There are many people who offer solutions to the sustainable farming problem. These range from "Landcare" and "conservation farming" to "permaculture", "biodynamics" and "financial restructuring". Most of these solutions are very appropriate, in the right place and at the right time. All have their application, and in many cases, elements of several can be combined to create a solution appropriate to a particular site.
Natural farming works with nature, rather than against it. It recognises the fact that nature has many complex processes which interact to control pests, diseases and weeds, and to regulate the growth of plants.
Chemicals, such as pesticides and artificial fertilisers are being used more and more, even though they can reduce both the overall health of the environment and the quality of farm produce. Undesirable long-term effects such as soil degradation and imbalances in pest-predator populations also tend to occur. As public concern grows these issues are becoming increasingly important. Farming the natural way aims to ensure quality in both the environment in which we live and in the produce we grow in our farms.
There are a variety of ways of growing plants that work with nature rather than against it. Some are techniques that have been used for centuries. Some of the most effective and widely used methods are outlined here.
Organic farming has been given a variety of names over the years - biological farming, sustainable agriculture, alternative agriculture, to name a few. Definitions of what is and isn't 'organic' are also extremely varied. Some of the most important features of organic production, as recognised by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), include:
- Promoting existing biological cycles, from micro-organisms in the soil to the plants and animals living on the soil.
- Maintaining the environmental resources locally, using them carefully and efficiently and re-using materials as much as possible.
- Not relying heavily on external resources on a continuous basis.
- Minimising any pollution both on-site and leaving the site.
- Maintaining the genetic diversity of the area.
Practices which are typical for organic systems are composting, intercropping, crop rotation and mechanical or heat-based weed control. Pests and diseases are tackled with naturally-produced sprays and biological controls (e.g. predatory mites). Organic farmers generally avoid the use of inorganic (soluble) fertilisers and synthetic chemical herbicides, growth hormones and pesticides.
One of the foundations of organic farming, linking many other principles together, is composting. By skilfully combining different materials, balancing carbon and nitrogen levels, coarse and fine ingredients, bacteria and worms act to break down the waste products. Composting produces a valuable fertiliser that can be returned to the soil. Natural biological cycles are promoted, 'wastes' are re-used and the need for external supplies of fertiliser are reduced or cut altogether (see the Chapter on soils for more information on Composting).
Whole Farm Planning
This concept encourages a "holistic" and long term approach to farm planning. It requires giving due consideration to ALL of the farm assets (physical and non physical); over a LONG period of time (perhaps several generations); with respect to ALL of the aims which the farmer may aspire to (e.g. profit, lifestyle, family wellbeing, sustainability of production, etc).
In any whole farm planning strategy the farmer must first assess the site in terms of potential use/suitability. The farm is then subdivided, usually by fences, to emphasise useful or problem areas (e.g. erosion, salinity). Water and access routes are highlighted. Cropping or livestock rates are planned to be increased if feasible. Shelter is planned and planted out, or built. Pest animals and plants are located, identified and controlled by chemical or natural alternatives.
Conservation is a very important aspect of whole farm planning as native birds and animals are mostly beneficial on the farm, as they control a range of pest animals and insects.
Costs inevitably will be a deciding factor. The farmer needs to determine what costs may be involved and what the benefits of whole farm planning are to the future of the farm. In the majority of cases long term gains far out way the time and resources used in establishing such a plan. Information on whole farm planning is readily available from agencies such as state government departments of agriculture, primary industries, conservation or land management, and other bodies.
Systems Thinking in Sustainable Agriculture
The role of the farmer in a systems or holistic farm approach to agriculture is to organise and monitor a whole system of interactions so that they keep one another in shape. The farmer is interested not only in producing the maximum amount of the species that he draws his income from, but also in minimising inputs such as chemicals, fertilisers and cultivations that cost money. Such systems are more sustainable in the long term. Whilst the overall production of many sustainable farms may be lower, the cost of inputs is also lower, meaning that overall profit is still comparable to conventional systems.