How Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens made the transition to organic
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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 SYSTEM

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

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 QUALITY

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 can’t 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.


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