This short book was written some years ago and is therefore somewhat out of date. My intended readership was mainly farmers looking at the potential of farming more organically, not necessarily converting their production system to a fully certified organic one. It was only partially completed and never proofread by others and so will contain inevitable errors. Nevertheless it may contain something of interest to the reader.
In the late 1980s, the demand for organically grown food in Australia was accelerating dramatically. In Melbourne the market doubled in a period of twelve months. The recession hit the organic food industry later than most and had a less severe impact. As we are slowly leaving the recession behind, demand is once again strengthening. Domestic prices are predicted to remain firm for a long time as European, Asian and North American demand for Australian organic produce is strong. Current organic production is estimated to be worth around $168 million annually. This compares with the stone fruit industry ($168 million), the rice industry ($183 million) and the egg industry ($278 million).
Opposite are the contents of a fax received from Ian Diamond of the organic export company, The Organic Connection. Note that these are existing customers. Tasmanian cherry grower, Peter Windhurst and Victorian garlic grower, Phil Ward, travelled to Asia in 1993 to assess markets there. It appears likely that demand for organically grown produce will outstrip supply for the foreseeable future.
Many farmers have looked with envy at these sorts of figures, but it must be realised that the higher prices received for organic produce do not necessarily translate into higher incomes. Organic farmers often claim that they are justified in charging a healthy premium as their costs are high. There is precious little information on income from organic farming versus conventional, but it is significant that farmers who convert to organic almost never go back to conventional farming. I know of only one. Els Wynen and ? Edwards’ study of sheep/wheat farms in South Eastern Australia showed that there was no statistical difference between conventional and organic farm incomes. Many organic farmers have sold their produce into the conventional market for decades.
One of New Zealand’s largest companies, Watties Frozen Foods, is one of only three certified organic frozen vegetable producers in the world. Their technical specialist in organics, Alec McErlich, agrees that despite the premiums of 20 to 310% that they are paying growers, the farmers’ incomes are on a par with conventional growers. After only three years, they have 30 farmers under contract, 20 of them new to organic production. Even though it is early days, the company expects to process several thousand tonnes of organic peas, beans, sweet corn and carrots for export in 1993/4.
When this book was first conceived, it was about conversion to organic farming. Several years later, it has evolved into more than that. It is more a book about common-sense farming. There is a spectrum between those who believe that you can’t grow crops without artificial fertilisers and pesticides at one end and those who believe artificial fertilisers and pesticides are poisonous at the other. These ideologies are only tenable if you ignore some of the facts about plant and animal nutrition. Facts are stubborn creatures that long outlive theories, or ideologies. Many farmers are becoming disillusioned by conventional farming advice to do “more of the same” when confronted by seemingly intractable problems and are discovering that what works for organic farmers also often works for them.
We cannot claim that organic techniques are a panacea for all farming ills. We do claim that many problems are caused by so-called solutions to other problems.
While this book will be invaluable for those farmers looking to convert all, or part of their farm to organic, it will also discuss some of the shortcomings of full organic production, as well as the shortcomings of conventional production. In the pursuit of increasing crop yields and short-term farm profits, several other issues have been neglected. The first and most obvious is the degradation of the land. The others include declining health of the consumers of farm produce, be they livestock, or humans, and a long-term decline in farm profits. Organic technologies address all of these issues.
The writer has developed his ideas over a twelve year period of running a smallholding growing vegetables and apples, keeping goats, sheep and laying hens. For five years he provided consultancy to conventional growers converting to organic production and for twelve months was a partner in a business selling organic fertilisers to conventional farmers. For several years he was a director on the board of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia Ltd and he has delivered papers on organic production to the Australian Institute of Agricultural Scientists and the Australasian Plant Physiologists Society among others.
Most of the information for this book came from personal experience and the experiences of successful farmers. A smaller amount came from the work of agricultural academics and historians. It is the writer’s observation that the most useful academic information has come from writers who were brought up on farms, or who were successful farmers at some time in their career. Farming is a business intended to generate a profit. Any reasonable business must be capable of generating profit indefinitely and it was the pattern of decreasing profit in conventional agriculture that gave rise to the desire to help farmers improve their agricultural and economic sustainability.
The writer’s good friend and colleague, Tim Marshall, was a founder of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Australia Ltd. He says that we currently don’t know what makes a sustainable agriculture. We do know that conventional agriculture as it is currently practised is not sustainable; it is totally dependent on limited fossil inputs, coal, oil, gas and phosphate rock. We know that organic agriculture has certain characteristics that indicate it to be more sustainable than conventional, so it is plain common-sense to start the investigation there.
The proponents of conventional agriculture like to perceive themselves as scientific and the practitioners of organic agriculture as unscientific. In fact, as Tim points out, there is good science and bad science. When the results of bad science are discounted, what remains points to the organic approach as often (but not always) being more scientifically sound than many (but not all) conventional practises. Both Tim and I expect to see agriculture settle somewhere between the two extremes.
It is worth remembering that 95% of what organic and conventional farmers do is the same. They all use tractors, spray equipment, seeders, manure spreaders, storage sheds and so forth. Their produce is harvested and marketed and at the end of the financial year, profits and losses assessed. There are organic farmers in every agricultural pursuit except tobacco.
You will often read, or hear, many myths about sustainable agriculture and organic farming. A study of low input sustainable agriculture (LISA) farms in the United States demolished more than a few.3 The study showed 70.9% of conventional farmers believe that yields will fall without chemical inputs. The response of LISA farmers was that 35.3% said yields had fallen, 17.6% that yields had increased and 47.1% that yields remained the same. The percentage of conventional farmers saying that fear of lost profits prevented them from reducing chemical inputs was 63.8%. Lower yields cut profits for 33% and 76% said that lower costs had increased profits. In the final analysis, profitability comes from good farm management and too often, chemicals are used as a substitute. This book will hopefully help improve your farm management.
Farming is moving from its previous obscurity in the public eye and the public is holding farming accountable in the same way it is holding other industries accountable. The effects of farming are not limited to the farm; soil degradation, salination, spray drift and rural tree decline affect us all. We may choose to agree, or disagree with these issues becoming matters for public debate, since it impinges on what many farmers perceive as their freedom. But just as we, as farmers, take serious affront at damage to our farms from industrial pollution, government intervention (or none-intervention) and bank policies, the public has every right to demand that we maintain the land in useable condition and refrain from practises that have undesirable off-farm effects.4 The industrialisation of farming can be seen, in retrospect, as a failure on several counts. It has caused families of many generations to leave the farms they loved. It has resulted in others having their farms locked-up for production purposes due to apparently permanent contamination with persistent pesticides and their residues. More importantly, it has deferred problems for the future to solve (and pay for) in return for short-term profit. Perhaps unfortunately, the future has arrived.
One of my friends in the upper echelons of a state agriculture department commented that disasters such as Bhopal and Chernobyl might turn out to be beneficial, in that they occurred while there is still time to do something about preventing worse disasters. The Bhopal calamity in India when a fault at the Union Carbide Plant resulted in the leaking of poisonous gas (a commonly used agricultural pesticide) into the atmosphere killing over 2,000 people and seriously incapacitating tens of thousands, alarmed many people. In Michigan in 1973, a large chemical firm which manufactured highly toxic chemicals as well as a livestock feed additive, cross-contaminated the products. As a result, an extremely dangerous halogenated hydrocarbon was included in the feed supplements of animals on over 500 farms. By May 1975 16,000 cattle, 3,000 pigs, 1,200 sheep and 1,500,000 fowls had been quarantined and later destroyed. Despite this action, the chemical substance (which in humans causes a variety of health problems) was later found in food for human consumption. The chemical, which is stored in the fatty tissue of animals as well as humans, was absorbed by an unestimated number of people. Compensation claims have been enormous, as have the environmental and other effects.
This is not a manifesto for returning to pre-industrial agriculture. We can never return to the past, no matter how much some may wish we could. Post-industrial agriculture, like post-industrial industry, politics, economics, society, communications and everything else, is in the making. While we are clearly leaving some things behind, the future is far from clear. Just as Jethro Tull and his revolutionary horse-hoeing husbandry was at the junction between the agrarian and industrial ages, we are a society in transition. We are witnessing the failure of all of our institutions to cope with modern circumstances.
The crises that beset us today are global in scope. No national government appears to have made a significant effective decision that has had the intended outcome for at least a decade. This is not the fault of our political leaders, or bureaucracies. The systems they work with were designed three centuries ago and are merely showing their age. Back then, there were no businesses spanning the globe with individual budgets that are larger than the budgets of most nations. There was no instantaneous satellite communication, mass media, or mass transport.
We are truly entering a new era. While stubborn old facts remain the same, the way they are interpreted for human use is changing rapidly. Farming, as the essential human occupation, is also changing. We can perceive this as a threat and fight to maintain the status quo (a dubious position given recent trends in farm incomes), or face the prospect of change as a challenging opportunity. I have few answers, but many questions. This book contains many facts and some speculations about how Australia’s farmers can seize the opportunities that are presenting themselves. It is my hope that the readers of this book will find it of use in formulating their response to the challenges that lie in the present and near future.
Eliot Coleman says that agricultural scientists want to know why, that farmers want to know how. What is often left unsaid is that the scientist looks for the why in what the farmer has observed. Conversely, many farmers are unhappy unless they know the why of what they do. Part of this book is concerned with the why and part with the how.
I apologise in advance to some of my readers for occasionally becoming too technical for them in places. I have tried to keep this to the minimum necessary to forestall some of the criticism from those who still perceive the organic approach to farming as merely “muck and mystery”. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the facts of organic farming are often denied by the agricultural scientific establishment. Most of us have no grasp of the quantum mechanics in nuclear bomb, or computer design, but this does not lead us to deny the existence of nuclear bombs and computers. Organic agriculture, unlike other pursuits, seems to attract criticism (and advocacy) by people with any degree of ignorance.
Primarily, this book is intended for the practical farmer, though it is anticipated that the readership will be much wider.
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© Jonathan Sturm 2002 - 2011
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