Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens made the transition to organic
(continued from page
Klaas Martens explains the advantages of the
45-degree tip angle on a locally produced tine
weeder during a field day at his Penn Yan, N.Y.,
farm in August. Tine weeders, when properly adjusted
and used, can take out tiny weeds within the row
, even after crop plants have emerged. Good soil
tithe greatly improves the effectiveness of mechanical
cultivation tools, he has found.
INPUT SUBSTITUTION AND THE TRUE ORGANIC
As farmers learn organic practices, the first two questions
invariably seem to be: "what materials do I buy for soil
fertility?" and "what machinery do I buy to control
weeds?" Though we too asked these questions at the start
, we now know that an organic farmer can not merely substitute
an organic input directly for a conventional input.'
This input substitution approach will not work
agronomically nor economically, nor does it satisfy the long
term requirements of organic certification standards. Nor
will the other popular approach, "organic by neglect".
Successful organic farming really must change the total approach
to farm management, looking at a much broader picture, for
every factor is interrelated and can not be isolated from
any other factor.
Organic farming must be considered a multi-year, whole farm
system where no single management decision or individual crop
can be viewed separately. Short-term profitability must be
balanced with long-term sustainability. For this reason, it
is hard to directly compare the economics of conventional
and organic farming, using the same criteria. What dollar
value can be placed on the intentional enhancement of soil
microbial activity, organic matter and structure, or on maintaining
a soil free of pathogens that may limit choice of future crops?
By carefully nurturing these and other critical factors, the
productivity of the farm can be maintained for many years.
SOIL FERTILITY MANAGEMENT
Many transitioning organic farmers worry about maintaining
soil fertility without chemical fertilizers. Under the organic
system, soil biological activity is the main source of fertility.
Probably the most valuable inputs that a transitioning
farmer can purchase are good quality soil tests and the assistance
of someone skilled in organic soil fertility management to
help evaluate the results and recommend appropriate amendments.
On our farm, our soil fertility is dependent on cover crops
and crop rotation to improve soil tilth, increase soil organic
matter, increase soil microbial diversity and activity, and
protect the soil from erosion. We also use moderate amounts
of composted leaves, gypsum, composted poultry manure, and
other approved organic fertilizers but we try to use as little
purchased fertility materials as possible. Transitioning farmers
should be very careful about using uncomposted manure, since
it tends to increase weed pressure. Raw manure and rock dusts,
such as rock phosphate, are best applied to a cover crop to
allow time for the nutrients to be converted into a stable,
available form before they are needed. In future articles,
we will discuss how we manage soil fertility, how we interpret
soil tests to guide our cropping and amendment decisions,
and what questions we still have.
Weed control presents THE primary challenge to organic crop
farmers. Sometimes keeping the weeds from getting out of control
seems like an insurmountable task. Organic weed control consists
of certain cultural methods which limit initial weed populations
and mechanical weed control methods that remove weed pressure.
Practices that improve crop vigor, while creating an environment
that does not favor weeds, will usually improve weed control.
A well designed crop rotation, the use of cover crops and
allelopathic crops, balanced soil fertility, clean, high vigor
seeds of well adapted varieties, and improving soil tilth
are effective cultural weed control practices. In future articles,
we will go into more detail about specific cultural weed control
practices, especially crop rotation and seed quality.
Mechanical weed control can be divided into 4 distinct phases
of (1) Tillage (2) Planting (3) Blind Cultivation, and (4)
Cultivation. Choosing the best tools for soil and plant conditions,
timing operations properly, and being alert of changing conditions
and requirements is extremely important for effective mechanical
weed control. In additional articles, we will discuss effective
weed control implements, key concepts about planning and implementing
a successful mechanical weed control program, and weed identification.
Organic products are commanding a premium price in the marketplace
primarily because they are perceived as being higher quality.
Therefore, as organic farmers, it is our responsibility to
work hard to make sure that this is true, and that all products
leaving our farms are indeed of as high quality as absolutely
possible. We cant just do the knee-jerk "if its
organic, than it MUST be better" response unless we are
really sure that is true. Therefore, we must pay close attention
to our growing, harvesting, storing, handling, and shipping
to be certain to be certain that the quality of organic products
is worth the premium price.