What does an organic farmer actually do?

Most people know that organic food production does not involve the use of pesticides, artificial fertilizer or GMO's. But what does it involve in a positive sense? An organic farmer uses all kinds of clever techniques to be able to produce good quality food in a sustainable way. The organic approach requires a lot of knowledge about life processes on the farm, both above and below the ground.

The importance of soil

Organic soils contain a lot more soil biodiversity, have a better water holding capacity and usually hold more carbon. This has a positive effect on the climate, but also improves our resilience to climate change. Organic farmers who make optimal use of nutrient cycles and green manure, and who are using little fossil fuel, can even achieve a negative number for CO2-emission, meaning they are actually storing carbon in the soil.

It's impossible to overestimate the importance of healthy soils for the future of mankind; see also www.saveoursoils.com.

Compost!

An organic farmer does not use artificial fertilizer, but more natural fertilizers like compost, to maintain soil fertility and organic carbon content. Artificial fertilizer cause soil degradation in due course, because it leads to a reduction in soil life. Compost helps to maintain a fertile soil with a lot of biodiversity. Soil life greatly improves soil structure, waterholding capacity, while preventing erosion and wash-out. According to the Soil Association, organic agriculture stores on average 28% more carbon in the soil, offering great potential for climate change mitigation. Read more here.

Arable farming and fruit growing

In organic arabale farming and fruit growing everything begins and ends with a healthy, living soil. Organic vegetables and fruit are always rooted in the earth. Also when it's greenhouse cultivation. The roots create living microscopic communities with fungi and microbes to release nutrients from the soil at a natural speed. This lead to the best tasting fruits and vegetables.

Natural predators and landscape elements

To control harmful pests, instead of chemical pesticides, the organic farmer works with natural predators: lady bugs and earwigs against lice, small songbirds against caterpillars, etc. The farmer can buy some of these predators at specialised companies like Koppert, but they can also be attracted naturally through flower strips, hedge rows, frog puddles, nest boxes and wild patches. This means that organic farmers usually have a keen eye for the plants, soil, and all forms of animal life on the farm and study them diligently. Many organic farmers are avid readers of the book of nature. 

Organic farming benefits bees in many ways

Green cover and green manure

Green cover means that the farmer strives to keep the soil covered during the year, instead of having bare soil. He allows useful plants to grow, thereby preventing erosion, evaporation and depletion. Green cover can be grasses or grains, or a special type of crops which is called "green manure". These include clover, alfalfa and other leguminous plants that have the special property of absorbing nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil in the form of small nodules. With "green manure", less added manure is needed. The root activity improves the soil structure and releases phosphate and other nutrients from the underground. Green manure also includes plants and herbs with deep roots. The seeds and leaves of all these cover plants are often a food source for birds and insects, so the leave the crops alone!

Mulching

In orchards in dry and sunny area's, like South Africa, organic farmers often apply mulching: this means they spread a thick layer of straw or other plant clippings to make a cover on the orchard soil. The mulch is slowly broken down by soil life and enriches the soil with organic material and nutrients. The mulch keeps the soil moist, prevents weeds and protects the crops from mud splashes.

Resilient species

The organic farmer tries his best to prevent plagues and diseases, instead of fighting them when they occur. Organic farming therefore has a strong preference for resilient varieties with a strong natural defense system,  that are less sensitive to diseases and fungi. Economic reality however often forces them to grow varieties which the market desires, but may not be very resilient. Breeding new species which have both a high productivity and a strong natural resilience, is a complicated and time-consuming process.

Crop rotation and intercropping

Organic farmers use crop rotation to keep the soil and plants healthy. Crop rotation means that every year others patches of soil are used to plant specific crops. After a certain number of years, the same crop will return to the same patch of land. Crop rotation has the effect of reducing plague insect and nematodes, manages nutrients and nitrogen, controls weeds. An alternative is intercroping, where farmers plant different kinds of crops intermittently, like in permaculture or agroforestry. In orchards crop rotation is, of course, not possible, so farmers use a form of intercropping, planting green cover between the trees. 

Animal husbandry

Organic famring is widely recognized by animal rights groups as the most animal-friendly type of agriculture. Organic farming strives for healthy and resilient animals that are kept in accordance with their natural predispositions. Organic farm animals have more spatious stables, get to walk outside and thier boies are left intact: chickens are allowed to keep their pointy bills, pigs may keep their curly tails. The use of hormones and preventive anitbiotics is not allowed.

Bees love organic

You may never have considered it, but bees are a farm animal too. They are kept for honey, bees wax and, last but not least, pollinisation of fruit trees and many other crops. Approximately 1/3 of all food on earth depends on pollinisation by bees. Einstein is often quoted for saying: "If bees have disappeared from the surface of the planet, mankind has only 4 years to live." Actually Einstein never said anything like that, but he should have, because it may very well be true.
 
In recent yeas bees have been dying in large numbers. The cause can be summarized as "industrial agriculture". Looking more closely the cause is threefold: large scale use of pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, reduced biodiversity and food sources, and spreading of bees diseases as a result of globalisation. In the Netherlands, honey bees have not occurred in the wild since the 80s. There are hundreds of species of wild bees and they are doing very badly as well. The founder of biodynamic agriculture, Rudolf Steiner, warned for the negative consequences of intensive beekeeping around 1910, when it came up. He predicted that the enthusiasm about it wouldn't last a 100 years.

Organic agriculture tackles at least two of the three causes of bees decline: it provides more diversity and food sources, and does not use neonicotinoids and other synthetical pesticides. Organic and biodynamic beekeepers treat their bees better. In 2012 Nature & More held the campaign "Bees love organic", where 400,000 sachets of organic bee flower seeds were distributed.

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