There is a spectrum between anti-chemical organic extremism at one end and pro-chemical lunacy at the other. The following list of the various camps, while comprehensive, is not exhaustive. As with such systems in religion and politics, the followers of any one camp believe they have an exclusive truth and that any who disagree are foolish people who must be converted. The writer fervently hopes that there will come a day when we talk about good, or bad farming, not which camp we belong to.
In the United States, Dr William Albrecht took an approach midway between his conventional counterparts and the extremism of the US organic movement led by Robert Rodale. He was head of the Missouri Agricultural Research Station for several decades and he published an enormous number of papers about his ideas of plant nutrition and animal health. He took considerable pains to distance his work from that of organic and Bio Dynamic researchers.
The basic precept behind Albrecht's work was that there should be an explanation for why stock health was observably superb in some regions and poor in others. He conducted extensive soil testing in various parts of the United States and found a correlation between the ratios of certain elements in the soil and protein content of the plants growing in them. When the mineral balance in a poor soil was adjusted to equate with that of a good soil, protein content of crops increased and animal health improved. He further discovered that water-soluble fertilisers were inferior to simple crushed rocks containing the required minerals.
Albrecht was also keenly interested in the effects of farming on human health. Having discovered that the prairies of the midwest produced the healthiest livestock, he postulated that human health in this region should, in turn, be better. Since good health was a prerequisite for acceptance into military service, he perused the army intake records for the various regions of the United States and indeed confirmed his suspicion. The rejection rate for army service was lowest where soil fertility was highest and highest where soil fertility was lowest.
In Germany, Rudolf Steiner founded a school of philosophy, Anthroposophy. Some of his followers were farmers and they brought their agricultural problems to Steiner for his advice. In response, he eventually gave them a series of lectures published in his book, "Agriculture". This farming system he named Biodynamic and it bears more than a passing resemblance to Howard's organic farming with a similar emphasis on humus. It differs however in taking account of cosmic and spiritual forces, as well as the influence of soil. The association with spiritual beliefs and astrology has limited the appeal of Bio Dynamics for scientists trained to ignore what it automatically calls pseudo-science.
"One should be careful to separate the phenomenon from the explanation. That is, a mystical explanation is not sufficient grounds for denying that the phenomenon does not exist. Planting by the phases of the moon has long been practised by some and ridiculed by others. The following can be noted however:
1. Slight flexure of the earth's crust occurs when the moon passes overhead (similar to the tidal effect in the oceans).
2. Crustal flexure prior to earthquakes releases gases from deep within the continental crust.
3. The unusual behaviour of animals prior to earthquakes is attributed to these gases.
So here is a mechanism that links the position of the moon with animal behaviour. Is our knowledge of the influence of soil atmosphere on germination so complete that we can unequivocally deny the possibility that the slight crustal flexure caused by the moon's passage has no effect on the soil atmosphere, or on seed germination?"
What is now called conventional agriculture was called scientific agriculture when it arose in the late nineteenth century. Its originator was the great German chemist, Justus von Liebig, who applied his considerable intellect to understanding plant nutrition. He discovered through many pot trials that plants depended on a handful of elements in the soil, most notably nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Furthermore, he discovered that he could feed these substances to plants in water-soluble form and achieve yields much higher than usual.
Liebig postulated that the element in shortest supply was the limiting factor in crop yield and that all of the elements removed with the crop must be replaced. These simple, common-sense concepts have been taught in agricultural and horticultural institutions ever since. Shortly before he died, Liebig wrote about his later discovery, his theory did not work out in practise. Unfortunately this work has never, to the best of my knowledge, been translated into English.
The barrel shows Liebig's theory digrammatically. If the potential yield of the soil is represented by a full barrel of water and the individual staves the quantity of individual fertility elements in the soil, then the barrel can only be filled to the height of the shortest stave.
Following the publication of Liebig's ideas on crop fertilisation, John Lawes invented what he called superphosphate. He discovered that turning animal bones into fertiliser with sulphuric acid was much less expensive than grinding them up, since sulphuric acid was a cheap by-product of the Industrial Revolution's chemical industry. This acidified phosphate gave crop yield increases for little financial outlay. When the supply of bones became insufficient, rock phosphate, the petrified residues of bird excreta, was an even cheaper substitute. Interestingly, Lawes' original directions for using superphosphate recommended reverting it with lime to neutralise its acidity.
The second major impact of modern industry on agriculture came after the First World War. The conflict gave rise to a big demand for explosives based on nitrogen. Large factories were built to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia and nitrates. When the battle ceased, there was an understandable reluctance to cease production. Although it was "the war to end all wars", the potential for future conflict meant that the factories needed to remain productive. The factories were converted to nitrogenous fertiliser manufacture which made the shareholders happy and governments feel more comfortable.
The two decades between the First and Second World Wars is when the revolt against scientific agriculture began in earnest. Scientific agriculture was seen by certain farmers to have lost something in the pursuit of increased production. Animal health was in decline with new diseases and crop health also was suffering from new pests and diseases. Lucerne fields that had yielded well for decades needed to be ploughed up and resown after less than ten years. To some farmers and scientists this was a clear indication of the failure of modern, intensive methods of production. To others, it was a marketing opportunity to sell "cures" for these problems.
Hydroponics is the "scientific" system taken to its extreme. The soil is replaced by an inert medium, or dispensed with entirely in the Nutrient Film Technique. Maintaining the balance of nutrients in hydroponic solutions requires considerable expertise and the fertilisers used are more expensive than conventional artificials. While there is always a concerted effort to push hydroponics as the solution to all our problems, it has remained economically viable for only a small range of crops. Continual inputs of pesticides and fungicides are required, as the crops' self-defence mechanisms are largely nullified by the growing system.
We are often asked how to grow organically using hydroponics. The simple answer is, you can't grow organically without soil and its associated organisms. You may very well succeed in growing crops with organic fertilisers and without soil, but you will experience most of the problems hydroponic growers face.
Masonabu Fukuoka's stimulating book, One Straw Revolution, caused a world-wide sensation. He expanded on his ideas in a further volume, entitled Natural Farming. His ideas have had a major influence on Holmgren and Mollison's Permaculture. Basically, Fukuoka practises a no fertiliser, no cultivation, no pruning farming system based on mulch and legumes. As in any universal solution to our agricultural problems, it fails. Like many systems, it works in its particular environment. I thoroughly commend Fukuoka's works as a source of ideas that may very well work in your locality. They certainly failed in mine.
In India, Sir Albert Howard was studying the role of certain fungi and humus (compost) in plant health. This work gave rise to a concept he called organic farming. This wasn't simply a return to the conventional farming of the past, but built on new concepts of plant nutrition and the relationships between crops and livestock. "Progressive" farmers were simplifying their farms, after the fashion of factories; artificial fertiliser inputs at one end and produce and "waste" coming out the other. Howard believed there was more benefit to be gained from using animal manures and crop residues to build soil fertility. The concept of the organic farm included that of mixed farming, where the byproducts of one part of the farm were the inputs for another. Rather than burning straw, it was used as animal bedding. The mixture of dung and urine-soaked straw was then composted with crop residues to become fertiliser for crops.
Howard had found that some plants he was studying relied on a symbiotic root fungus (mycorrhiza) for their phosphorus needs. In return for supplying the plant with phosphorus, the fungus took its carbohydrates from the plant. These fungi needed particular soil conditions for their survival and the plants on which they thrived often required the fungi for their survival. The soil conditions they favoured were high in humus and biological activity. The source of humus was decomposed crop residues and animal manures, the very materials that factory farming was assiduously burning, or dumping, often in the belief that they were a source of disease.
Howard further discovered in his experiments with humus manufacture and use (composting), that its presence in the soil conferred many benefits. Perhaps the most important from the point of view of the farmer beset by pests and diseases, was the relative absence of these problems in compost-grown plants. Tomatoes grown with compost were more resistant to Tobacco Mosaic Virus. Plants infected with TMV were placed among the plants in the trials. Even tomatoes grown using compost made from plants infected with the disease were unaffected.
When Howard was eventually allowed to experiment with feeding compost-grown crops to cattle, he found that they were resistant to infection by foot and mouth disease, even where infected cattle were allowed to rub noses with those in his feeding trial. It must be pointed out that the strain of FMD was much less virulent than that which caused so many problems to British farmers in the 1960s.
Howard returned to England and began publishing his ideas They gave rise to the Soil Association which he co-founded with Lady Eve Balfour. The Soil Association was formed to scientifically investigate the differences between scientific and organic agriculture. This work was published in Balfour's book, "The Haughley Experiment" which these days is printed as a single volume with her earlier book, "The Living Soil".
The work at Haughley clearly showed marked differences between systems that used chemical fertilisers, with or without crop and animal manure residues. Although chemical fertilisers increased grass yield, the output of milk per cow was less. Crop yield increases were insufficient to pay the cost of the artificial fertiliser used. One anomaly that showed up was egg production appeared to be dependent on amount, rather than quality of feed.
In the early nineteen seventies, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison started to develop their ideas on a design system for permanent agriculture, hence Permaculture. Since their ideas didn't seem to work particularly well in Tasmania, they decamped for more tropical climes. Permaculture borrows heavily from a number of sources and synthesises them in several fascinating and very readable books. As well, it has spawned an international movement and Permaculture Design Consultants charge comfortable fees for their work.
In the Permaculture International Journal, Leigh Davison wrote a letter lamenting his difficulties getting permaculture to work on what was intended to be a commercially profitable farm. I found some irony in this and that a local Permaculture class came to my farm to see the possibilities. Permaculture ideas have played no greater role in our thinking than any other farming system.
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© Jonathan Sturm 2003 - 2011