REVIEW: Organic Field Crop Handbook
A Pickup Cab Companion
An invaluable resource for farmers and inspectors

By Carmen Fernholz


Organic Field Crop Handbook

Edited by Janet Wallace

Canadian Organic Growers, 2001, 192 pp., $29.95

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January 30, 2004: "Organic farming is an integrated system of farming based on ecological principles."

The opening sentence of the very first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book. One can take every key word in this quote and make a case for organic production systems. And that is exactly what the editor, Janet Wallace, is able to achieve with the publication of the second edition of Organic Field Crop Handbook.

From beginning to end the book has that user-friendly approach to the concepts and practices of an organic management system. The language is straight forward. It is a book that one would do well to have at the farm office desk and readily available to pick up much as one would a dictionary or other reference text.

Principles is the guiding word. Since understanding agriculture and food production systems is an evolving phenomenon, principles can be the only guide. Nature, in general, is user-friendly and forgiving if we are willing to work with her and to strive for an ever-greater understanding of her governing principles. And that is what is continually being revealed and discussed in this book.

For everyone from the person only peripherally interested in organic systems, to the weathered veteran of many years on the land, the book is an excellent guide. Often times over the years I have spent on the land I have come across events or observations, the significance of which are only revealed when triggered by books such as this one. Suddenly one is able to see common everyday occurrences in a totally new light. Something that seemed only to be a totally natural occurrence takes on a whole new meaning and is heightened in importance in one's continued honing of management skills.

One valuable feature of the manual is the editor’s early establishment of the importance of rotations, livestock and conservation in an organic system. Legumes loom high as a necessary component in a balanced system. Recycling nutrients also plays a big part in establishing sound principles in an organic system.

One particularly user-friendly characteristic of the book is its layout. If there is a need for a quick over view, the pages are laid out in such a fashion that one can get the main points from the great margin topic lines. These are bold subtitles in wide margins to allow one quick access to a specific topic. Should one need greater detail, there it is in the main body of text. Additionally, there is ample room for personal margin notes on every page. From a farmer's perspective, this is great. It gets on to the issue quickly yet allows for personal observations and growth.

A second user-friendly characteristic of the publication is its generous use of charts and graphs illustrating the many aspects of criteria used in sensitizing management skills. Thus they begin to serve as great decision-making tools. "Weeds as indicators of soil conditions", on p. 43, is one example.

I found it quite interesting how the book has arranged the topics for discussion. Just as soil must be the beginning point of understanding in a successful organic management system, so too the book begins the discussion with soil and how to manage it. Only after this topic is thoroughly covered are we introduced to the actual cropping systems and rotations.

A most interesting point is made in the chapter about soil amendments. "Soil amendments are most needed during the period of transition from conventional to organic agriculture, while the soil is withdrawing from chemical inputs and adapting to organic agriculture. Once the soil fertility and nutrient cycles have been established, amendments are seldom used. Instead, fertility is managed by conserving nutrients and using green manures and composts to add additional nutrients" (p. 44). Unstated by the editor, but certainly understood, is the mind set change that takes place in the transitioning producer. It is a gradual realization that there are no magic bullets in a bag or barrel to assure a successful crop. Most of the success is eventually derived from the challenge-ready mind of the aspiring practitioner.

Throughout the book are little tidbits that can go unnoticed if the reader attempts to merely skim the contents. Embedded in many paragraphs about what appear to be obvious pieces of information are single, valuable points like this: "For greatest effectiveness, apply rock phosphate prior to seeding clovers, alfalfas or buckwheat because these plants are able to make good use of phosphate in this form" (p. 45).

Another example of the many gems within the book: "The soil should not stick to your boots when you walk on it, and it should break easily and crumble at the deepest depth that is being tilled" (p. 49).

An interesting aspect about this publication is that just when you think you might have all of the information that you need about a specific subject, the editor uncovers another little particle that contributes greatly to the years of observation and experience I have had in an organic management system. A great example is the insight about legumes on p. 57: "The process of nitrogen-fixation requires energy. Consequently, legumes grow more slowly and take longer to become established than most other crops."

Since the issue of weeds is of particular interest to most organic producers, whether they are rookies to organic management or veterans, I want to express this caveat. Severity of weed pressure is many times in the eye of the beholder. Learning to correctly interpret weed pressures is an on going science as there are many factors that commingle with the actual weed pressure to determine its severity—things like temperature, moisture, types of crops grown, field terrain, and timing of field activities.

So when the editor states that "As organic crop rotations become established, weed problems are reduced," one must be quick to remember that the perception of reduced weed problems may be just that—the producer has learned to tolerate varying levels of weed pressure or has become somewhat desensitized to weeds. Personal experience tells me that weeds are always a problem and some years are more problematic than others for reasons many times beyond the control of the farmer.

The tone of the publication is very straight forward. There is little if any over statement of ideas. And the language is very use-friendly. I love the numerous examples given for specific points that the editor makes throughout the book. It is a book that certainly would do well to be in the tractor cab during the growing season and in the pickup cab during the off season.

Carmen Fernholz has been farming in Minnesota for many years. He was frequently featured in the old New Farm magazine for his innovative cropping systems and collaboration with ag researchers.