As consumers it is doubtful that anyone is unaware of the issues concerning food production. On the one side we have people who support (or don’t care about) the use of genetically modified crops and their companion insecticides and herbicides. On the other side we have those who support organic farming. What we (as consumers) don’t realize is that even organic farming practices can irreparably damage farm land. If the farmer does not pay heed to the land’s ecology it will be stripped of nutrients and can, in time, result in desertification.
If a farm specializes in one crop and grows that same crop in the same fields year after year the nutrients that this crop needs from the soil are depleted. Fertilizer – whether chemical or organic – will stave off the damage for a while, but eventually the ground will no longer support that crop.
In addition, soil contains microorganisms and fungi that keep the soil healthy. But raising the same crop year after year and using certain farming techniques kills these organisms and fungi. The farmer may think he or she is maximizing profits, but a healthy farm ecosystem actually reduces costs because healthy soil fights off disease and minimizes pest damage. A properly managed farm ecosystem is self sustaining. How is that done?
Ways to Promote Healthy Soil Ecology
One of the biggest mistakes farmers make: conventional and organic, is to try to force the soil to grow crops that are not native to that soil. My changing the soil dynamics to grow what they want to grow, not what will grow best there, they do interminable damage to the soil. In doing so they find an increasing need to irrigate, use pesticides, and turn to herbicides to control weeds that threaten to choke out their crop. By growing crops and raising animals that are native to that area, the land is primed to help them grow efficiently.
Another failure of many is failure to rotate crops. Crop rotation is a technique as old as farming, but has been neglected recently. Crop rotation uses sets of 3 or 4 plants that follow one another each year. Each plant uses something specific from the soil and leaves something else. By planting crops that will use what was left by the previous crop, and leave what is needed by the next, a continuous cycle of healthy soil is established.
Proper irrigation also promotes healthy soil. This is not a case of more is better. Over watering a farm or a garden promotes lazy root systems that stay close to the surface thus are most susceptible to damage by insects and dry conditions. Over watering also leeches out the very nutrients that are needed by the plants, and washes then into nearby aquifers where increased plant growth is damaging.
Reducing tilling and plowing also allows the soil to retain the fungal content that carries nutrients down into the soil to nourish roots of the crop. Over tilling breaks up these fungal colonies and, at best, reduces their effectiveness or, at worst, kills them: thus removing their benefit from the soil and leading to an increased dependency on fertilizer.
Utilizing cover crops during the “off season” retains moisture, reduces erosion, and adds nutrients. Many are nitrogen fixers that give crops a boost in addition to the organic material they add when turned under in the spring.
Whether you are a large scale farmer, hobby farmer, or a gardener, learning farm ecology will give you a boost in your success rate. Many universities and AG Extension offices offer the opportunity to learn, both through classes and hands-on opportunities, how to build a vibrant, self-sustaining soil ecology.