compost farmerI often hear farmers say “My farm is organic; I don’t use chemicals”.

Although not using pesticides and herbicides is an important part, organic farming is much more than that.

Organic farming starts and ends with a healthy living soil. Organic farming methods aim to achieve and maintain a healthy living soil and organic pest and disease management relies on a healthy living soil.

A healthy living soil is well aerated, moist and has good drainage, and allows plants to develop strong, healthy roots. A healthy living soil has a balanced pH and a good level of humus and nutrients to support strong growth of plants and produce a good crop that is resistant to disease and pest attack.

How is this achieved? Organic farming uses nature as the model for designing farming systems. Since nature consists of diverse plants and animals, a major goal of organic farming is to create and maintain bio-diversity.

Nature also does not produce any waste. Whatever dies is recycled (decomposed) and becomes food for other organisms. The aim of organic farming is to promote fertility by encouraging a living soil, while promoting plant health through methods that cause the least pollution.

This system relies upon insects, birds, shade, sun, moisture in the soil and all other aspects of a living and working community of interconnected organisms.

By growing numerous types of crops and non-crops (especially indigenous plants), you create habitats for beneficial insects or animals, deter problem pests, and enrich your soil to create a living ecosystem of beneficial micro-organisms.

One of the major methods in organic farming is the use of compost. Fresh manure is full of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potash (K). These nutrients are lost easily through leaching and volatilisation and fresh manure should be composted to avoid nutrient losses.

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Old, dried manure from an ancient heap on a farm does not contain any nutrients; its only purpose is the addition of organic matter into the soil. Fresh manure should also not be applied directly as it burns plants and roots if it touches them.

FIRST CHOICE

Compost is the organic farmers’ first choice. Compost has a more balanced nutrient value than manure and releases its benefits steadily over a long time without burning plants or upsetting the nitrogen-carbon balance. Compost can be dug in or spread as a top-dressing any time during soil preparation or the growing period.

Compost fertilises and at the same time improves soil structure, increasing its ability to retain air and moisture. Compost stabilises a healthy soil pH and encourages micro-organism activity in the soil.

Rock phosphate, bone or horn meal and ash are approved organic fertilisers and are best incorporated into the compost but may — in case of severe deficiency — also be applied directly to the soil.

They are spread over the soil a handful per 1 to 5 metres squared and worked into the soil.

Lime application is necessary if the soil pH is low. It needs to be applied widespread and incorporated at land preparation before planting. It also improves the structure of heavy clay soils and provides valuable calcium or magnesium (depending on the type of lime used).

Green manures are made from crops specifically grown to fertilise the soil and are dug back into the soil before they go into seed.

Their benefits lie in covering the soil to avoid erosion and big fluctuations in soil temperature, keeping soil life active, penetrating the soil with their root systems and accumulating specific nutrients and micro-nutrients, which will be incorporated and released back into the soil.

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They also improve the organic matter content of the soil. Common green manures are legumes like alfalfa, red clover, desmodium, dolichos lablab and sun hemp, fenugreek (methi), phacelia, rye and others.

Many fields have poor soils, little organic matter, and large fluctuations in temperature and moisture. Applying a 5 to 10cm layer of organic mulch can improve soil conditions and plant health.

Mulches help to maintain moisture by preventing direct evaporation as they create a barrier between the air and the soil.

Mulching can reduce the need for watering by 60 per cent. Mulch is also used to suppress weeds and keep the soil cool. Some mulch also improves soil structure, fertility, drainage and microbial activity as they decompose.

Organic mulches include pine bark chips, coco peat, dry leaves, cotton hulls, macadamia nut shells, grass clippings and rough compost mixes and straw.

Ms Weber is the country manager SoilsCare Ltd

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