Encourage Biodiversity With Ecological Farming

Maintain the health of your land for years to come when you think in terms of ecology.

| November/December 2016

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.

Nutrient Needs

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.

Minimize Irrigation

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.

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