A look at organic farming

Your crop’s nutrient requirements are the same whether you choose organic or conventional production systems. Photo: Getty Images

By Ieuan Evans
Grainews contributor

The word organic in farm practice is just about totally confusing. Does it mean pesticide-free, GMO-free, or chemically produced fertilizer-free. Just keep in mind there are no such things as synthetic fertilizers. All fertilizers are simply minerals that are essential for plant growth. These minerals are the macro fertilizers, such as nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), potassium (K), sulphur (S), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg). The micronutrient fertilizers are boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), zinc (Zn) and several others.

In order for crop plants to grow successfully, all of the above nutrients must be present in the soil in non-limiting amounts. Most Prairie soils from pH 4 to pH 8 are generally not deficient in calcium and magnesium in the macro class, but they can be deficient in nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and, occasionally, potassium. As far as micronutrients go, copper, boron and zinc can be low or deficient. Other micronutrients are generally not crop limiting.

If you want to become an organic farmer, you must be able to face a huge change in your farming methodology. You cannot suddenly decide to switch from conventional pesticide, GMO and fertilizer systems overnight and be anywhere near successful.

In order to become an honest organic farmer, you must follow a comprehensive list of rules and regulations. These range from approved fertilizers and organic pesticides to time frames, certification, costs and product sellers to marketing outlets. It isn’t simple.

I am so old that I actually grew up on a small organic farm, since in my youth there were few available or effective pesticides, no GMOs and few chemical fertilizers. On this “organic” farm we had strict crop rotations on each field, plowing and harrowing gave us weed control, legumes provided nitrogen and we had to use “nurse crops” of wheat usually underseeded to red clover for weed control.

In order to become an organic crop producer, you must first apply to one of five approved organic certifying organizations.

The fertilizer we used was the spreading of all cow, hog and chicken manure over all cropland. Supplemental fertilizer was basic slag, which was the leftover waste from the nearby steel industry. The basic slag was rich in calcium, phosphate and potash. The air pollution and coal burning in the farming area likely supplied much of the sulphur.

Organic farming and soil fertility

In order to become an organic crop producer, you must first apply to one of five approved organic certifying organizations. These organizations have names like Ecocert, which charges by the acre, Pro-Cert and CSI for bulk acres, or OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) for less than 10 acres for vegetables — four separate organizations in all — and QA1 for livestock certification.

Certification costs are generally well over a dollar an acre and you must also pay the costs of organic inspection farm visits, which includes travel. There must also be a three-year wait period after initial certification from the last time a prohibited pesticide or fertilizer was applied to your proposed organic cropland.

Many organic farmers naively assume that under this new-found organic regime, cropland will remarkably regain its fertility. Remember, the first time the Canadian Prairies became fertile, it took all of 10,000 years to build up the fertile grassland.

There are no magic answers if you want to be a successful organic crop producer.

Since farming began on the Prairies, for the last 200 years this soil fertility has been drawn down or drastically used up. Soils that used to be five to 10 per cent organic, with huge reserves of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur as well as micronutrients, are now down to one to five per cent organic, and often deficient in nitrogen and phosphorus. Farming has removed huge reserves of crop nutrients from the once-fertile Prairie croplands.

There are no magic answers

Far too many farmers get into organic growing and end up buying what I call foo-foo products. These are often untried, unproven or ineffective soil amendments that are supposed to rejuvenate cropland. Humic and fulvic acids, bacterial additives or sometimes even plain water are sold in overpriced jugs or containers. Please read the product label which by law must state the active content on the bottom line.

As I write this article, I am now looking at a 10-litre jug of liquid that is supposed to help seed germination. It contains less than two per cent nitrogen and only traces of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and calcium. Its actual nutrients are on the label and yet this jug sells for more than $25.

I have seen jugs of micronutrients in the 10- to 20-litre range with less than a dollar worth of active product that sells for $50. I have seen magic claims for soil-enhancing bacteria and even such products as crushed, dried salmon meat by-products, applied at two pounds per acre on organic cropland at exorbitant cost and are essentially useless.

There are no magic answers if you want to be a successful organic crop producer. It used to be that organic growers could get three to four times the going rate for wheat or flax, which was very tempting to many farmers. Now you would be lucky to get two times the rate for grains, since the rest of the world is into organic production with cheaper labour costs.

Fertility requirements

If you want to grow a 60-bushel crop of organic wheat you will need 105 pounds of nitrogen, 40 pounds of phosphorus, 100 pounds of potassium and 12 pounds of sulphur, not counting calcium, magnesium or micronutrients. This is the exact same amount of fertilizer (nutrients) you need for growing a conventional 60-bushel crop of wheat. There are no short cuts or miracle fertilizers or remedies. Every kilo or pound of wheat, organic or conventional, contains the very same proportion of nutrients.

If you are an organic farmer, you first need to soil test your cropland at the six- to 24-inch levels (15 to 60 centimetres). Find out what crop nutrient reserves you have in your crop soil.

If you do not raise livestock, you need to be near a dairy barn, feedlot, hog or poultry operation. These livestock manures are going to contain the real nutrients you need to grow a successful organic grain crop. There are very few limitations on the manure you can use. Only manure from caged or gated animals is prohibited. You will need to apply tons of livestock manure per acre to achieve expected yields.

I believe I need another write-up on actual organic farming, but this will suffice for now. Organic farming must be every bit as scientific and nutrient wise as conventional farming. What you put into the soil is what you get out from the soil. If there are no nutrient inputs then do not expect any outputs.

At the present time there are about 1.75 million acres of organic cropland on the Canadian Prairies — which has been fairly consistent over the last five years. Mark Twain once said, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

This article was originally published at Grainews.