Key Elements of Organic Farming

The mantra for organic farmers, which is both philosophical and practical, can be summed up thus: to source and use in an optimum, non-wasteful manner locally available natural resources employing sustainable farming methods. There are several key elements that constitute organic farming. Among them:

Living soil:

The most vital requirement for an organic farm is soil teeming with microbial activity, fungi and other tiny creepy crawlies. Nurturing these micro-organisms and protecting their environment is essential for healthy, living soil.

Soil enrichment:

This is a fundamental duty of an organic farmer. There are several different natural methods, such as green manuring, composting and vermicomposting:

Green manuring:

This means treating the soil with green (plant) manure before the actual planting. Green manure helps to fix nitrogen – an essential nutrient – in the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen into a biologically effective form.

Composting:

Ah – this wondrous process! Green or fresh waste (newly discarded plants, food waste, cut grass); brown or dry waste (hay, wood shavings, sawdust, dried leaves) and cowdung, chickenshit and/or fishmeal (preferences vary) are churned together in compost pits. After a few weeks of watering to maintain a moist environment, and occasional turning for oxygenation, this somewhat appalling mess is magically transformed into a rich, aromatic, chocolate-hued crumble bursting with all the goodies that make the earth go “Yum!” All the friendly fungi, the exploding population of good bacteria and a host of other little critters such as microbes and tiny insects frolic in well-tended compost, having systematically broken down all the components into a uniformly textured substance containing all the required major and micro plant nutrients. Compost blended into soil also improves drainage, acts as a binding agent and encourages moisture retention.

Vermicomposting:

Earthworms should take a bow. They are the stars of a show that has run for millions of years in the soil of our earth. These small, hard-working wrigglers have a voracious appetite for all manner of organic waste, which they process with stunning efficiency through their sleek, slim, supple little forms. The result emerges at the other end as nutrient-rich organic manure. Deep-burrowing worms, while processing waste, tunnel through the soil, effectively aerating it even as their secretions bind it. Bend down within an inch of a vermicompost pile, and instead of the expected stink of rotting waste, you get the seductive aroma of rain-kissed earth. Experienced organic farmers think nothing of plunging their hands into a vermicompost pit and proudly displaying a shifting clutch of intertwined worms.

Plant diversity:

Walk into any natural forest. You will see plant diversity in all its green glory – several species of trees, bushes, creepers, vines, foliage, moss, lichen, undergrowth – all forming a perfectly balanced ecosystem. Modern conventional farmers, apart from defiling the soil and groundwater, defy nature further by their practice of mono-cropping. You’ve seen those scenes in Hindi movies, where the hero serenades the heroine while scampering through an entire field of sunflowers, or where the bad guy chases the good through an endless field of sugarcane. Organic farmers practise multi-cropping – planting a mix of seasonal crops simultaneously in a given plot. This has two positive spinoffs. One, since the roots of each plant type are of varying lengths, the plants can source sufficient nutrition from the different layers of soil. Two, most pests are plant-specific. If a plot has a single crop, a pest attack could rapidly destroy the entire crop. In mixed cropping, only the crop specific to that pest would be under attack. The rest of the crops would be spared.

Crop rotation:

Organic farmers also believe in crop rotation. This means planting a different subsequent crop in the same plot. If the first crop is short-rooted, the subsequent crop should be medium- or long-rooted so that the soil nutrients are absorbed from different layers in successive seasons, giving each layer, in turn, a chance to regenerate. Crop rotation also confounds pests which, having developed a “path” to a particular crop, find that with the change of season their menu too has changed.

Local sourcing:

Think local, act local. Organic farmers source locally produced seeds and saplings to grow crops that are indigenous to the region. This not only enhances the chances of a successful crop, but also minimizes environmental footprints. In fact, instead of sourcing seeds externally, seed propagation should be a standard activity in an organic farm as many seed varieties that are available commercially are treated with poison to deter pests and have to be thoroughly washed before use. Disposal of the water in which the seeds are washed adds to the nuisance factor. Organic farmers should, ideally, also raise cattle that can graze on their pastures to produce nutrient-rich organic dung and urine. The dung goes into the compost pit. The urine is diluted and used as a natural pesticide. And the cattle can be used to pull the plough.

Natural pest control:

Outwitting pesky pests is pretty much a full-time, ongoing challenge on any farm. Organic farmers can opt for a mix of natural methods. Neem cake can be crumbled into the soil at the time of planting. Some pests flee from bio-pesticides made from garlic, turmeric, tobacco, ginger, a dilution of neem oil or chilly. Basil or tulsi, planted typically by householders in Maharashtra to ensure a happy marriage, multi-tasks as a pest deterrent. Another smart tactical method is the planting of trap crops – plants that divert pests away from the main crops. The trick is to figure out which trap crop attracts which pest. So while marigolds are pretty much broad-spectrum traps (and look gorgeous when they bloom), castor, for example, is plant-specific, diverting pests from such crops as groundnut. If the crop is not over-infested, handpicking pests such as caterpillars (this is clearly not for the faint-hearted) off the plant, or using light traps for moths and other insect species are other options. Some organic farmers have experimented with pheromone traps. Pheromones are organic compounds secreted by female insects to attract the males. The randy males are lured into the trap, ruining their chances of a date with the female insects. This, naturally, leads to reproductive failure.

Water conservation:

Organic farmers believe in economical and non-wasteful use of resources.

Drip irrigation:

Drip irrigation is preferred to the spinning sprinkler and flooding methods (unless specifically required), which lead to water loss through evaporation and run-offs. As mentioned, flooding also salinises the soil. For the drip method, slim black pipes with holes at intervals snake down rows of crops, with emitters pulsing controlled quantities of water (or water mixed with fertilizer) directly at the plant base, or through tubes down to the plant roots.

Mulching:

This further discourages water evaporation. Mulch is a bunch of matter such as hay and other organic material, which is used to cap the plant base as it receives the drips of water from the irrigation pipes. Mulch also creates a warm and cosy shaded environment, highly conducive to growth while preventing soil erosion by the wind.

No heavy machinery:

Mechanization and the use of heavy machinery such as tractors are frowned upon by organic farmers. The weight compacts the underlying layers of soil even as the heavy metal front end loaders, disc ploughs, blades and other attachments tear up the top soil in excess of planting requirements, sometimes even gouging out worms in the process. The loosened soil is then subject to wind and rain erosion. Sustainable farming propagates minimal tillage, so that there is least disturbance to the soil’s ecosystem. Controlled tillage also allows crop residues to “lock” the topsoil against erosion. So it’s back to the good old bullock and the lighter traditional plough.

Organisations such as Indian Superheroes was primarily set up to promote organic farming, lobby with government agencies and departments to pay more attention to sustainable agriculture, and assist farmers using chemicals and pesticides to convert successfully to organic farming methods.

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