by Tamara Scully
The purpose of farming organically is to protect natural resources to produce an agricultural product. Organic growing requires farmers to work with the natural environment to promote a healthy biome – one where the balance of beneficial elements outweighs the presence of any detrimental ones and keeping disease and pests in check by creating nutrient-rich soils in which nutrient-dense, healthy crops can thrive.
While conventional agriculture has relied on chemical use to control pathogens, protect crops from diseases and pests and add fertility, organic growing depends upon keeping the phytobiome – the plants, animals, microbes and physical environment – healthy and intact, much like human wellness depends upon proper nutrition, fresh air, lack of exposure to toxins and exercise.
That philosophy has made it into mainstream agriculture, where practices implemented on organic farms for decades are now gaining recognition for the benefits they provide to soil and crop health, and the pollution and contamination they prevent from occurring.
According to the EPA, ecosystem services are those that provide “clean air and water, fertile soil for crop production, pollination and flood control” and are “benefits provided by nature.”
Farming practices which degrade any of these elements are not eco-friendly. Many farming practices have directly contributed to air, water and soil pollution and have caused harm to beneficial insects, birds, wildlife and soil microbes. Runoff from manure application, soil erosion, soils devoid of any microbial life due to repeated applications of chemical fertilizers and crop protectants and compacted soils that no longer absorb water are some of the implications when agriculture no longer works in conjunction with nature.
Conservation measures such as no-till, riparian buffers, manure incorporation, cover crops, crop rotation and contour planting are practices designed to lessen any negative impact ag activity has on the environment. A focus on adaptation of such practices by conventional farmers has led to the use of common organic farming protocols making their way into mainstream agriculture.
Since the 2018 Farm Bill, Conservation Innovation Grants have been available through USDA-NRCS in conjunction with partner organizations for on-farm innovative trials, meant to encourage the development of novel approaches to ecosystem protection, offsetting some of the costs and risks involved in adapting new practices.
Grantees for 2019 included projects specific to soil health. Some of these involve changing the way in which conventional farming practices are performed. One project involves the utilization of precision agriculture to decrease nitrogen use on fields, while another examines barriers which keep farmers from using support tools aimed at controlling excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer. Other grant projects are focused on assessing means of terminating cover crops to help expand and enhance their use or explore new ways of utilizing cover crops in existing cropping systems.
While many conservation programs are put into place on conventional farms, organic farms can also take advantage of these programs.
Playing for Keeps
Stewardship initiatives may be the first step to introducing organic farming principles as an alternative to environmentally harmful ag practices. By providing monetary incentives and technical assistance, making changes to the farm that can positively impact the environment becomes a less risky prospect for farmers. And seeing is believing. Keeping the practices in place until the impact becomes apparent is one benefit of programs that require enrollment to continue for a dedicated period of time.
Introducing stewardship initiatives to future farmers and eaters can also be fun. The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture’s mission is to “build awareness, understanding and a positive public perception of agriculture through education.” Their game, “Thrive,” is designed to introduce students in third through fifth grades to soil health soil and sustainability (at myamericanfarm.org/games/thrive-game).
In the game, soil samples are taken from fields, strategies such as cover cropping or crop rotation are implemented and soil analysis demonstrates the changes seen due to the farming practice. The game introduces concepts such as erosion, soil nutrients, tilth and more in an easy to understand, interactive gaming experience. Lesson plans which correspond with the concepts learned in the game are available for teachers and parents.
Farming with the ecosystem in mind isn’t child’s play. As organic farmers have known for years, growing crops in an environmentally responsible manner means working with nature to promote plant health and fend off pests and diseases. This philosophy is the bottom line of organic farming practices. As these practices become more widely adapted outside of the organic farming community, and stewardship initiatives are expanded on conventionally-farmed land, the ecosystems benefits provided by agriculture will help the environment thrive.