Summary of Organic Farming
In a few words, organic farming involves growing techniques and methods that seek to protect the environment, humans, and animals, through sustainable agriculture. Producers of organic farming are not allowed to use anything but biological substances for both fertilization and crop protection. As fertilization methods, they mainly use manure, compost, or special organic synthetic fertilizers. As crop protection measures, they mostly use traps and natural predators. This farming method requires a lot of effort and has significantly lower yields than conventional farming. However, the organic producer can market the products at higher prices than the conventional ones.
Organic Farming Definition
According to THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT regulation of Brussels, 27 April 2018, Organic farming is an overall system of farm management and food production that combines best environmental and climate action practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources, the application of high animal welfare standards and high production standards in line with the demand of a growing number of consumers for products produced using natural substances and processes.
Farmers in organic farming, try to limit all the inputs and use environmentally friendly techniques in their everyday routine. For example, when it comes to soil management, organic farmers rely mainly on crop rotation to minimize soil nutrient deficiencies. They mostly use organic manure in quantities specified by the law, and nitrogen-binding bacteria, as nitrogen boosters.
As far as weed management is concerned, they prefer mulching, hand weeding, and tillage. In many cases, they remove weeds using special equipment, designed especially for organic farming. Organic farmers try to minimize as much as possible the use of synthetic chemicals. Thus, for crop protection, they mainly prefer to take measures, such as traps and natural enemies (predators) for their crop’s pests.
How can a farm be certified as Organic?
Organic farming in each country is specifically described and defined by law, and any commercial use of the term ‘Organic’ is subject to government control. There are specific actions each prospective organic farmer should follow (and avoid) in order to be certified as an organic farmer. Even a slight deviation from the law can result in the termination of organic status.
If you are interested in engaging in organic farming, you can apply to a certification body in your area. In case you meet the standards, after a certain period (for example 3-4 years if you grow trees), you will be approved by the authorities. Those who do follow the rules, then market their products as “Certified Organic” and can display the official organic seal on their packaging, something that generally results in higher prices.
Principles of Organic Farming
According to the IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), the Principles of Organic Farming are described below:
- Organic farming shall sustain and enhance the health of the soil, plants, animals, and humans as one and indivisible.
- Organic farming should be based on the living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
- Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the environment and life processes.
- Organic farming should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well being of current and future generations and the environment.
The general objectives of organic farming are:
- The production of safe and healthy food, free from agrochemical residues
- The overall protection of the environment through sustainable management (protection of soil and aquifers, biodiversity assurance)
- The sustainable use of energy and natural resources (such as water, soil, organic matter)
- The maintenance and the increase of fertility and soil biological activity
- Protecting farmers’ health from exposure to harmful chemicals.
- To ensure the welfare and well-being of the animals.
The exact rules and legislation for the production techniques and control measures for organic products depend on national and Community law and may differ from country to country.
However, some basic practices and methods of Organic Farming are listed below:
Examples of Organic Farming practices:
- Crop rotation (avoid mono-cropping that gradually results in soil degradation),
- Use of green manure
- Use of manure and vegetable residues (compost),
- The recycling of organic materials
- Use of alternative plant protection (natural enemies) and nutrition products
- Use of local animal varieties and local animal breeds adapted to the particular conditions of the area
- Maintenance of a high standard of animal welfare
- Avoid any use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as well as products produced by or with GMOs.
The general philosophy of organic farming
As a general philosophy, the potential organic farmer needs to fully understand the concept of a closed natural ecosystem (with minimum inputs and outputs) and try to use first all the healthy ingredients that already exist in the ecosystem. By this, we mean that the organic farm is treated as a separate ecosystem where there are very few inputs and outputs, and most elements are recycled within this farm, ensuring sustainability. For example, let’s assume that we manage an organic olive tree orchard. After pruning, rather than removing cut branches or burning them (as is usually the case in conventional farming), organic farmers crush them with special machinery, decimate the branches of the tree and deposit the sawdust on the soil. This has beneficial effects, as it has been calculated that for every 1000 kg of olive wood (with 50% moisture) incorporated into the soil, 4 kg of nitrogen, 0.5 kg of phosphorus, 4 kg of potassium, 5 kg of calcium and 1 kg of magnesium are added to it (Amirante. Et al., 2002). This reduces the need for additional chemical fertilizers, the majority of which is not allowed in organic farming. In this way, we have the least possible inputs and outputs and promote the recycling of the elements within the olive orchard. There are, of course, cases in which tree branches must be removed immediately from an organic orchard, for example when a tree tissue suffers from a pest or a disease.
Understanding and Preventing Contamination
Some practices applied to the surrounding fields may cause contamination of our organic farm. For example, the organic farm can be polluted if our neighbor is a conventional farmer and applies some spraying pesticides during a windy day. However, contamination does not occur only from pesticides. Even during pruning or harvesting, there is an increased risk of contaminating the soil or a water source by simply using a machine (e.g. a machine oil leak). Farmers should carefully consider the risks that can cause contamination of an organic farm and take the proper measures.
In order to avoid the risks of pesticide contamination from a neighboring farm, farmers may, for example, consider using natural hedge plants. Planting such type of plants gives the farmer the opportunity to create a protected area and reduce the risks of pesticide contamination through the wind. Furthermore, a farmer could divert run-off water. This method will reduce the risks of pesticide contamination through run-off water. GMOs are also a contaminating factor when it comes to organic farming. It is very important to examine the crop history of the fields that are intended for organic farming. Prospective fields for organic farming should have crop history free from GMOs. Farmers may also consider using untreated seeds. Moreover, seeds should be bought from a trader who is not involved in GM production. Finally, all cultivation and harvesting tools, as well as all the transport and storage facilities that are used in organic farming shall not be used by conventional farmers, οtherwise we increase the risk of contamination. However, these are just some common practices that should not be followed without making your own research. You may seek advice from your local authority and your certification partner.
Fertilizers in Organic farming
The majority of the chemical fertilizers (for example, mineral nitrogen fertilizers) are not allowed in organic farming. The only fertilizers allowed are those that have been approved for use in organic farming.
Proper soil fertility, however, is vital for plant growth. Mostly nitrogen, but also phosphorus and potassium are essential elements during the vegetative growth stages of the plant. Since conventional fertilizers are not allowed, some of the best organic fertilizers are:
Green manure production begins with the sowing of an annual or perennial plant (alfalfa, vetch) in the field. This method improves soil fertility and soil structure. It increases water absorption and soil moisture. This method is also applied as a weed control method. Nitrogen-fixing plants, such as alfalfa, creeping clover, broad beans, lupine, pea, chickpea, etc. are used extensively for that reason. Cereals, such as oats and barley are also used. Due to the fact that these plants (especially legumes) absorb significant amounts of nutrients, their incorporation into the soil gives the plants available nutrients. If the producer decides to use this technique, it is necessary to use propagating material (seeds) that does not belong to the category of Genetically Modified Organisms.
Composting is a natural process in which specific groups of microorganisms, such as bacteria, convert organic substances into humus. After the processing is finished, compost is produced. Compost consists of a mixture of organic matter, nutrients, and trace elements. It is a way of natural fertilization with excellent soil-enhancing properties. However, you should consult your local licensed agronomist before applying compost.
Another way of organic fertilization is to use manure. Animal manure from organic farms is commonly used. The manure should be well rotted and can be applied around the plants. However, you should consult your local licensed agronomist before applying manure. Other farmers cover the soil surface with dead plant material in order to improve soil fertility and control weeds. This method is known as mulching.
Hydroponic production is not normally permitted. Hydroponics is the method according to which producers do not use soil in order to grow their plants. Instead, they use an inert medium enriched with nutrient solutions, where they place their plants’ roots. According to the authorities of most countries, organic crops shall be grown in living soil. However, United States authorities have recently allowed some hydroponic farms to label their products as organic.
Crop protection and Weed Control in Organic Farming – Organic Pests and Diseases Management
In organic farming, the majority of chemical pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, etc. are not allowed, unless they have been authorized for use in organic farming. Ecological approaches may prevent pest and disease outbreaks.
The prevention of any damage caused by pests, diseases or weeds is primarily based on
- The use of natural enemies (for example ladybugs)
- The selection of resistant species and varieties
- Crop rotation
- Proper cultivation techniques, such as proper pruning when it comes to tree cultivation.
- Sowing of certain plants (for example vetch) between our main crop. Some plants (like vetch and some Trifolium species) are famous for naturally suppressing weed growth.
Moreover, farmers can choose sowing times that prevent pest outbreaks and improve soil health. Disease-free seeds and planting materials are also necessary. Generally, organic farmers are recommended to choose local seeds or species, which perform well in local conditions.
Organic Livestock Farming
Organic livestock farming aims at having well-being animals and establishing environmentally friendly production methods. All these result in the production of high-quality products, and at the same time, livestock farmers meet animal welfare standards. Involvement in organic livestock farming means strictly obeying some specific rules. These rules protect animals’ dignity, well being and nutritional needs, while they also ensure public trust.
In order to meet all these demands, organic livestock should be born and raised in organic farms and eat organic feed. This means that all the ingredients included in the feed should be organic. Moreover, many organic livestock farmers cultivate forage crops on their own in order to make sure that the feeds are organic.
Farmers should select healthy breeds based on their ability to adapt to local conditions. Thus in many cases, they only choose native species. It is very important to maintain excellent animal welfare strongly. Thus, the staff must have all the necessary basic knowledge and skills in animal health and safety. In most cases, no animal should be kept inside cages or boxes. Animals should be able to walk outside the stable and have access to pasture. Poultry shall have access to an open-air area for a great proportion of their life (ask your local authority and your certification body). In organic farming, some animals shall live in communities, as they do in nature. Restraint or isolation is not allowed unless this is dictated for their own protection. Even then, however, isolation should occur only for a limited period of time.
Substances such as hormones, growth factors, and synthetic amino acids are mostly not allowed in organic livestock farming. For example, as we know in conventional farming, producers may use hormone assisted treatments for optimum reproduction rate. This is something that a farmer cannot do in organic farming unless the use of such substances is part of the veterinary treatment on an individual animal. In such a case, the animal shall be kept isolated in large enough spaces provided with straw or appropriate bedding. You may ask your local authorities or your local certification body for more information.
Organic beekeeping may be more difficult than organic livestock farming. This is due to the fact that we cannot totally control flying creatures like bees, and thus we cannot prevent them from collecting nectar from conventional farms. However, there are some things a beekeeper should do in order to decrease such a probability.
First of all, organic beekeepers should consider locating the apiaries in areas providing nectar and pollen sources mainly of organic crops. This way, we minimize the risk of contamination. In case there is a need for additional feeding (only if the survival of the colony is endangered due to lack of natural resources), bee colonies shall be fed with organic feed (organic honey, or sugar).
At the end of the season, beehives shall still have sufficient honey and pollen amounts so as to enable the bees to survive during winter. Producers can not use synthetic chemical repellents during honey extraction operations. As for the bees diseases treatment, the majority of chemical treatments are forbidden. There is an exception, where some substances (always organic certified) may be allowed in cases of infestation with Varroa destructor. You may ask your local authorities or your local certification body for more information.
Conclusion: To be or not to be (Organic)?
The decision on choosing organic versus conventional farming is not easy, either from an environmental or a financial perspective. Some farmers choose organic farming because it fits well with their philosophy of producing natural products. However, a great proportion of organic farmers have made their choice after calculating prices, revenues, and expenses. It is for sure that some farmers cannot compete in cost. Their acreage may be small enough or they may not have the experience to control all the costs and produce an average product at an attractive price. Thus, many farmers choose organic farming, as they bet on quality. They plan to produce a small quantity of a high-quality product that can be sold at very high prices. Some of them are successful in this, while others are not. In any case, organic farming requires extensive research, special handling, training, guidance, and some level of experience in order to be successful.