Organic farm management

Organic agriculture is based on:

  • The principle of health : organic  agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible. The health of individuals can not be separated from the health of ecosystems. Organic agriculture should avoid the use of fertilisers, pesticides, animal drugs and food additives that may cause adverse health effects.
  • The principle of ecology : organic agriculture is based on living ecological systems and cycles, it works with them and help sustain them. Organic management must be adapted to local conditions, ecology, culture and scale. Inputs should be reduced by reuse, recycling and efficient management of materials and energy in order to maintain environmental quality and conserve resources.
  • The principle of fairness : fairness is characterised by equity, respect, justice, and stewardship of the shared world. This principle insists that all animals including insects and microorganisms, should be provided with the conditions and opportunities of life that accord with their physiology, natural behaviour and well-being.
  • The principle of care : practical experience, accumulated wisdom, traditional and indigenous knowledge offer valid better solutions, tested by time. Organic agriculture prevents significant risks by adopting appropriate technologies and rejecting unpredictable ones, such as genetic engineering.

The principal methods of organic farming include crop rotation, green manures, compost, biological pets 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 pets and renew the soil, and natural materials such as potassium bicarbonate are used to control disease and weeds. Building healthy soil is an ongoing project for every farmer, even where topsoil is organically rich we need to revitalise the soil beds regularly. Cover crops are very useful in this regard.

COVER CROPS

Cover crops such us rye, crimson clover, buckwheat and legumes are very easy to grow over winter months, they are planted to help the soil heal and rest, while at the same time,this crops  will add and restore organic matter and nutrients to the soil when they are digested by soil microorganisms. Because they are sown thickly, they also help to outcompete weeds. Cover crops also control the erosion of the soil from heavy winter rains, and help prevent soil from over compacting  in cold weather.Even though some cover crops will die during the coldest weather, the crop residue will still be a valued supplement in the spring.

CROP ROTATION

Crop rotation gives various benefits to the soil, like the replenishment of nitrogen through the use of green manure in sequence with cereals and other crops; improves soil structure and fertility by alternating deep – rooted and  shallow rooted plants. The right combination of vegetables planted together (companion planting) improves growth, reduces disease, encourages beneficial insects to thrive in the farm, discourage pests and increases crop yield. For example : plant tomatoes near onions, asparagus, carrots, parsley or cucumber, but keep them well away from potatoes or members of the cabbage family.

CROP DIVERSITY

Crop diversity is the raw material for improving and adapting crops to meet all future challenges, planting different plant varieties seeds of the same family crop like tomatoes that grow together will give us a better yield and will give us knowledge, and more choice at harvest time. The lost of biodiversity is considered one of today’s most serious environmental concerns, if current trends persist, as many as half of all plant species could face extinction.

CROP  PRODUCTION PLANNING

Crop planning    is both necessary and very important, helping to plan the year ahead, it shows us when to sow the seeds of each vegetable, the months of the year for growth and the time for harvest of each individual crop, gives us the tools necessary to plan each day and to know when we are going to need more labour, water, or space in the farm, as well as knowing the type of vegetableswe will sell in one year, so we can plan for cost and water management.

We have a six-year rotation design on Sutton Community Farm based on our planting beds that are 50 metres long. Our rotation follows this plan:

Year Crop Example Rotation principle
1 Green manure Alfalfa, clover, rye grass Soil fertility building phase.
2 Brassicas Broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips Hungry crops following fertility building phase.
3 Beans (legumes) Broad beans, French beans, borlotti Fix nitrogen in the soil – good to follow after hungry crops like brassicas.
4 Alliums Leeks, shallots, spring onion Can make use of residual fertility.
5 Cucurbits Courgettes, winter squash Shallow crops follow deep rooting.
Dense foliage helps with suppressing weeds.
6 Roots Beetroot, carrots, celeriac, fennel The last crop in the rotation is usually low nutrient demanding. High root mass crops following low root mass crops.

ORGANIC CERTIFICATION 

Regulatory certification is viewed by critics as a potential barrier  to entry for small producers, by burdening them with increased costs, paperwork and bureaucracy. The requirements for organic certification and standards for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping include many complicated details that the organic farmer has to accept and comply with, such as avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs(e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives,etc.) genetically modified organisms, irradiation and the use of sewage sludge.

The organic farmer can only work in a farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for at least three years, to get certification extensive paperwork is required, including results from soil and water tests. And during  certification many on-site inspections will take place, checking and supervising  all aspects of the farm  activities, suppliers, record keeping of sales, seeds, etc.

In my opinion certification is replacing “consumer education” and this goes against the essential, holistic nature of organic farming. Manipulation of certification regulations as a way to mislead or outright dupe the public is a very real concern, for example; in 2006 The Agricultural appropriations bill was passed in U.S.A allowing  38 synthetic ingredients to be used in organic foods, among the ingredients are food colourings, starches, sausage and hot-dog casings, gelatin, hops, etc.

There is also the fear of erosion of organic standards, as lobbyists push for amendments and exceptions favorable to large-scale production farms, resulting in  “legally organic” products being produced in ways similar to current non organic conventional food, as  most organic food products are sold by high volume distribution supermarkets,  consumers can’t tell the difference in taste, quality or diversity in organic produce they buy at this stores, the only difference is the price, in which organic is being seen as expensive and  out of reach for average  consumers. Small “real organic” farmers are being squeezed out by big producers and their products can only be found in farmers markets, small expensive outlets,expensive restaurants,etc ….

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