What is Organic Farming?
First, let’s define what organic farming is. In it’s simplest expression, organic farming is an agricultural system that relies on natural inputs, such as ecologically based pest control and plant-based fertilisers. Organic farming focuses on sustainable use of the land, ensuring that factors such as soil quality are maintained to achieve environmental benefits, increase crop yields and promote the overall health of the farm, those who work it, and the end consumer.
Compared to traditional farming, an organic approach removes nitrogen-based fertilisers from the food chain, enhances soil health, reduces water consumption and recycles animal waste back into the production cycle.
Why Choose Organic?
Organic farming has grown in popularity in recent years in response to a number of market factors, such as consumers desire to support businesses that are supporting the environment and to help combat climate change.
For a lot of people, the choice to farm organically or buy organic produce is a personal choice. For us, the choice to farm organically was a family decision. We noticed that soil health was declining from traditional methods and we also had a strong desire to leave the land in a better condition than we found it.
What are the Benefits of Organic Farming?
Organic farming has wide-reaching benefits for the land, farmers and end consumers.
Organic farming can help fight climate change. It’s also been shown to be hugely beneficial for the land and the wider environment.
It’s also good for us, the farmers and end consumers. As farmers, organic farming allows us to achieve the same, or better, yields for less inputs. We use less water, remove chemical-based fertilisers from the food chain, and rely on natural resources such as animal waste to promote overall environmental health. We also produce high-quality, award-winning milk by choosing to farm organically.
Suggested reading: 6 ways organic farming benefits the land.
How to Transition to Organic Farming
If you’re already running a farm, or have a small garden on your property, and you want to make the switch to organic farming, be warned that there are many obstacles you’ll face. The shift for us took time, but we will tell you right now it was worth every challenge.
The biggest challenges you’ll find are:
Developing a plan (which we cover in this blog)
Identifying and switching to natural inputs
Ensuring quality and quantity of outputs
When making the switch, it helps to do plenty of research on the types of inputs (and quantities) you’ll need to go organic. You’ll also want to look into the transition period - how long does it take to change to new inputs, when is the best time to do so, and what, if any, consequences will it have on the land.
Step-by-Step Guide to Organic Farming
So, if you’re ready to get started with organic farming, this handy step-by-step guide will help you get started.
A quick disclaimer: this is by no means an exhaustive list, and you’ll likely need to supplement this with further research around your exact situation. For example, what works for us, a dairy farm, may not be right for producing vegetables, and a home garden will likely require a much simpler solution than a commercial farm.
Step 1 - Considerations for changing to organic farming
The first step is to review your situation and understand what exact considerations, unique to your situation, need to be accounted for. These include:
Location of the land
Farm characteristics: size, plots and crops distribution, which kind of crops, trees, animals are integrated in the farm system.
Soil Analysis: an evaluation of the soil structure, nutrient levels, organic matter content, erosion level, and/or the soil have been contaminated
Climate: rainfall distribution and quantity, temperatures, frost risks, humidity.
Organic matter sources and management (manures)
Presence of animal housing systems and/or machinery.
Limiting factors such as capital, labour, market access, among others.
High-input farms - if you are relying on a lot of external inputs, consider how you can shift these to a more natural, self-sustaining farm system
Low-input farms - if you are already using natural inputs and recycling, you need to review these practices and look to create a formal process or system to improve the efficiency and productivity of your actions
Step 2 - Gather Information
It sounds obvious, but the most successful organic farmers, and the easiest transitions to organic farming, come when you have a wealth of knowledge, information and skills at your disposal.
Take the time to learn organic farming practices relevant to you. For example, what does organic farming look like if you grow root vegetables? What do you need to do if you run an orchard? What about if you’re raising cattle or operating a dairy farm?
You should also take the time to learn the different organic farming practices - such as mulching, composting, organic pest management, and growing your own feed (if you have animals).
Step 3 - Crop selection
Once you’ve got a good understanding of organic farming, you’ll want to choose the appropriate crops. This will depend on a few things, such as what you like to eat, and what your property can actually sustain.
You might also need to plant crops for any animals you have, so that you can move towards a self-sustaining system instead of relying on external inputs for feed.
During this step, you’ll also need to consider the equipment needed to manage the crops you choose or consider how to maintain the crops and whether it is a viable option for you based on the resources you have available.
Step 4 - Mulching
Mulching plays a crucial role in preventing soil erosion. By covering the topsoil in natural plant materials, surface runoff can be prevented when it rains. As the material decomposes it boosts the amount of organic matter in the soil, helping create a stable structure.
When choosing your mulch, you’ve got plenty of options:
Weeds or cover crops
Grass, pruning material from trees and hedges
Wastes from agricultural processing or from forestry
For best results, mulch before the wet season, don’t apply too thick of a layer, and spread evenly across the field.
Step 5 - Water management
For a lot of us, water management is a big reason why we go organic. Scarcity of water is an issue around the world, so the more efficiently we use it the better.
Water management focuses on three principles:
When going organic it’s crucial you think about how you can achieve these three goals. Again, how you do this will depend on your unique situation so take the time to review your current situation and research ways you can improve in each area.
Step 6 - Crop planning
With traditional farming, it’s a bit easier to plant a variety of crops, especially when you have plenty of space.
In an organic system, planning your crops is much more important to success. Crop rotation (planting different crops in the field from season to season) and intercropping (planting different crops in close proximity to each other) are two methods that will help improve soil health and fertility.
It’s also vital that you keep good, accurate and detailed records of your crops. You want to ensure that, over time, you are maintaining soil health and recording crop yields to continually improve your results.
Step 7 - Nutrient management
Ensuring soil fertility is a key goal of nutrient management. As crops grow and animals graze, nutrients are removed from the land and must be replaced.
In traditional farming, nitrogen-based fertilisers are great for this but, in an organic system, you’ll need to look at other methods. Green manure (plants grown for the purpose of building nutrients in the soil), animal manure and organic fertilisers can be used, depending on your needs and situation.
Composting also plays a large role here, helping turn organic material into natural fertiliser.
Step 8 - Pest management
When it comes to pests and disease, there are two phases:
Management - keeping existing populations and diseases low
Control - killing pests and removing diseases
Organic farming focusses on prevention rather than cure - it’s about identifying the cause and removing it before it becomes a problem.
When it comes to pest management, the following solutions are available to organic farmers:
Planting disease-resistance crops
Choosing crops that are right for local conditions
Using mixed cropping systems so pests have less host plants to choose from
Rotate crops to reduce the chance of soil-borne disease
Use a balanced nutrient management system. Plants that grow steadily are more immune to disease
Increase organic inputs to boost biodiversity and the presence of beneficial organisms
Provide a healthy environment for pest-controlling species to prosper
Use proper sanitation methods
Step 9 - Weed management
For organic farmers, the priority should be preventing foreign species and weeds rather than removing them once they are detected. This means that the goal is to not eliminate all weeds, as this is an intensive exercise, but to maintain them at a level that is viable for the health of the farm and is economically sound.
For example, weeds help provide a home for pest-controlling species, as well as offering cover that reduces soil erosion.
Step 10 - Soil management
When it comes to soil management for organic farms, the focus is on:
Creating good growing conditions for plants by
Loosening the soil,
Encouraging activity of soil organisms,
Increasing water filtration,
Managing pests and weeds, among other things.
Reducing soil compaction
There is no one right way to cultivate the soil, but a range of options. When going organic, be sure to learn more about good soil management practices for your specific situation, crops, and location.
Step 11 - Animal husbandry
Introducing animals into crop-producing farms is a key component of organic farming. It increases the number of natural resources available through manure, can control pest populations (think of chickens constantly roaming) and aid in weed management (cattle and goats grazing).
For some, having animals simply isn’t possible, and again this comes down to understanding your situation and needs, but if you can incorporate animals on your farm then you definitely should.
These steps outline the fundamentals of organic farming, and help to illustrate the different challenges that organic farmers need to overcome.
For a comprehensive understanding of organic farming, take a look at this report prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.