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Organic Farming

Organic Farming

History

The organic movement began in the early 1930s and early 1940s as a reaction to agriculture's growing reliance on synthetic fertilizers. Artificial fertilizers had been created during the 18th century, initially with super phosphates and then ammonia derived fertilizers mass-produced using the Haber-Bosch process developed during World War I. These early fertilizers were cheap, powerful, and easy to transport in bulk. Similar advances occurred in chemical pesticides in the 1940s, leading to the decade being referred to as the 'pesticide era'.

Sir Albert Howard is widely considered to be the father of organic farming. Further work was done by J.I. Rodale in the United States, Lady Eve Balfour in the United Kingdom, and many others across the world.

As a percentage of total agricultural output, organic farming has remained tiny since its beginning. As environmental awareness and concern increased amongst the general population, the originally supply-driven movement became demand-driven. Premium prices from consumers and in some cases government subsidies attracted many farmers into converting. In the developing world, many farmers farm according to traditional methods which are comparable to organic farming but are not certified. In other cases, farmers in the developing world have converted for economic reasons. As a proportion of total global agricultural output, organic output remains small, but it has been growing rapidly in many countries, notably in Europe.

Much before the awareness about the Organic farming through the movements began, there was a well developed Organic farming system in India. Ancient Indian texts describe the methods of Organic farming. This is being practiced even today in many of the villages in India. Sanjeevan system is an example of such organic farming method.


Methods

Organic cultivation of mixed vegetables in Capay, California. Note the hedgerow in the background.

"An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence and the benign dependence of an organism".


Soil management

Plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as well as micronutrients, but getting enough nitrogen, and particularly synchronization so that plants get enough nitrogen at the right time (when plants need it most), is likely the greatest challenge for organic farmers. Crop rotation and green manure ("cover crops") help to provide nitrogen through legumes (more precisely, the Fabaceae family) which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere through symbiosis with the bacteria rhizobia. Intercropping, which is sometimes used for insect and disease control, can also increase soil nutrients, but the competition between the legume and the crop can be problematic and wider spacing between crop rows is required. Crop residues can be ploughed back into the soil, and different plants leave different amounts of nitrogen, potentially aiding synchronization. Organic farmers also use animal manure (which must be composted), certain processed fertilizers such as seed meal and various mineral powders such as rock phosphate and greensand, a naturally occurring form of potash which provides potassium. Altogether these methods help to control erosion. In some cases pH may need to be amended. Natural pH amemdments include lime and sulfur, but in the U.S. some synthetically compounds such as iron sulfate, aluminum sulfate, magnesium sulfate, and soluble boron products are allowed in organic farming. Mixed farms with both livestock and crops can operate as ley farms, whereby the land gathers fertility through growing nitrogen-fixing forage grasses such as white clover or alfalfa and grows cash crops or cereals when fertility is established. Farms without livestock ("stockless") may find it more difficult to maintain fertility, and may rely more on external inputs such as imported manure as well as grain legumes and green manures, although grain legumes may fix limited nitrogen because they are harvested. Horticultural farms growing fruits and vegetables which operate in protected conditions are often even more reliant upon external inputs.


Weed control

After nutrient supply, weed control is the second priority for farmers. Techniques for controlling weeds include hand weeding, mulch, corn gluten meal, a natural reemergence herbicide, flame, garlic and clove oil, borax, pelargonic acid, table salt, solarization (which involves spreading clear plastic across the ground in hot weather for 4-6 weeks), vinegar, and various other homemade remedies. One recent innovation in rice farming is to introduce ducks and fish to wet paddy fields, which eat both weeds and insects.


Controlling other organisms

Organisms aside from weeds which cause problems include athropods (e.g. insects, mites) and nematodes. Fungi and bacteria can cause disease.

Insect pests are a common problem, and insecticides, both non-organic and organic, are controversial due to their environmental and health effects. One way to manage insects is to ignore them and focus on plant health, since plants can survive the loss of about a third of lead area before suffering severe growth consequences. To avoid using insecticides, one can select naturally-resistant plants, put bags around the plants, remove dying material such as leaves,