ORGANIC FARMING

HISTORY

One of the first proponents of organic farming was the British agriculturalist Sir Albert Howard, who, in his 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, advocated farming without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. British agriculturist Lady Eve Balfour was also involved in the 20th-century organic farming movement. Her 30-year research farm, the Haughley Experiment, was the site of numerous experiments comparing organic and conventional farming. Balfour's book, The Living Soil (1943), corroborated Howard's studies and documented the importance of healthy soil for farming. The work of Howard and Balfour inspired American researcher and publisher J. I. Rodale to found Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942 (now called Organic Gardening), which educates the public about organic techniques. Rodale also established the nonprofit Soil and Health Foundation research center (now called the Rodale Institute).

Rachel Carson, a marine biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, added momentum to the organic farming movement with her book Silent Spring (1962), which chronicles the harmful effects of pesticides on wildlife. Also in the United States, Helen and Scott Nearing pioneered in organic farming. Their book Living the Good Life (1954) and their numerous other publications promoted organic farming and helped inspire the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Organic Farming

Is a system of agriculture that uses environmentally sound techniques for raising crops and livestock that are free from most synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Organic farmers typically rely on pesticides and fertilizers derived from plants, animal wastes, and minerals. They incorporate biological methods, such as the use of one organism to suppress another, to help control pests. The methods used in organic farming seek to increase soil fertility, balance insect populations, and reduce air, soil, and water pollution

Organic farming is a small but rapidly growing sector of agriculture World over. Sales of organic foods Exports of organic food products are also growing, particularly to Japan and Europe to name a few of the developed countries.

ORGANIC FARMING TECHNIQUES

Organic farming combines a variety of methods to maintain the health of soil, prevent soil erosion, and control pests with minimal or no use of synthetic pesticides. Conventional farmers also use some of these methods, but to a lesser degree.

Soil Preservation

Fertilizers are used to provide the minerals lacking in some soils, and to replace the minerals removed from the soil by crops as they grow. Many conventional farmers rely on concentrated chemical fertilizers that are rapidly absorbed by plants. These fertilizers produce quick growth but at the same time may kill important soil organisms, such as earthworms and bacteria. Organic farmers use manure, compost (a mixture of decaying organic matter that is rich in beneficial soil microorganisms), and other natural materials for fertilizers that nourish soil organisms, which in turn slowly and steadily make minerals available to plants.

Organic farmers are more likely than conventional farmers to rotate crops, a technique that replenishes soil nutrients without the use of synthetic fertilizers. In crop rotation, a field is used for one to several years to grow one type of crop, such as corn or wheat, followed by a season in which a legume such as alfalfa or soybeans is planted. Legume roots harbor beneficial bacteria that incorporate nitrogen from the air into the soil (see Nitrogen Fixation), enriching the soil and reducing the need for nitrogen-containing fertilizers. Crop rotation also conserves nutrients since the roots of the first crop may be near the surface and the second crop's roots may be deeper, so that nutrients are drawn from different depths in the soil.

Soil held in place by plant roots is less likely to blow or wash away, or erode, than bare soil. Organic farmers minimize soil erosion with cover crops-short-lived plants, often grasses or legumes-that protect the soil between the harvesting of one crop and the planting of the next. Many organic farmers also conserve soil by practicing no-till or low-till farming, avoiding the use of plows to turn the soil, or using implements that only slice or slightly turn the soil. They may also leave the unharvested portion of a crop in the field to cover the soil, preventing soil erosion from wind or rain.

Pest and Disease Management

Conventional farms rely on an array of synthetic pesticides to kill weeds, disease-causing fungi, and harmful insects. These pesticides are manufactured by chemically processing petroleum, natural gas, ammonia, and a number of other raw materials. They include active and inactive ingredients, both of which can be highly toxic and long lasting. Organic farmers typically use pesticides primarily derived from chemically unaltered plant, animal, or mineral substances in which the active toxic ingredient breaks down rapidly to become nontoxic after being applied to the crop. Pyrethrum, a substance extracted from chrysanthemums, a variety of soaps, and oil from the neem tree are among the insecticides used by organic farmers. Bordeaux mix, a combination of calcium carbonate and copper, is used by organic farmers to control disease-causing fungi.

In addition to using natural pesticides, organic farmers use a variety of methods to control insects and disease-causing fungi. In a technique called intercropping, farmers plant different crops in wide alternating bands. This interrupts the movement of disease-causing organisms through a field, since many insects and fungi feed on just one type of crop. Organic farmers also reduce insect damage by spraying crops with bacteria that kill larvae (immature insects) and planting crops that attract ladybugs, lacewings, and other beneficial insects that prey on unwanted insects.

Organic farmers use many methods to control weeds. Mulching involves covering the soil around crops with straw or other materials that smother weeds. Cover crops can be planted in the fall and turned under in a few months; they help control weeds by competing with them-an oat crop, for example, grows faster than weeds and deprives them of the nutrients they need to produce seeds. Other types of cover crops, such as cereal rye, release substances from their roots that inhibit weed seed germination. Organic farmers sometimes use a variety of tractor-drawn equipment to uproot weeds that emerge with crops (see Weed Control).

Organic farming is sometimes referred to as sustainable agriculture, although the two concepts have subtle but significant differences. Sustainable agriculture seeks to improve the entire food and agricultural system by balancing production and consumption. For example, a farmer practicing sustainable agriculture may use the manure from the animals to fertilize the fields of grain that are grown to feed the animals. Eliminating the purchase of fertilizer reduces the cost of growing grain, and growing grain for animal feed rather than buying it reduces the cost of raising livestock.

Sustainable agriculture also addresses the environmental, economic, and social issues related to agricultural systems. It attempts to ensure that arable land is protected so that current and future generations will be able to farm from it successfully; many involved in sustainable agriculture also seek to preserve the vitality of family-owned farms and rural communities. A sustainable farm may not be organic, and an organic farm may not be sustainable, although they may use similar techniques.

BENEFITS OF ORGANIC FARMING

For consumers, the most obvious benefit of organic farming is health-related-the food produced has little or no pesticide residue. Some advocates of organic farming believe that organic food is more nutritious than food produced by conventional farming, although no valid studies support this claim.

Organic farming, however, has less obvious, longer-term benefits. Because it preserves and enhances topsoil, it increases the chances that future generations can continue growing food. It helps preserve aquatic life by minimizing the flow of toxic pesticides into streams, rivers, and lakes. And it encourages healthy populations of beneficial insects that keep destructive insects under control.

Opponents of organic farming argue that organic farming is less profitable, requiring more labor and management skill than a conventional farm. Savings on pesticides, fertilizers, and fuels, however, usually offset the cost of the extra labor. And the environmental benefits of organic farming represent long-term savings, not just for the organic farmer, but also for future generations.

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