Organic Gardening and Farming

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Organic gardening and farming

Agriculture has changed dramatically since the end of World War II. As a result of new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization, and government policies, food and fiber productivity has soared. While some of these changes have led to positive effects, there have been significant costs: topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, harmful pesticide residue , the decline of family farms, and increasing costs of production.To counterbalance these costs, there is a growing movement to grow plants organically.

On a local level, suburban homeowners and city dwellers are finding ways to plant their own food for personal consumption in plots that are not sprayed with chemicals or treated with synthetic fertilizers. City dwellers may team up to work a collective, organic garden on a vacant lot. Homeowners have the option to create mulch pilesa mixture of leaves and organic materials, vegetable leavings, egg shells, coffee grounds, etc.that eventually become a rich soil , thanks to the breakdown of these elements by tiny organisms. This enriched soil becomes a fertile, clean foundation for a bountiful garden. The inevitable weeds that grow can be picked by hand.

On a larger level, emerging as an answer to some of these farming problems is a movement called "sustainable agriculture." Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Organic farming is part of this movement. Most significantly, organic foods are grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Organic farming and gardening is the result of the belief that the best food crops come from soil that is nurtured rather than treated. Organic farmers take great care to give the soil nutrients to keep it healthy, just as a person works to keep his or her body healthy with certain nutrients. Thus, organic farmers prefer to provide those essential soil builders in natural ways: using cover crops instead of chemical fertilizers, releasing predator insects rather than spraying pests with pesticides and hand weeding rather than applying herbicides.

Organic production practices involve a variety of farming applications. Specific strategies must take into account topography , soil characteristics, climate , pests, local availability of inputs, and the individual grower's goals. Despite the site-specific and individual nature of this approach, several general principles can be applied to help growers select appropriate management practices. Growers must:

  1. Select species and varieties of crops that are well suited to the site and to the conditions of the farm.
  2. Diversify the crops, including livestock and cultural practices, to enhance the biological and economic stability of the farm.
  3. Manage the soil to enhance and protect its quality. Making the transition to sustainable agriculture is a process. For farmers, the transition normally requires a series of small, realistic steps. For example in California, where there has been a water shortage, steps are being taken to develop drought-resistant farming systems, even in normal years. Farmers are encouraged to improve water conservation and storage measures, provide incentives for selecting specific crops that are drought-tolerant, reduce the volume of irrigation systems, and manage crops to reduce water loss.

In order to stop soil erosion , farmers are encouraged to reduce or eliminate tillage, manage irrigation to reduce runoff , and keep the soil covered with plants or mulch.

Farmers are also encouraged to diversify, since diversified farms are usually more economically and ecologically resilient. By growing a diversity of crops, farmers spread economic risk and the crops are less susceptible to the infestation of certain predators that feed off one crop. Diversity can buffer a farm biologically. For example, in annual cropping systems, crop rotation can be used to suppress weeds, pathogens, and insect pests.

Cover crops can have a stabilizing effect on the agro-ecosystem . Cover crops hold soil and nutrients in place, conserve soil moisture with mowed or standing dead mulches, and increase the water infiltration rate and soil water holding capacity. Cover crops in orchards and vineyards can buffer the system against pest infestations by increasing beneficial arthropod populations and can therefore reduce the need for chemicals. Using a variety of cover crops is also important in order to protect against the failure of a particular species to grow and to attract and sustain a wide range of beneficial arthropods.

Optimum diversity may be obtained by integrating both crops and livestock in the same farming operation. This was the common practice for centuries until the mid-1900s, when technology, government policy, and economics compelled farms to become more specialized. Mixed crop and livestock operations have several advantages. First, growing row crops only on more level land and pasture or forages on steeper slopes will reduce soil erosion. Second, pasture and forage crops in rotation enhance soil quality and reduce erosion; livestock manure in turn contributes to soil fertility. Third, livestock can buffer the negative impacts of low rainfall periods by consuming crop residue that in "plant only" systems would have been considered failures. Finally, feeding and marketing are more flexible in animal production systems. This can help cushion farmers against trade and price fluctuations and, in conjunction with cropping operations, make more efficient farm labor.

Animal production practices are also sustainable or organic. In the midwestern and northeastern United States, many farmers are integrating crop and animal systems, either on dairy farms or with range cattle, sheep, and hog operations. Many of the principles outlined in the crop production section apply to both groups. The actual management practices will, of course, be quite different.

Animal health is crucial, since unhealthy stock waste feed and require additional labor. A herd health program is critical to sustainable livestock production. Animal nutrition is another major issue. While most feed may come from other enterprises on the ranch, some purchased feed is usually imported. If the animals feed from the outside, this feed should be as free of chemicals as possible.

A major goal of organic farming is a healthy soil. Healthy soil will produce healthy crops and plants that have optimum vigor and less susceptibility to pests. In organic or sustainable systems, the soil is viewed as a fragile and living medium that must be protected and nurtured to ensure its long-term productivity and stability. Fertilizers and other inputs may be needed, but they are minimized as the farmer relies on natural, renewable, and on-farm inputs.

While many crops have key pests that attack even the healthiest of plants, proper soil, water, and nutrient management can help prevent some pest problems brought on by crop stress or nutrient imbalance. Additionally, crop management systems that impair soil quality often result in greater inputs of water, nutrients, pesticides, and/or energy for tillage to maintain yields.

Sustainable approaches are those that are the least toxic and least energy intensive and yet maintain productivity and profitability. Farmers are encouraged to use preventive strategies and other alternatives before using chemical inputs from any source. However, there may be situations where the use of synthetic chemicals would be more "sustainable" than a strictly nonchemical approach or an approach using toxic "organic" chemicals. For example, one grape grower in California switched from tillage to a few applications of a broad spectrum contact herbicide in his vine row. This approach may use less energy and may compact the soil less than numerous passes with a cultivator or mower.

Coalitions have been created to address the growing organic movement concerns on a local, regional, and national level. The Organic Food Production Association of North America is the trade and marketing arm of the organic industry in the United States and Canada. The Farm Bill of 1990Organic Foods Production Actaddressed the growing organic farming movement. Title 21 of the bill is the section that will be dealing with the regulations regarding organic certification. The U.S. Department of Agriculture , with the guidance of an advisory committee or National Organic Standards Board, is in the process of establishing the federal regulations that will standardize the rules for the entire organic industry in the United States, from growing and manufacturing to distribution. Presently, the organic movement includes growers, retailers, distributors, traders, urban and individual consumers, processors, and various nonprofit organizations nationwide.

Until the regulations are in place, the standards established by individual states vary, or in some states do not exist at all. The 1990 law requires that organic farmers wait for three years before they are officially certifiedto ensure most of the chemicals have been eliminated. With proper documentation, on-site inspectors are then able to certify the farm. Organic groups admit that no organic program can claim absolutely it is residue free. The issue here is a processof farming and producing product in as chemically free and healthy an environment as is possible.

The international community is joining the organic movement. Europethe European Common MarketAustralia, Argentina, and many countries in South America are establishing their own organic standards and have joined together under the organization called International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements.

In addition to the upcoming United States federal standardization of organic farming, more policies are needed to promote simultaneously environmental health and economic profitability.

For example, commodity and price support programs could be restructured to allow farmers to realize the full benefits of the productivity gains made possible through alternative practices. Tax and credit policies could be modified to encourage a diverse and decentralized system of family farms rather than corporate concentration and absentee ownership. Government and land grant university research could be modified to emphasize the development of sustainable alternatives. Congress can become more rigorous in preventing the application of certain pesticides, especially those that have been shown to be carcinogenic. Marketing orders and cosmetic standards (i.e. color and uniformity of product, etc.) could be amended to encourage reduced pesticide use.

Consumers play a key role. Through their purchases, they send strong messages to producers, retailers, and others in the system about what they think is important. Food cost and nutritional quality have always influenced consumer choices. The challenge now is to find strategies that broaden consumer perspectives so that environmental quality and resource use are also considered in shopping decisions. Coalitions organized around improving the food system are one specific method of systemizing growing and delivery for the producers, retailers, and consumers.

"Clean" meat, vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains are available, as are products such as organically grown cotton. As consumer demands increase, growers will respond.

See also Biodiversity; Monoculture

[Liane Clorfene Casten ]



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Erickson, J. Gardening for a Greener Planet: A Chemical-Free Approach. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books, 1992.

National Research Council. Alternative Agriculture. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

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Krueger, S. "Green Acres: Farmers Are Hoping Chemical-Free Crops Will Help Get Them Out of the Red." Nature Canada 21 (Spring 1992): 4248.

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Organic Gardening and Farming

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