It’s easy to believe that organic agriculture has one meaning and that the practices are much the same from one organic farm to another. However, that isn’t really the case. Farms vary. Lands vary. Commitments and goals of the producers vary. Yet, there seems to be one constant that is expressed again and again at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Educational Service (MOSES) Annual Organic Farming Conference—it can be done better!
Organic farmers attending the conference, which was held last week in LaCrosse, look to the experience of their peers and the efforts of researchers to help them improve. They strive for better yields, improved pest management, greater efficiency of labor, effective marketing, ecological health and diversity, and positive land conservation impacts. So it was fitting that Friday’s keynote speaker, John Jeavons of Ecology Action, exhorted those assembled to embrace biointensive farming as an “organic-plus” method of not only growing food, but also saving the world.
Not if you are looking at the same science Jeavons referenced again and again throughout the day, and which he physically demonstrated with an apple and a paring knife.
Begin with the apple.
Imagine it is a globe, representing the Earth.
Now, cut away the oceans, seas, lakes and rivers. Three fourths of the apple is gone.
Remove the deserts and wetlands, the hillsides too steep to sow.
When you are done paring that apple down to leave only the arable lands, the lands suitable to grow food upon, you have four-percent of your apple left—an amazing and productive four-percent.
Except that we are losing some of this arable land every year to soil depletion, erosion, and desertification, according to Jeavons. And hand-in-hand with a growing crisis from soil loss is a rapid increase is water scarcity.
The planet is losing approximately 760 million tons of topsoil to degradation annually and that rate is increasing by 10 to 20 million acres of soil annually, according to the Ohio State University’s Carbon management and Sequestration Center.
At the same time, the population is increasing alongside water use for agricultural, industrial and household use. The World Health Organization predicts that the three factors - soil degradation, increasing water demand, and a growing population will create a global food crisis by 2025.
Population must increase rapidly -- more rapidly than in former times -- and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. – Abraham Lincoln, Sept. 30, 1859, addressing the Wisconsin Fair, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The solution is bio-intensive farming with an emphasis on building soil and reducing water use, according to Jeavons. It’s a practice at least 4,000 years old.
“This has been around since ancient China,” Jeavons said. “We are just learning the scientific principles that underpin this system.”
Pointing to results produced in the 44 years of mini-farming the California mountains, Jeavons said it is possible to build soil up to 60 times the rate of natural soil production using bio-intensive practices.
“You can create six inches of soil in 50 years,” Jeavons said.
How different are the results of bio-intensive farming methods from conventional farming methods? According to Jeavons, bio-intensive farming:
• uses 94-percent less energy to produce food;
• uses one-eighth the water for vegetable production;
• uses one-third the water for grain production;
• produces yields two to six times greater per acre than row crop methods;
• creates compost more effectively;
• not only negates soil loss, it allows land to be reclaimed;
• and it empowers people to make changes that help themselves and the world they live in.
“The average farm is around 500 acres and takes a half-million to capitalize,” Jeavons said. “And they get a 2.6-percent return on their investment. Only a fourth of their income comes from the farm, with the rest coming from work off the farm.”
With bio-intensive farming, a half-acre is capable of producing enough food to feed a family of four, plus provide enough surplus for sale to create an income of $70,000, according to Jeavons.
Sound too good to be true?
Well, you can do more harm than good if you don’t do it correctly, Jeavons noted. You have to learn what your doing.
This is not tractor farming. And the focus is small scale. It’s mini-farming, in terms of acreage and manpower, if not output.
Bio-intensive farming works the soil much deeper using the double digging method, so soil is loosened to a depth of 24 inches. That allows greater aeration, facilitates root growth, and improves water retention.
The health and vigor of the soil are maintained through the use of compost.
And instead of rows, plants are planted close together in beds to protect soil microorganisms, reduce water loss, and maximize yields.
The bio-intensive approach also utilizes companion planting to facilitate the optimal use of nutrients, while encouraging beneficial insects. It promotes the use of open-pollinated seed to maintain and foster genetic diversity. Planting is on a multi-year rotational basis to reduce disease and avoid nutrient depletion. Growing multiple varieties of a plant type allows the farmer to respond to the vagaries of weather and climate.
Jeavons sees the method as a good fit for the larger number of young farmers opting for organic farming, rather than conventional farming, since it takes a smaller investment in terms of money.
Land access and financial capital are the top two concerns of new farmers, according to the National Young Farmers Association survey conducted in 2011. That survey also showed that young farmers were more attracted to participating in the local foods movement and were staying nearer urban areas, where the demand is greatest and organic food sells at a premium.
Mini-farming close to urban areas may also help those farmers mitigate, if not avoid entirely, a problem facing organic farmers across the nation – a lack of infrastructure for processing and transporting their goods.
“We’re somewhat a victim of our own success,” quipped Harriet Behar, an organic specialist at MOSES.
Consumer demand is outstripping production and the lack of infrastructure—feed mills, slaughtering plants, packaging facilities, etc.—is keeping the industry from producing the jobs it could be, Behar believes.
And with the prices dropping on commodities, the calls to learn about transitioning to organic are picking up.
The 2015 MOSES Farmers of the Year, Greg and Mary Reynolds, recommended that small-scale farmers network to create some mid-scale infrastructure of their own.
“Demand is growing, but restaurants and markets don’t want to order from 30 different small farms,” Greg said. “Farms banding together make it easier to supply customers and help make up for the lost processing facilities.”
“It’s not harder or more work to be an organic farmer,” Behar said. “Farming is about routines. You have to learn new routines. It’s doable to transition.”