High production agriculture is supported by subsidised energy in fertilisers, machinery, irrigation, chemicals and transportation. 'Production' in this context is high only if applied to harvested output only.

Productivity of small-scale diversified producers can be greater than conventional agriculture. 'Productivity' in this context means the ratio of return from input, with the total cost of the system included in the calculation.

All farmers are continually making small adjustments to the system. Conservation farming, minimum tillage sowing methods, tree planting, integrated pest control, catchment management and other developments, are all positive contributions to a sustainable agriculture. But to really extend the sustainability of the system, organic farmers advocate the importance of the complex inter-relationships in nature. They begin with the concept of a whole system and design their systems consciously, using the greatest possible diversity, and complementary features of the parts.

"Integrated Pest Management" or IPM, attempts to integrate all the "elements of the pest control system"; such as pest identification, monitoring and establishment of treatment thresholds, use of biological controls, chemicals that are less disruptive for the beneficial species, and correct application techniques. Organic growing with advocate that everything that happens on the farm is part of the pest control system. Fertiliser practice, soil management, irrigation management and many other routine activities all affect the health and vitality of the plant. Organic growing is the most "integrated" system.

Will it work

Farming for a living is not easy and organic farming is not easier than other farming, and may be more demanding during the conversion period. Many farmers have made organic farming pay and have improved their lifestyle at the same time. Some have improved their returns from farming. In some areas or industries, converting to organic farming is harder, and some areas lend themselves readily.

The US National Academy of Sciences published a major report on "Alternative Agriculture" in September 1989. It said "Well-managed alternative farms use less synthetic chemical fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics without necessarily decreasing, and, in some cases, increasing per-acre crop yields and the productivity of livestock systems....Wider adoption of proven alternative systems would result in ever greater economic gains for the nation."

For those of use who are gardeners, and still have reasonable health and some time, organic gardening should be the only system we consider. Ten minutes per week weeding the front lawn could avoid almost all domestic use of "Weed & Feed" herbicides, and be good for our own health and wellbeing.

We hope you will find some encouragement, and many helpful suggestions on how to grow organically.

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