These days, when it comes to food production, there seems to be as much a divide between organic and conventional producers as there is in the consumers. Coincidentally — and this will be hard for many food producers to hear — both organic and conventional farmers can cause environmental damage that is almost impossible to reverse, including nutrient depletion and desertification. That’s right, organic food production can be just as damaging to the environment as conventional farming if producers don’t keep their farm's ecology in mind. All farmers, regardless of which side of the great divide they sit on, need to remember to focus on maintaining their land’s ecosystem. A healthy farm ecosystem minimizes input costs and maximizes production throughout the years, while maintaining sustainability.
Healthy farm ecology is critical to minimize diseases and pest damage. Diversity of crops and animals helps break disease cycles and balances grazing pressure among different plants. The main problem with monoculture farming, be it conventional or organic based, is that it is very vulnerable to disease, pests, drought and nutrient depletion. A properly managed ecosystem is self-sustaining, and while that self-sustenance is very difficult to achieve, at the very least we can minimize the energy required to keep the farm running. By keeping the ecosystem healthy, you save money by reducing energy and cost expended; and you become a better steward of the land.
One thing often done by producers — large or small, organic or conventional — is trying to change their farm's ecology to match what they want to grow. They grow a variety of crops and raise species of animals that are not suited for the environment in which they grow, and they begin to change the ecosystem. They may find they need to irrigate constantly or fight diseases, pests and weeds that other, better-suited varieties would not have any issues with.
Ecological farming spans conventional and organic farming by emphasizing symbiotic relationships and biodiversity in a sustainable fashion, rather than which chemicals can or can’t be used during production. One of the things ecological farming focuses on is maintaining the natural nutrient cycles on a farm. For example, incorporating legumes, including alfalfa and clover, into your crop rotation will fix nitrogen into the soil and help reduce the amount of nitrogen you need to replace with fertilization. By minimizing the amount of fertilizer, you reduce the amount that leeches into aquatic environments that can cause many issues including fish death and algae blooms. It can be difficult to balance the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus when applying manure, which can lead to an excess of one or the other if the producer doesn’t take into account adding extra nutrients as indicated by soil testing yearly. Nitrogen fixing trees — alders, caragana and buffalo berry for example — can also help keep nitrogen in the soil of garden plots and smaller crop plots if used as a shelter belt and their root systems are allowed to develop under the crop area.
In fact, a plant’s root system is likely the most important aspect of farming that is often overlooked. This is true for both crop and animal production. Overgrazing — be it by animals, cutting or insect damage — significantly decreases how deep and wide the plant’s roots extend, because the plants can’t grow properly to store energy in its roots. Allowing a pasture to grow properly helps maintain the depth of the roots, and this significantly reduces the amount of watering and fertilizing required.
Reducing supplemental irrigation has multiple benefits. It decreases the amount of nutrients leached from the soil by the irrigation water, further reducing the amount of fertilizer you need to apply every year. Not only does this save you money but it also protects groundwater and aquatic environments. It also minimizes the amount of salinity in the soil.
If you are irrigating, you need to ensure your water is not going to cause salinity issues and apply it properly. Excessive watering will cause leaching of nutrients from the soil, impacting the groundwater, lakes and rivers, as well as increasing the amount of fertilizer you have to apply to maintain production. In some areas, the water can be too high in salt, and in other instances, excessive watering can increase the water table and push salt that accumulates deep in the soil to the surface.
The Root of the Issue
Maintaining a good root system is also very important to prevent soil erosion and maintain microbe populations. Microbes are important for fixing nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil, as well as breaking down manure and plant matter for crops to utilize. Many issues with desertification and loss of production can be attributed to tilling too often, as it disturbs the top soil layer and leads to moisture loss to the deeper layers of soil. Unfortunately, deep tilling is a staple of organic crop production to control weeds and insects. If the farm doesn’t have a healthy ecosystem and these pests become an issue, the results of over-tilling can be disastrous.
An ecological farm needs to implement a rotation plan for their crops and animals to encourage a healthy ecosystem. Properly applied, animal manure fertilizes crops and pasture, and in turn the crops and pasture feed the animals. Crops are resistant to different diseases and utilize nutrients differently. Similarly, animals will graze their favored plants before the less palatable ones. By keeping a variety of livestock on your pastures, this can help keep most plants and grasses from taking over a pasture, with possibly only the need of supplemental mowing, and it prevents overgrazing of one plant species.
Many governments and universities offer extension programs that give producers the opportunity to learn about farm ecology, often through hands-on classes. Take time to observe the cycles of your land, and take note of plants that grow better throughout the year. Use this to determine production goals for your farm, and formulate a plan that will parallel the natural cycles of the land. To truly help keep food production sustainable, producers would find it beneficial to focus on maintaining their farm's natural ecology.
Maximize Production Naturally
Don’t over irrigate. Choose drought-resistant varieties to prevent losing farm land to salinity and nutrient leeching. Irrigation costs money, and drought-resistant varieties will help save money.
Select crops based on your area. Pay attention to varieties that grow naturally in your pastures, and do some research to find other varieties that have historically done better in your area. Better yet, ask some farmers down the road who likely know the land.
Utilize nitrogen fixing plants. Rather than fertilizing, incorporate legumes into your crop rotation to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil.
Ensure your grasslands have deep root systems. Deep-rooted plants are less susceptible to drought and nutrient depletion as well as winterkill.
Plant deep-rooting varieties. For the same reason you want your grasslands to have deep roots, food crops should also be able to grow a healthy root system to help keep nutrients in the soil and require less irrigation and fertilization.
See how pastoral farming encourages natural biodiversity on your farm.