intercropping in organic agricultural systems

organic farming

Genuine organic agriculture is rooted in four  main principles:

  1. ecology: both ecological systems and cycles should be supported
  2.  health: the well-being of both flora and fauna should be sustained
  3. fairness: providing common and just environment and life opportunities
  4. care: the management of natural resources that is both precautionary and responsible for the benefit of current and future generations, as well as the environment

These four principles are directly applicable to intercropping for many reasons. For instance, intercropping supports healthy ecological systems as it is based inherently on the incorporation of multiple species or varieties into a single system with various motivations for specific pairings or groupings. In this sense, biodiversity is encouraged in two ways. The first being that it prevents one particular variety of pest from aggregating by limiting their food source and ultimately reducing the risk of excessive loss due to one specific pest. The second is that more pollinators and predatory species are present as a result of a more diverse system that provides a habitat for pollinators and predatory species. This is accomplished by the relatively simple act of diversifying the crops grown. Similar benefits can be seen in reductions in total weed biomass. Further, intercropping supports the goal of closed-system production, i.e. nutrient cycling within a system, via the use of nitrogen-fixing legumes as component crops that benefit from their symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia.

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nitrogen-fixing nodules from Rhizobia bacteria

The use of these crops also organically increases the soil nitrogen content, which encourages mycorrhizal fungus development, which can also improve phosphorus, copper, zinc, and molybdenum uptake. However, it is worth mentioning that these objectives may be best realized by polyculture farms that incorporate livestock manure as legume fatigue may occur if the soil becomes overly infested with pathogens caused by the over-cultivation of legumes.

When accounting for the above-mentioned factors, it may be supposed that intercropping is best suited for organic production systems because it serves to circumvent the need for synthetic, mineral and chemical inputs, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, that are commonplaces in conventional agriculture and restricted from use in organic agriculture. In a sense, this means that although intercropping is more closely related to historical approaches to agriculture, it is being adapted to modern circumstances that include a rising demand for organic food, increasing environmental stresses, and a growing societal awareness of food and food production processes. Concurrently, conventional agriculture is becoming increasingly cost-inefficient, both economically and environmentally speaking. This has the potential to support an agricultural transition towards organic production methods, especially if evidence substantiating assertions about the efficacy of intercropping continue to emerge. Moreover, the growing body of proof that demonstrates total system improvements in output produced by intercropped systems may help to counter the argument that organic production cannot be as productive as conventional agriculture, especially when comparing it to sole cropping systems. In turn, intercropping may enable organic production to become more competitive with conventional production and ultimately provide an opportunity for further organic market expansion through the establishment of a fairer economic playing field. Ultimately, these factors allow for the creation of more resilient food systems that provide modern day benefits that serve as the groundwork for a more sustainable future. Consequently, this element of foresight has the potential to benefit a wide variety of both human and non-human stakeholders.

sources:

photo credit:

  • geneticliteracyproject.org
  • commons.wikipedia.org

crop quality – when better is better

apple

There is no doubt about it – we like a shiny apple. It just looks so much more appealing than the odd, misshapen apple that has already been sampled by the local fauna. After all, we humans are visual creatures and the appearance of our food is what peaks our initial interest. Besides looking great, we want the apple to taste good and provide us with wholesome nutrition. After all, looks aren’t everything. Sellers also want a product that looks good, but their version of attractiveness comes from uniformity and bright colors that attract customers to their shelves. Just in case the product isn’t purchased right away, the product should also have a long shelf life. Producers, on the other hand, have completely different demands. They need a product that can travel from point A to point B [often thousands of miles] and not be bruised and mushy upon arrival. They want the apple to be dense so that they are paid the most for their wares.

In the end, beauty, i.e. quality, is in the eye of the beholder. In the case of crops, this generally means a favorable mix of appearance, texture, flavor, safety, and nutrition [see the table below]. To produce a crop more likely to please all parties involved, it must be of high quality. To grow a crop of high quality, it must have been produced with care, which means that a number of factors need to be considered during each phase of the production cycle.

Planning Phase

It is first important to understand your growing space. How much sunlight will it get? How much precipitation does your area receive? What are the average temperatures? What is the soil type? How big of an area will you be planting? Will you practice intercropping? How many seasons of the year are suitable for growing? Are you planning to grow annuals or perennials? Once these questions have been answered, a plan for the growing season can be made.

Referencing your plan and a guide for plant spacing, select seed varieties suited to the local climate and growing conditions. If possible, opt for local seed banks or nurseries, cooperatives, or reputable seed catalogs that can provide this information or are already adapted to local conditions. If a particular seed variety is particularly successful, consider saving your own seed for future growing seasons.

bean-varieties

Planting and Growth Phase

When planting the crops, make sure to follow the recommended spacing suggestions. By doing so, the plants are sure to get the appropriate amount of light and there is enough space for air to circulate which reduces the likelihood of disease and pest problems.

As the plants are growing, opt for manual methods of weed management and monitor pest populations to help prevent any major infestations. Having healthy soil helps to reduce the likelihood of pest infestations and provide the plants with the nutrients it needs to remain healthy and bear nutritious fruits.

If possible, protect the plants from extreme temperatures to avoid premature flowering, damage from frost or snow, and leaf scorch.

Harvesting & Post-Harvest Phase

The moment a product picked, it begins to deteriorate in quality. Accordingly, it is important to have a plan and system in place for processing the harvest. The essential parts of this process involve cooling, cleaning, sorting, and packaging. How far a product will travel impacts the approach to packaging. Having a system in place for post-harvest handling also contributes to overall food safety.

General Tips

  • Pay attention to the details and to be consistent.
  • Keep track of the growing process to learn from successes and mistakes

At present, the quality of fresh fruits and vegetables is based on the following factors:

crop quality

For more information about the horticultural production system, click here.

additional resources:

photo credit:

  • sknaturalsadoor.com
  • sciencmag.com

the historical development of organic farming

Organic agriculture, i.e. a method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides and a holistic, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity, has a long and interesting history. Its history has four main phases.

Phase I began in 1840 when J. V. Liebig published Agricultural Chemistry which provided evidence that crop yields are affected by mineral plant nutrients. This led to the development of Phosphorus (P) fertilizer. Then in 1910, the Haber-Bosch procedure was developed and subsequently allowed for the industrialized production of Nitrogen (N). With the use of these discoveries, synthetic fertilizers were being used on a large-scale basis by 1918.

haberbosh_en1
The Haber-Bosch Process, Image Credit: https://physics.org

Also during this time began the mechanization of agricultural production and the introduction of plant protection chemicals. It was also during this period that increased efforts in plant breeding began. These developments resulted in widespread specialization which has paved the way for monoculture. The social constructs of society also began shifting during this time period as the process of urbanization began. As people migrated to urban spaces, their interest in farming dwindled and the consolidation of farming ensued.

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Extreme Erosion during the Dust Bowl, Image Credit: http://s.hswstatic.com

With industrialization and the overwhelming use of synthetic inputs, the quality of land rapidly decreased with many environmental problems resulting, e.g the Dust Bowl (1931-1939) that was caused by drought, overgrazing, and intensive tillage. These problems and a rejection of the industrialization of agriculture spurred Phase II of the organic agricultural movement. This phase, which began in the 20th century, is characterized by counter-movements. Some of the most influential figures from this phase include:

    • Rudolf Steiner: non-material processes in agriculture (Austria)

    • Eve Balfour: the interconnectedness of soil, plant, animal, and human health (UK)

    • Albert Howard: soil fertility and composting (UK)

    • Mueller: advocate for the independence of farmers and nutrient cycling (Switzerland)

  • Rusch: microbial determination of soil fertility (Germany)

Phase III began as the concept of organic was internationalized and merged with the environmental movement. The initial defining moment for this was the release of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962 that highlighted the negative environmental impacts of widespread chemical use in agriculture. Then in 1972, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (iFOAM) was founded in order to promote the organic movement. In the same year, the Club of Rome published Limited of Growth that highlighted the flaws and dangers of neoclassical approaches to economic growth, i.e. always needed to grow in order to demonstrate success. Shortly after the oil crisis arose. Then in 1981, the first university program in organic agriculture was implemented.

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Image Credit: http://environmentandsociety.org

We are currently in Phase IV, which includes the professionalization, market expansion, and legal regulation of organics. In Europe, the first legislation was introduced in 1991 and in 1990 in the United States. In 2005, an international agreement on the principles of organic agriculture as instated. Progress during this phase has been challenging as organic production methods continue to be looked down upon by mainstream agriculture and it is often criticized as being incapable of producing enough food for the growing world. However, studies continue to emerge disproving this criticism and demonstrating the sustainability of organic production.

Moving beyond Phase IV will be difficult, but is arguably necessary based on the current environmental challenges caused by monoculture and chemical-based production. Success in this respect will involve both bottom-up and top-down approaches as well as a decrease in the stringency of regulation in order to be inclusive of a variety of farming approaches. These are the goals of Organic 3.0 in order to provide the greatest number of the earth’s citizens – both human and non-human – with the best benefits possible.

question: what does organic really mean?

The word organic is popping up everywhere. Organic milk, strawberries, and tomatoes. Organic cotton and organic pet food. These items are undoubtedly more expensive than their conventional counterparts and they are often stigmatized as being yuppie products or just another marketing scheme. Organic products have also been recognized as being healthier and more environmentally-friendly. But what is not often discussed is what organic means and what is different about organic agricultural techniques. So, what does organic really mean?

According to the USDA, organic operations are those that protect natural resources, conserve biodiversity, and use only approved substances. 

The EU states that organic agriculture is method of farming and gardening that relies on natural systems and products and is free of virtually all synthetic and toxic chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM), provides a more comprehensive definition: A production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. It combines traditions, innovations, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved. 

IFOAM’s definition differs from the others in that it is not only about the practices, rather it denotes the process as a holistic in that it focuses not only on the inputs and outputs but also the complex interworkings between different components of the system. Likewise, it demonstrates that farming practices should fit the environmental system rather than attempting to manipulate ecosystems for agriculture. In doing so, it is expected that organic agriculture is an integrated, sustainable production management system that promotes and enhances biological cycles and soil biological activity.

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A comparison of conventional and organic agriculture Image Credit: http://blog.ucsusa.org

In order to achieve these goals, organic production practices are shaped by four supporting principles:

  1. Health: sustain the health of soil, plant, animal, human, and planet as a complex and indivisible system
  2. Ecology: support and promotion of ecological systems and cycles
  3. Fairness: provide common and just environment and life opportunities
  4. Care: management in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect for the benefit of current and future generations as well as the environment

In light of these principles and the impact that they are intended to provide, the term organic can therefore also be considered a part of a lifestyle that promotes a more harmonious relationship with the natural systems that support us.

Criticisms of organic, e.g. the cost, exclusionary nature, and focus on labeling and certification, are being addressed by the organic 3.0 movement, which is focusing on the mainstreaming and normalization of organic in order to better disseminate the benefits it provides.

organic3
Image Credit: food.blog.de

Header Image Credit: http://drivedeschamps.fr

biofuels explained

A biofuel is a form of fuel that is produced from renewable organic materials, such as sugar crops, oil seed crops, and animal fats. They are considered to be potential substitutes for carbon-based fuels, i.e. extremely old, biofuels. There are two varieties: plant-based and animal-based.

The plant-based products are fermented sugars which create the fuels like ethanol.

rfa-dry-mill-ethanol-process-web
Courtesy of: http://www.ethanolrfa.org

The animal-based products are processed by combining an alcohol with an animal fat in order to create biodiesel.

how_biodiesel_is_made
Courtesy of http://www.enginebuildermag.com

At present, biofuels are a hot topic in modern society. As carbon-based fuels become more expensive and scarce and political tensions rise, biofuels appear to be a viable replacement and potential source of energy independence. In the United Sates, it has been asserted that most vehicles can use gasoline with up to 10 percent ethanol – the most widely produced and used biofuel. However, consumers take issue with the effect of the ethanol on motors as well as increases in gas prices associated with biofuel production. There are also demands to stop government subsidies for the production of crops for fuel production. Globally, there are issues with the destruction of rainforest for the production of raw material for biofuel, e.g. sugarcane or palm

Likewise, there is controversy as to whether the finite resources necessary for producing biofuels should be allocated to fuel rather than food when an estimated billion people are faced with hunger on a yearly basis. However, this issue is in the process of being solved via the use of waste products for biofuel production, rather than the edible portion of the product. Alternative options, such as the use of algae, are also being explored in an effort to reduce the environmental impact of biofuels.

What role ethanol and other biofuels will play in the future of energy production is uncertain, although the Energy Independence Act of 2007 encourages the production of biofuels to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022. If their use continues to expand, potential benefits include increases in domestic energy productions, a reduction in some air pollutants, the opportunity for a new source of income for farmers, and the possibility that production can be developed in a sustainable manner. Biofuels also emit fewer greenhouse gasses when burned. Conversely, biofuels may result in land-use changes, an increased need for agricultural subsidies, greater use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that can compromise water, soil and air quality, and prices for food crops may increase because of shifts in production.

biofuels-chart
Courtesy of: http://www.americanprogress.org

sources:

https://www.epa.gov/environmental-economics/economics-biofuels
https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/renewable-energy/biofuels
https://www.nrel.gov/workingwithus/re-biofuels.html
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/biofuel/

question: what strategies can small farmers use to better compete in a challenging market environment?

Small farmers are an integral part of society. They produce food, provide rural employment, and contribute to diversity in both ownership and societal structure. However, they are also faced with a number of struggles, particularly when it comes to market entry and competition with large-scale agribusiness. In order to address these issues and maintain profitability, small farmers must be innovative and adaptive. This implies the use of new marketing strategies to protect their existing market share, and, if possible, expand it. There are three main types of new marketing strategies. They are as follows:

  • Differentiation: providing a product that is clearly different from that which is offered by conventional producers. Conventional production can offer mass quantities of goods at a low price, but this is often at the expense of other desirable qualities or services.  This presents small farmers with an opportunity to fill identified market gaps. Differentiation can take the form of, for example, offering heirloom varieties or personalized service.
  • Specialization: choosing a specific product or group of products and fine-tuning the production process to reduce costs. When specializing, it is essential not to fall into a low-value monoculture trap, as it will not prove economically or environmentally sustainable. Instead, specialization should focus on high-value products, e.g. berries which can be sold fresh, as jams or other processed products, and wine. Specialization may also take the form of vertical integration or functional upgrading. Vertical integration refers to the process of internalizing multiple steps of the production and distribution process. Functional upgrading refers to the introduction of a new, higher value product.
  • Diversification: integrating different activities, processes, or methods to add value, e.g. growing several types of crops including some perennials and raising some dairy producing ruminants. In doing so, farmers are able to mitigate some risk in that the likelihood of total crop loss in the event of an inclement weather or pest event is reduced. Likewise, it can support biological diversity and support a more stable farm ecosystem. From a different perspective, diversification can take the form of services provided, e.g. partnering with local schools to provide educational opportunities or senior citizen centers to provide elderly care in exchange for low-impact assistance.

sources:

Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. (2017) Farm Direct Marketing for Rural Producers. Retrieved from http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3482?opendocument
Fromm, I. (2007). Upgrading in Agricultural Value Chains: The Case of Small Producers in Honduras. GIGA Research Programme: Transformation in the Process of Globalisation. Retrieved from https://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/system/files/publications/wp64_fromm.pdf
Mitchell, J., Coles, C., and Keane, J. (2009). Upgrading Along Value Chains: Strategies for Poverty Reduction in Latin America. Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/resources/docs/5654.pdf
Rethink. (n.d.) Resilient Food Systems and Market Differentiation. Retrieved from www.rethink-net.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/Pictures…/RETHINK_CS-leaflet_LT.pdf
Rosset, P. R. (1999). The Multiple Benefits and Functions of Small Farms. Food First The Institute for Food and Development Policy.

 

 

question: what are small farms, how do they contribute to society, and what challenges are they faced with?

Producing a vast amount of the world’s food, small farms are valuable assets that contribute to long-term economic sustainability and food security. What actually constitutes a small farm is hard to specify as there are extreme variations in societal structure, ergo many definitions exist. In the United States, a small farm is defined as any farm earning a minimum of $1,000 and a maximum of $250,000. In Canada, a small farm is considered a farm that doesn’t sell commodities in a market with set prices. The FAO has a much more complicated definition: “small farms are complex interrelationships between animals, crops and farming families, involving small land holdings and minimum resources of labour and capital, from which small farmers may or may not be able to derive a regular and adequate supply of food or an acceptable income and standard of living”, while the European Union has no concrete definition.

Despite a lack of a universal definition, small farms contribute a great deal to society – even beyond food production. It could even be argued that small farmers are some of the most underappreciated members of society even though they add genuine and unselfish value to the world. For example, small farms support rural employment as well as maintain and accommodate social connections in rural areas. This is especially important in an age of widespread urbanization as it contributes to the goal of more balanced development. Likewise, it provides diversity in societal structural. Such diversity is particularly essential to maintaining diversity in ownership in an era when the consolidation of power is a major issue facing society. In this respect, they provide also a basis for community empowerment. In doing so, small farms are a symbol of regional identity.

The benefits provided by these farms are threatened by a variety of factors, with the aforementioned issue of the consolidation of ownership and power being at the forefront of concern. This issue is catalyzed by unfavorable government policies (see Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin) that have been developed in favor of large agricultural conglomerates with the financial resources to influence government officials. A lack of societal sympathy and support for small farms due to false perceptions, for example, the belief that small farms are unproductive, further contributes to the problems faced by small farmers.

hoophouses-clay-bottom-farm
This is a picture of Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana that produces 30 varieties of vegetables to feed 200 families on one acre of land. Photo Credit: Clay Bottom Farm

sources:

EU Agricultural Economic Brief

http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/t0757e/T0757E02.htm

http://articles.extension.org/pages/13823/usda-small-farm-definitions#.UsV_8ifCYx4

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X15002703

www.foodfirst.org

http://smallfarmcanada.ca/2014/10-years-8-questions/