There is a strong movement towards agriculture which is healthier for consumers and for the land, and organic growing is based on those principles.
Interestingly, these are not new ideas. Various agriculturalists put forward these theories as long ago as the early 1900s.
Organic farming is a holistic approach, influenced by, working with and imitating natural ecosystems. The focus is on improved soils, healthy plants and increased biodiversity.
According to the SA Organic Sector Organisation (Saoso), “An organic farm is a working combination of tradition, innovation and science that benefits everyone sharing the environment, promoting a good quality of life for all.”
Organic farming does not only refer to horticulture, although crop production and plant breeding are covered. It also includes animal production and beekeeping, wine making, processing and handling, as well as the concept of social justice.
An important aspect of organic production is that it does not use synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Inputs are natural, including animal waste and green manures, and use is made of crop diversity and rotations, and cover crops, etc. The result is decreased nitrate leaching into groundwater and surface water, maintenance of the quality of air, use of biological pest, disease and weed management, enhancement of micro-organisms in the soil, soil and water conservation and cycles that are adapted to local conditions.
Organic livestock husbandry is based on respect for the physiological and behavioural needs of livestock, the harmonious relationship between land, plants and livestock and the feeding of good quality organically grown feedstuffs.
Saoso Standard for Organic Production & Processing
The sector organisation recognised that organic farming was becoming more popular and therefore needed regulating.
A Standard for Organic Production & Processing was drawn up to meet the need for quality management and assurance. This was based largely on international standards, with some adaptation for local conditions.
Certification is available through different processes, should producers wish to sell their products as “organic”.
Backyard or Small Scale Organic Growing
Most smallholders, with their small often family or community-based outputs, will not wish to go to the trouble and expense of certification.
However, the general principles of organic farming can be readily and successfully applied in backyard horticulture and animal husbandry.
Many small scale farmers already practice crop rotation in their vegetable patches and in the fields where they grow maize or fodder for their livestock.
The SA Smallholder has always highlighted cultivation of different vegetables in the same piece of land over a period of time. The growing of different crops in succession on a piece of land avoids exhausting the soil nutrients and helps to control weeds, pests, and diseases. Rotation is carried out among the different families of vegetables.
Cover crops serve a dual purpose as they provide a different crop and can also be worked in as “green manure”.
Minimum disturbance of the soil surface ~ reduced or no till planting ~ is gaining popularity among smallholder farmers. This is because excessive and repeated tilling of the soil results in degradation of soil texture and nutrients.
Permanent organic soil cover also makes sense, as it offers protection for the soil from wind, rain and excess heat.
Small scale farmers are becoming more open towards an incorporation of natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation and pest/predator relationships into their production processes.
Newcomers to the field are sometimes bewildered by the concept of organic growing, confusing and conflating it with the other “new-age” approaches to horticulture and animal husbandry such as permaculture, heirloom growing, hugelkultur and even straw bale gardening, etc. While all of these concepts and practices can (and should) embrace aspects of organic production, they are not the start and finish of organic growing, in the same way that organic growing should, to be done optimally, embrace some of the practices of permaculture, etc.
In the days to come our Organic Growing feature will explore this approach to horticulture and animal management in more detail. We will look at the use of inputs, enrichment of soil, land design, water management, certification and training.
This is part one of a five-part series on organic farming.
Part Three: What Goes Into Healthy Organic Soil?
Part Four: Organic Control of Pests, Disease and Weeds
Part Five: How To Get Organic Certification