Organic Farming Techniques
Green Manures and Cover Crops
Green manuring consists of incorporating into the soil a crop grown for the purposes of soil improvement. It is a practice with a long history. Green manuring has been ignored in recent years as a serious option for soil improvement because the traditional practice entailed planting a full-season cover crop. This removed the field from commercial production for a whole season.
Interest has returned, however, since green manuring strategies have been combined with cover cropping schemes.
Cover cropping is growing a crop for the purpose of soil and nutrient conservation. It is a more contemporary concept than green manuring, in crop agriculture. The two concepts — cover cropping and green manuring — go well together, as most cover crops are easily used as green manures prior to the planting of a commercial crop. The combined benefits become economically feasible when the cover is grown during the off-season or inter-seeded with the main crop. It is made even more desirable when the cover crop includes nitrogen-fixing legumes.
Manuring and Composting
Livestock manures are the most traditional and widely recognized organic fertilizers. Under ideal circumstances, livestock enterprises are integrated into the whole farm operation, and manuring becomes part of a closed system of nutrient recycling. This is still strongly encouraged in organic operations. In reality, however, crops and livestock production are often divorced from each other, and manures must be imported.
This has created some concerns in the organic community, since much manure is now generated by large, industrial agriculture feeding operations called CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Not only are there concerns about contaminants (heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, hormones) but many in the organic community also object to any "partnering" with this segment of conventional agriculture, which is considered at odds with the environmental and social values represented by organic farming.
Nonetheless, the National Organic Program does not differentiate between CAFO and other livestock manure sources. However, the NOP regulations do require that livestock manure not contain any synthetic substances not included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.
Another issue that has grown up around manure use in organic farming relates to food safety. At a time when concerns about microbial contamination are high, there are questions about the risks associated with manure use on food crops. A focus piece on the February 2000 television news program 20/20 was especially controversial. The segment suggested that organic foods were more dangerous than other food products in the marketplace due to manure fertilization.
The reporter ignored the fact that conventional farms also use manures. Were all the manure generated annually in the U.S. (about 1.4 billion tons) applied only to organic farm acreage (estimated at roughly 1.5 million acres in 1997), each acre would receive about 933 tons. Furthermore, certified organic producers have strict guidelines to follow in handling and applying manures. The National Organic Program regulations require raw animal manure be incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles, and be incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles.
One of the best means of handling manures is composting. Composting stabilizes the nutrients in manure, builds populations of beneficial organisms, and has a highly beneficial effect on soils and crops. Compost can be produced on-farm by a number of means. Additional products from composts, such as compost teas, have special applications in organic agriculture.
Human manures are expressly forbidden in certified organic production. This includes composted sewage sludge (also called "biosolids"). The organic community made its opinion on this quite clear when the USDA's first draft of the national rule (December 1997) proposed allowing the use of sludge in certified production. It was counted as one of the "big three" targets of protest, along with food irradiation and genetic engineering. The prohibition of biosolids would have been disconcerting to Albert Howard, who decried the failure of cities to return their organic wastes to the countryside. Such recycling was, in his mind, a key aspect of sustainability.
Livestock on Organic Farms
Among the thorniest of issues swirling around the edges of organic agriculture is the role of livestock. The disagreements arise because of the diversity of people and philosophies in the organic community. Organic agriculture can usually count vegetarians and animal welfare proponents among its more vocal supporters. Many of these people feel strongly that animals should not be exploited. Their rationale often goes beyond emotional and religious beliefs; convincing human health concerns, social issues, and environmental reasons are commonly cited. On the other side of this argument are those who feel that an organic farm cannot achieve its full potential or ecological balance without livestock manure; that it is essential to nutrient cycling and to the finer aspects of soil building.
Excellent soil fertility can be built in the absence of farm livestock and livestock manures by using vegetation-based composts and by harnessing the livestock in the soil — earthworms and other soil organisms. However, it is clearly easier to design a contemporary, low-input organic farm when traditional livestock are integrated. The biological and enterprise diversity that livestock can bring contributes enormously to stability and sustainability. A good example is provided by Rivendell Gardens in Arkansas, which began integrating livestock enterprises after several years as a solely horticultural operation.
The owners of Rivendell, Gordon and Susan Watkins, now rotate their strawberry and vegetable crops with grass-fed, direct-marketed beef and pastured poultry. Ideally, poultry follows beef on pasture to reduce cattle parasites. The seasons in mixed legume/grass pasture leave the soil quite mellow and well-manured for subsequent high-dollar horticultural crops.
The Rivendell operation demonstrates the sort of organic management where a large number of organic farmers and many animal welfare proponents find common ground. The Watkins' animals are all raised with minimal confinement and generous access to sunshine, fresh air, and free-choice foodstuffs. While domesticated and destined for slaughter, they lead low-stress lives in conditions much closer to natural than the conventional alternatives. This is the antithesis of industrialized factory farming systems, which are increasingly becoming the norm in livestock production.
Many in both the organic and animal welfare communities are working to prohibit factory farming of livestock in organic systems. Many of the difficulties revolve around the fine interpretations of language in various organic standards. Wording such as "access to fresh air and sunlight," for example, can be construed to mean nothing more than opening the door on one end of a large confinement poultry house for a couple hours a day.
What Howard had not taken into account is the almost universal contamination of urban wastes with heavy metals and chemicals that are not eliminated by composting and may even be concentrated. Perhaps this was not yet a serious problem in his time; it is, however, in ours. Organic farmers and consumers concerned about contamination of soil and crops with agricultural pesticides and synthetic fertilizers would be remiss to ignore the contamination hazards of even well-composted sewage.
Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer and former NOSB member, has written eloquently about the progress of the National Organic Program. In a critique of the March 2000 draft of the proposed rule (24), he pointed to another reason why the use of biosolids ought to be prohibited in organic production. Because of the manner in which biosolids are generated,
they are easily hauled and land-applied on an industrial-scale to industrial scale organic farms. Furthermore, since biosolids can essentially supplant animal manures as a source of organic matter and nutrients, their use would allow some very large farms to circumvent the traditional practices that promote biodiversity and enterprise diversity and integration. What Kirschenmann fears from biosolid use is technology that would nudge organic agriculture down the same road of industrialization taken by conventional ag.
Intercropping and Companion Planting
Interplanting two or more mutually beneficial crops in close proximity is one strategy for increasing biodiversity. In large-scale mechanized crop culture, this is called intercropping. It typically involves alternating rows or a number of rows of compatible field crops, like soybeans and corn. It also applies to sowing multiple forage crops, like alfalfa, bromegrass, and timothy, when these are grown together.
When interplanting is done on a smaller scale, it is often called companion planting. A classic example of companion planting is the inter-planting of corn with pole beans and vining squash or pumpkins. In this system, the beans provide nitrogen; the corn provides support for the beans and a "screen" against squash vine borer; the vining squash provides a weed suppressive canopy and discourages corn-hungry raccoons.
Biological Pest Control
Organic farming relies heavily on populations of beneficial insect predators and parasites, pest disease agents, insect-eating birds and bats, and other creatures, to help manage pest problems. These biological controls help keep pest numbers at levels where further cultural activities or relatively mild pesticides are (usually) adequate to assure a crop. In some instances, biological control can be so effective that no additional action is even needed by the farmer.
Some see biological control as a default benefit of the soil fertility practices of organic farming. The diversity of crops in a soil-building rotation, the use of cover crops, and other practices build a diverse soil biology that works to keep soil pests in check. They also provide substantial above-ground habitat for beneficial. The absence of pesticides also favors biocontrol.
In many organic systems, farmers sometimes purchase and release control agents like ladybird beetles, lacewings, trichogramma wasps, etc., or use weeder geese — a quaint but effective biological weed control.
Increasingly, growers are designing and maintaining both permanent and temporary habitats specifically for beneficial insects, spiders, and other helpful species. This is known as farmscaping.
Sanitation can take on many forms:
* removal, burning, or deep plowing of crop residues that could carry plant disease or insect pest agents
* destruction of nearby weedy habitats that shelter pests
* cleaning accumulated weed seeds from farm equipment before entering a new, "clean" field
* sterilizing pruning tools
As in human and animal health, sanitation practices can go a long way in preventing crop pest problems. However, many practices — such as clean cultivation, deep plowing, and burning crop residues — can increase erosion and reduce biodiversity. Thus, they may conflict with sustainability. Good organic growers recognize this and treat those practices as transitional or rescue options, rather than relying on them on an annual basis.
Tillage and Cultivation
Tillage and cultivation are tools that can accomplish a variety of objectives in farming systems: weed control, crop residue management, soil aeration, conservation of manures and other fertilizers, hardpan reduction, sanitation to destroy pest and disease habitat, etc.
While conventional farmers rely on chemicals to accomplish many of these objectives, organic growers focus more on improving tillage and maximizing its benefits. Guidelines for primary tillage, for example, are intent on conserving crop residues and added manures in the upper, biologically active zones of the soil, rather than burying them deeply where decomposition is anaerobic (oxygen-starved). Leaving soils completely bare and vulnerable to erosion is discouraged; fall moldboard plowing is certainly frowned upon.
Cultivation in organic systems often rises to the level of art. Row-crop farmers frequently use blind cultivation —shallow tillage, which largely ignores the crop rows—beginning shortly after seeding until the plants are but a few inches high. Rotary hoes, wire-tooth harrows, and similar equipment can be used for blind cultivation, delaying the first flush of weeds and giving the crop a head start.
Conservation Tillage and Organic Farming
Organic agriculture is often characterized as addicted to maximum tillage — with growers using every opportunity to lay the land bare with shovel, plow, or rototiller. This image has been magnified through the popularity of small-scale organic systems like the French Intensive and Biointensive Mini Farming models that espouse double- and triple-digging to create deep rooting beds. While appropriate to such intensive systems, this degree of cultivation is not characteristic of organic agriculture in general. It may surprise some to learn that a large number of organic producers are not only interested in conservation tillage, they have adopted it. This will be a surprise because many believe that conservation tillage always requires herbicides.
The interest in conservation tillage among organic producers in the Cornbelt was well documented in the mid-1970s by Washington University researchers. They noted that the vast majority of organic farmers participating in their studies had abandoned the moldboard plow for chisel plows. Plowing with a chisel implement is a form of mulch tillage, in which residues are mixed in the upper layers of the soil, and a significant percentage remains on the soil surface to reduce erosion. Furthermore, a notable number of organic farmers had gone further to adopt ridge-tillage, a system with even greater potential to reduce erosion.(3) It was especially interesting to note that the use of these conservation technologies was almost nil among neighboring conventional farms at the time. Organic growers were actually pioneers of conservation tillage in their communities.
Among the more well-known of these pioneers were Dick and Sharon Thompson of Boone, Iowa. Their experiences with ridge-tillage and sustainable agriculture became the focus of a series of publications titled Nature's Ag School. These were published by the Regenerative Agriculture Association — the forerunner to the Rodale Institute. They are now, unfortunately, out of print.
Research continues to open up new possibilities in conservation tillage for organic farms. New strategies for mechanically killing winter cover crops and planting or transplanting into the residue without tillage are being explored by a number of USDA, land-grant, and farmer researchers. Notable among these is the work being done by Abdul-Baki and Teasdale at the USDA in Beltsville, Maryland — transplanting tomato and broccoli crops into mechanically killed hairy vetch and forage soybeans.(27, 28) There are also the well-publicized efforts of Pennsylvania farmer Steve Groff, whose no-till system centers on the use of a rolling stalk chopper to kill cover crops prior to planting.(29) Systems like Groff's and Abdul-Baki's are of particular interest because close to 100% of crop residue remains on the soil surface – providing all the soil conservation and cultural benefits of a thick organic mulch.
After blind cultivation, subsequent weed control operations in larger-scale systems can make use of advances in tillage equipment such as rolling cultivators, finger weeders, and torsion weeders that allow tilling close to the plant row. Smaller-scale operations often use wheel hoes, stirrup hoes, and other less capital-intensive hardware.
Determining the amount, the timing, and the kind of tillage to be done can be a balancing act for the organic grower, but experience and observation over time lead to proficiency.
There are downsides to tillage, however, and most organic growers are well aware of them. The most obvious of these is the dollar cost; organic farmers are as concerned as their conventional counterparts about costs of production and strive to minimize expensive field operations. There is also a cost to the soil and environment. Every tillage operation aerates the soil and speeds the decomposition of the organic fraction. While this may provide a boost to the current crop, it can be overdone and "burn up" the humus reserves in the soil. Excessive tillage can also be directly destructive to earthworms and their tunneling, reducing their benefits to the land. There is also the danger of compaction, even when field operations are well timed.
Mulching is a practice often used by organic growers. Traditionally, it entails the spreading of large amounts of organic materials — straw, old hay, wood chips, etc. — over otherwise bare soil between and among crop plants. Organic mulches regulate soil moisture and temperature, suppress weeds, and provide organic matter to the soil. Mulching is most appropriate to small, intensive operations with high-value annual or fruit crops.
A few systems of no-till organic gardening have evolved from the concept of deep, permanent mulching. Among these are the well-known Ruth Stout method and Synergistic Agriculture — a raised bed system developed by Emilia Hazelip, who adapted concepts from Permaculture and the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka.(30, 31, 32) Mark Cain and Michael Crane, co-owners of Dripping Springs Gardens — an intensive market gardening operation in Arkansas — have adapted Emilia's system to their farm with considerable success.
Plastic mulch, as long as it is removed at end of growing or harvest season, is also permitted in certified organic production. Its use allows larger acreage to be brought more easily under herbicide-free management, though there are serious issues to be addressed (see discussion on High-Input Organic Agriculture).
High-Input Organic Agriculture
organic farming was described as a system that uses a minimum of off-farm inputs. While that describes most of organic agriculture as it is currently practiced in the U.S., certified organic farming can also entail much greater reliance on off-farm inputs.
Intensive annual strawberry and vegetable systems under plasticulture are good examples. In these systems, traditional rotations and soil building practices are usually employed, followed by clean cultivation and the laying of plastic mulch and drip irrigation tape on shaped beds. During the season, large amounts of soluble organic fertilizers — typically fish-based — are fed to the crop through the drip system (i.e., organic fertigation). At the end of the season, all plastics must be removed from the field, and it is returned to more standard organic management. Ideally, an off-season cover crop will be planted. Such systems are often exceptionally productive and economically attractive, when organic premiums are good. The high cost of soluble organic fertilizer (typically hundreds of dollars/acre), however, plus the marginally higher cost of pest controls, make such systems largely non-competitive in the conventional marketplace.
The labeling of such high-input systems as organic presents a paradox for many proponents of organic agriculture. It is unclear whether these technological advancements reflect the kind of farming most practitioners and supporters of organics think of as truly "organic." To begin with, the research citing environmental and economic benefits has largely been done on low-input organic systems; it is questionable whether similar findings would be made about high-input systems, especially regarding environmental matters. Of particular note, while low-input organic systems are documented as being more resistant to erosion, fields under plastic mulch are reported to be fifteen times more erodible. Traditional organic farms leach minimal amounts of nitrogen into tile or groundwater; the losses from fields loaded with high levels of soluble organic fertilizers is certain to be greater, but how much greater is unknown. The fossil fuel energy involved in plastic manufacture, transportation, and application may or may not be compensated by reductions in tractor fuel use.
Finally, the lowered capital investment required to produce a crop by traditional organic methods makes this form of farming more accessible to resource-poor farmers and entails less risk in years of crop failure or lack of premiums. These factors are less certain in a high-input system. A further consideration is the issue of plastic disposal following removal. At this time, there are few to no options for recycling, and landfills are the fate of plastic mulches at the end of each season.
While it is unwise to rush to judgment regarding high-input organic farming, it is clear that some adaptations will need to be made, if the traditional character and sustainability benefits of organic farming are to be preserved.
While fire can be used in a number of ways in organic agriculture, the area of greatest interest is flame or thermal weeding. In its most common application, torches mounted on a tractor toolbar throw a hot flame at the base of mature (i.e., heat-resistant) plants, over the inter-row area, or both. Tractor speed is adjusted so that weeds are not burned so much as seared. Searing is sufficient to kill most seedling weeds and uses less fuel. Liquid propane (LP) gas is the fuel most commonly used, though alternatives such as alcohol and methane offer the possibility of on-farm sources.
In many organic systems, crop rotation, manuring, green manuring, along with enhanced biological activity in the soil, provide an abundant supply of plant-essential minerals annually. This is especially true on naturally deep and rich prairie soils. It is less true on poorer soils and on those that have been heavily exploited through non-sustainable farming practices. To correct mineral deficiencies in organically managed soils, organic growers often apply ground or powdered rock minerals.
The most commonly used rock mineral is high-calcium aglime. Dolomitic limestone, various rock phosphates, gypsum, sulfate of potash-magnesia, and mined potassium sulfate are also common. These are all significant sources of primary (P,K) and/or secondary (Ca, Mg, S) plant nutrients. The savvy organic grower applies significant amounts of these materials only with the guidance of regular soil testing.
Less common are other rock powders and fines that are limited sources for the major nutrients but are rich in micronutrients or have some other soil-improving characteristic. Among these are glauconite (greensand), glacial gravel dust, lava sand, Azomite®, granite meal, and others.
Supplementary nutrients that include nitrogen are often provided in the form of animal or plant products and by-products such as fish emulsion, blood meal, feather meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, and soybean meal. Most of these products also supply some organic matter, though that is not the primary reason they are used.
Source: USDA Plants Website. www.usda.gov