6 Rules of Biological Farming

Today I actually found the time to read. Gardening for Profit is buried somewhere in the moving boxes, but I did manage to bring along my copy of The Biological Farmer. I’ll finish posting notes for Gardening for Profit when I get back to Oregon, but now seems like a good time to start sharing what I’m learning from Gary Zimmer.

This author runs a sustainable agriculture consulting firm in the upper Midwest and this book was originally intended to be a primer for consultants-in-training. He also owns and operates a 500-acre organic crop and dairy farm, and manages a 240-acre livestock and crop demonstration farm. It sounds like he’s heavily influenced by Albrecht, so I’m using this book as an introduction to soil-focused agriculture.

Some of the information isn’t new to me, since I studied environmental science and ecology in school. My eyes didn’t perk up till chapter 2, when he described 6 rules essential to biological farming. By “biological” farming, he means farming to maximize productivity and profits over time by understanding and working with biological processes (whereas conventional practices focus on maximum productivity and profits ASAP, and don’t give a @#$% about biological processes). He goes a step further and describes his criteria for sustainable agriculture, which can be achieved by practicing biological agriculture properly and in the long run: zero soil loss, nutrient balance, and 25 earthworms per cubic foot of soil.

So here are the 6 basic rules essential to biological farming:

Rule #1: Test and balance your soil. Zimmer recommends testing for 10 nutrients: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, manganese, iron, copper and boron. Nitrogen isn’t tested for, but it’s added based on the results of the soil test. If there’s a good nutrient balance (especially with calcium and sulfur) and a lot of soil life, less nitrogen is needed. You can test the soil every three or four years (right before seeding a field if you you have livestock and grow legumes), or more frequently in problem areas. If you’re growing crops or if you haven’t done soil tests in a long time, test the whole farm. One sample can represent up to ten acres.

Rule #2: Use fertilizers which are life-promoting. He provides a list of soil-friendly fertilizers, and ones you should stay away from. I’ll be relaying this info in another post, or else this will become one VERY long entry. Suffice it to say, for now, that minimally processed fertilizers are preferable.

Rule #3: Minimize pesticide and herbicide use. The need for pesticides and herbicides should decrease as nutrients come into balance and soil life becomes more active. Bacteria and fungi that can protect plants from pest and disease will thrive under the right conditions, and healthier plants are more “immune” to attacks of any kind. But if a problem does present itself, a biological farmer should try non-toxic control methods first: crop rotation, soil balancing, mechanical control (timely cultivation), and releasing natural enemies. Only use toxic chemicals if non-toxic methods fail after a few weeks, and use them as moderately as possible (e.g. banding a herbicide, spot-spraying, adding humic acid to a low pH tank mix).

Rule #4: Use a short rotation. Rotate every year or two for fewer weeds, disease and pest problems. Crop yields are higher and inputs lower than with a long rotation or with monocropping.

Rule #5: Use tillage to control soil, air, water, and the decay of organic materials. Raw organic matter (plant residues and animal manures) should be tilled into the upper layers of the soil for optimum decay into humus. Another way to add humus is to compost organic matter then add the compost to the soil. This reduces the volume of material to haul. If you do need to till deeply, don’t invert the soil. Instead, slice or uplift it. Never till soil that’s wet, and keep field traffic to a minimum to reduce compaction.

Rule #6: Feed soil life. If you feed the soil microbes, they will feed the crops. Soil life thrives on a mixture of cellulose-containing (plant matter) and nitrogen-containing (animal manures and legumes) organic matter in a ratio of two to one. Add rock phosphate or a little lime for balance. Incorporate a green manure crop (rye, red clover, Austrian field peas, alfalfa or buckwheat). After adding raw oganic matter, allow time for it to break down, or else some nutrients get “tied up” by microorganisms, becoming unavailable to plants. And, don’t overload the soil with manure or raw organic matter; it’s better to apply a lighter coat over more acres. On the other hand, composted organic matter can be applied liberally because it’s basically humus already. Once your major nutrients are balanced, consider “fine-tuning” with biological stimulants like kelp (seaweed), humic acids, enzymes, vitamins and hormones; also inoculants of beneficial bacteria, fungi, or algae.

So there you have it, folks. A simple overview for healthy soils, crops, and livestock. Hopefully the remainder of the book will flesh out this list with clear and practical details.

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