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
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