Organic Agriculture: Getting Started with Organic Farming

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Organic_Farming_in_Africa


Around the world, organic farming and the demand for organic food is on the rise.  The market for organic products particularly in the export market has skyrocketed as more consumers around the world have become more health conscious and discerning about the quality of food they eat. This shift in diets coupled with a growing interest in urban farming and a focus on farming practices that help combat climate change has led to a growth in interest in organic agriculture.


Conventional or Organic 
Many farmers, such as myself, are caught up in the dilemma of continuing to farm using conventional practices or switching to organic farming. Making the choice between the two growing systems requires exposure to both systems to make an informed decision. 

Transitioning to organic

When transitioning from conventional to organic production a conversion period may be required for the purposes of conforming to the requirements of organic farming. This period maybe instant if dealing with virgin, chemical-free soils or may take a period of time  (as much as 3 years) as stipulated by the organic standards, with calculations starting from the last date of application of the non-compliant input.  The transition period and process requires finances and support as transitioning has some challenges and uncertainties for farmers wanting to make the shift.


My journey into organic agriculture



 I have had the opportunity to work in both organic and conventional agriculture, simultaneously for approximately 10 years.  I learnt the basics of organic farming in 2007 when I did some training courses on organic nutrition gardening and organic farming internal control systems with Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre, a local farmer training organization.
Going to university, my passion for organic farming did not stop. I did some research on organic control of powdery mildew on butternuts, as I realised that the local organic farming industry is a growing industry but has some gaps, particularly in regards to research.
The continued need to understand the local standards and certification requirements led me to continue my education by training in the Organic Farming Participatory  Guarantee System with ZOPPA.
Currently, my farming practices are not entirely organic but I maintain considerable contact with organic farming institutions. I also regularly conduct my own personal research and innovations and fuse some organic farming principles to my farming practices to enable me to come up with good results.




Organic Principles and Observations
Here are some of the basics I have learnt, from my farming experiences and observations:

Please note that these are they are not exhaustive of organic farming nor are they the entire reflection of the organic farming industry but are a starting point for someone considering to change from the conventional farming system to organic farming. 
Organic standards and protocols

The most important aspect of organic farming is understanding that it is a farming system with standards and set protocols, and it should be treated as such. Choosing to become an organic farmer requires that you abide by organic farming standards, as stipulated by the certifying body of your choice.  

At the broader level, people understand organic farming to be a farming system without the use of agro-chemicals or the use of other synthetic products (fertilizers, pesticides, feed additives, hormones etc). 

Materials permitted under organic agriculture vary and require that you are knowledgeable about the permitted materials and operations to comply with organic standards, especially for certification purposes. 

The fusion of science and traditional knowledge (Indigenous Knowledge Systems) is key for optimum results, you should not focus on one and neglect the other.
Being a principle-based system, organic farming focuses on 4 principles, as stipulated by IFOAM, an international organic certification agency.  The principles lay the foundation for the standards and the standards form a basis for practice and are enablers for sustaining the system and maintaining its integrity.  

The principles are as follows:
  1. Health: Organic farming as a system should enhance the health of the soil, plants, animals and humans and the above are one and indivisible, hence the system aims at enhancing and sustaining all life.
  2. Care: This principle stipulates that farming should be managed in a way which is precautionary and responsible, to protect the well-being of the current and future generations as well as the environment.
  3. Fairness: The system aims to build relationships and ensure that there is fairness with regards to the common environment and life opportunities.
  4. Ecology: Organic farming as a system is based on living ecological systems, it works with these ecological systems, emulates them and helps sustain them.                
When aiming to be an efficient and productive farmer, and a good steward of the environment, adoption of the above principles in whichever farming system (conventional or organic) you are using is advisable. 

As an urban farmer, I have adopted the above principles of organic farming on my plot by using safer, new generation approved chemicals, as well as by including other nonchemical based interventions for pest and disease management. So far I have been getting good results.
Moving from the broader level to some of the more specific initiatives which can be adopted as a means of making baby steps to having an organic farm, I have seen the following to be helpful:  
Use of organic material

The rule of thumb is that one cannot have an organic farm without organic material such as manure or compost (and vermicompost). Such organic material should preferably be generated on the farm through the integration of livestock so as to reduce costs and also to ensure the recycling of resources in a sustainable way. 


An advantage of organic farming is that it makes use of waste (crop, animal and farm waste) and converts it into productive inputs. 

All types of organic material can be utilized for organic farming but composted animal waste is the best because it has the highest nutritional content.  

Organic Fertilizers
Organic fertilizers and pesticides can be brought from outside the farm, provided they are organic in nature and certified for use. 

Mulching 


Adding mulching materials (e.g grain straw, hay, wood chips and tree leaves) helps to build up the soil and minimise water loss by covering the surface. Such a practice is now being promoted as recent studies show that huge amounts of carbon emissions can be avoided by building the soil through burying carbon-based wastes, particularly when practising regenerative organic agriculture.


Organic materials, organic fertiliser and mulch all help build healthy, fertile soils and reduce weeds. Healthy soil is important because it provides better drainage and can also better support plants and other beneficial microorganisms. It also reduces the effects of global warming by trapping carbon in the soil.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Organic farming as a system creates greater need to rely on and share indigenous knowledge systems and resources. In particular, seed sharing in organic farming is very common; this practice enables the growing of locally adapted varieties which will have been tested over time. 

Conserving Biodiversity

Under organic agriculture, farmers are encouraged to promote biodiversity through crop rotations, intercropping and mixed farming systems. Such biodiversity is also important in ensuring food security at the basic level but is also important for nutritional security because of the variety of food products which can be accessed from a unit area of land. This increases the livelihoods of communities as the practice can be used to generate food using minimal and readily available resources.


Reduced Financial Risk
Farming is a risky business where crops can fail and farmers incur high  inputcosts. The conventional agriculture system requires that farmers purchase inputs (fertilizers and chemicals) from outside the farm and these are often expensive. Organic farming, on the other hand, utilises locally available and cheap resources which can help reduce the farmer's financial risk. 

Market Opportunities

Organic farming also has the potential of greater margins when a market which buys produce at a premium is found. 


Essentially, organic agriculture has the benefit of opening new market opportunities both locally and export markets through product differentiation from the conventionally grown products.   Currently, in countries such as the US, the demand for organic products exceeds current supply. 
There is, therefore, a need to promote organic farming locally, particularly in this era of climate change and economic challenges. To create local markets for organic products as a means of preparing to supply bigger global markets. 

Organic farming is the present and the future.  

About the Author

Munyaradzi Shamuyarira is a farmer who is passionate about organic farming. You can contact him for horticultural crop consultancy and seedling propagation. He can be reached at marcus01green (at) gmail.com or 0775844551

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