Why are we not focusing on biology when farming is essentially a biological process?
By Roger Martyn – Grazetech
Mention to a farmer the term ‘biological farming’ or worse, ‘organics’ and you are observing them going into defence mode. Yet biological processes are intrinsic to every farming venture. Without biology taking place, it is impossible to farm. So why are we not focusing on biology in farming and why so much antipathy at its mere mention?
Much can be attributed perhaps to the antics of snake oil merchants or the well intentioned but technically incompetent. Too often the use of their products or advice has ended in tears and financial loss. Some blame too can be directed at the organic movement and accrediting organisations where the guidelines and rules are sometimes more akin to religious dogma of you are not allowed to do rather than what is possible, scientifically sound and just plain common sense.
The main reason though is probably more deeply rooted in the fact that as part of western society, we are simply not brought up or are trained to think about farming in predominantly biological terms. Consider for example the topic of soil fertility. For the majority of us soil fertility is primarily about the chemistry – mineral nutrition if you wish. Yet soil fertility is undeniably much more than that. It is a combination of physical, biological and chemical factors. Take for example a crop that is not producing to expectation. How inclined are we (or our advisers) to take a spade out with us to check for physical impediments such as a plough pan, or to look for biological health indicators such as the number of earthworms? Such examinations can tell us an enormous amount – we should always believe our eyes before believing test result!
Contemporary western thinking towards farming suggests the ideal agricultural enterprise must be one that is highly productive and profitable while producing outputs with low farm-gate prices. Historically the pressure has been on for farmers to improve their productivity, since over time costs typically rise more quickly than returns and this is showing no sign of changing. This has largely been achieved through economies of scale which has invariably resulted in enterprises getting larger and more mechanised while crops have become increasingly more scaled towards mono-cultures. Likewise livestock enterprises have become increasingly intensive with more housed or feed-lot systems being set up in conjunction with ‘cut and carry’ cropping and total mixed ration feeding. Such enterprises increasingly have a high capital requirements and are reliant on large inputs of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and energy based largely on fossil fuel technologies.
The evolution of contemporary agriculture can in large be traced back to government policy emanating after WWII where excess industrial war capacity particularly in the chemical munitions industries was redirected to agriculture in order to feed a burgeoning population with cheap food. This coincidentally resulted in a massive depopulation of the rural sector (from more than 50% to less than 3% of most western populations) which has created an associated disconnect of society from direct day to day interactions with nature. Today many children think eggs come from only a carton.
Large agribusinesses have developed and through amalgamation and vertical integration in their businesses from farm production right through to the end users have in many instances developed into near-monopolies where the status quo of high input requirement farming enterprises producing low farm gate priced produce suits their business models admirably. These same large corporations are by far the major sources for university agricultural research funding in most western countries and only recently the Australian government called on large agribusiness to become more involved in university agriculture research funding.
It is no wonder then that agricultural science and farm extension graduates reflect similar views on agriculture to those agribusinesses that service agriculture and most often employ them.
Expounding alternative low input methods that are often associated with biological farming is not made any easier by the fact that contemporary western science is very reductionist and linear in its approach. This is often quite at odds as to how nature actually works. Ironically, the only field of science that deals fully with the interconnectivity such as is found in nature is quantum mechanics. This has resulted in developments in fields of research coined quantum biology and quantum agriculture.
Nature, of which farming is really no more than man manipulating nature, is essentially about biological systems. By systems we should also be thinking ecosystems. Ecosystems are about ecology and ecology is about relationships, i.e. about interconnections between plants, animals, microbes, and soil – and us (and it then becomes farming).
For many this can be a hard concept to both convey and comprehend simply because we haven’t been taught to think this way. Who ever suggested to you that we should be farming in nature’s image? It is nature that provides the big ideas for biological agriculture – we just have to understand the principles involved and observe. This is in contrast to the contemporary approach most of us use where we tend to ask ‘what’, ‘how much’ and ‘when’ do we do something, which invariably involves a chemical input for which most of us rely on our agronomists to specify, and sell to us.
The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson of the mid-19th century said “the man that can grasp the principles can successfully select his own method”. The same approach works for successfully transitioning to biological farming. My own observations of those whom I consider to be very good farmers (both conventional and biological) is that they are all great observers of nature and are accordingly very innovative in developing their own methods based on what they learn.
Gardening is a great way to learn such principles, more so for children since their minds are less influenced. In can be more difficult as we get older, but certainly not impossible. I think that by knowing why we think the way we do when it comes to conventional farming, that it then makes it much easier to look at things in a biological way.
In a nutshell, the end game principles* that one needs to understand to be successful in biological farming are
Nature is not linear – it is dynamic, it works in cycles, patterns, systems, and these systems (ecosystems) are interconnected. .We therefore need to think in terms of ‘wholes’ rather than parts, and not assume we can not consider just one factor as a variable while assuming all else will be remain ‘static’ (unaffected).
While ecosystems (nature) can handle stress events, and indeed can be invigorated by them (e.g. a harvest, a grazing) they can NOT endure chronic stress – e.g. continual inputs of salt fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides, or farming practices such as ongoing cultivation, overgrazing etc. that impact biological and other soil building processes.
Healthy ecosystems have high biodiversity (many plant, animal and microbe species) and accordingly are resilient and anti-fragile. Effective nutrient cycling through density and diversity.
Unhealthy ecosystems are fragile, have low biodiversity (large mono cultures) and are dependent upon high inputs (chemical fertilisers, biocides).
The healthiest of farm ecosystems have plant cover and living root activity 24/7 integrated with a diversity of animals.
Attending a Convertte seminar is a great way to kick-start your understanding of these principles and how they can practically apply to your situation. Understanding the principles will empower you to develop your own methods that you can use to leverage the 3.8 billion years of research and development nature has carried out, the ‘findings’ of which will enable you to get the most out of farming. The great thing is, she’ll deliver it virtually for free.
Special thanks to Ray Archuleta’s you-tube video – ‘Soil Health Principles’