Healthy Soil and Organic Agriculture
If you’re transitioning your conventional farm to organic, you might be wondering where exactly to start. Taking those first tentative steps into the world of organics can be overwhelming, and it’s all too easy to get lost in a mountain of information. Having a solid foundation for your operation is key. The good news is that every operator’s foundation is the same regardless of an operation’s size, location, or crops. Without healthy soil, organic farming is not possible.
How do organic farmers improve the health of their soil?
One of organic agriculture’s main goals is to improve the health of soil. Doing so requires establishing ecological balance and increasing biological diversity—a cycle that is disrupted, and sometimes destroyed, by synthetic inputs.
For this reason, organic farmers abstain from the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides used frequently in conventional farming and instead use non-synthetic inputs and mechanical interventions to help control pests, weeds, and disease. Focusing on non-synthetic solutions allows helpful organisms to find homes within the soil.
Healthy, productive soil has between 3 and 6% organic matter. Applying synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides can kill this organic matter. However, soil has the capacity to heal and build new organic matter over time. Transitioning, new, and experienced organic farmers can combat loss of organic matter through the application of non-synthetic inputs like green manure, the strategic use of cover crops, and more. As organic matter increases, soil health improves.
Increasing organic life inevitably leads to a natural increase in organic material within the soil as organisms progress through their lifecycle. As biological diversity increases, the health of soil increases. This is in part because healthy soil exists in a constant state of decomposition and revitalization, and this cycle eventually allows plant life and organisms to operate in a mutually beneficial system:
- Plant root systems provide food and habitats for diverse organic life
- Organisms living in soil help relieve soil compaction by creating pathways for better water and oxygen filtration
- Biological waste deposited by organisms provides nutrients for growing plants
- Decomposing root systems in turn provide nutrients and shelter for organisms
What are the benefits of healthy soil?
Soil provides necessary nutrients to crops, but healthy soil provides additional ecological benefits. Healthy soil that contains between 3 and 6% organic matter leads to better:
- Water regulation: Soil that is healthy is better able to absorb water because the diverse organisms living within it relieve soil compaction by creating pathways that allow water to seep deep into the soil. This means that healthy soil is better able to sustain plant life during extreme weather conditions, like droughts.
- Soil retention: The strong root systems found in healthy soil prevent valuable topsoil from being stripped away by strong winds, water runoff, and other mechanical forces.
- Nutrient cycling: Because of better soil retention and water regulation, healthy soil is better able to retain these nutrients which are used and replaced by organic life within the soil. This leads to soil that is rich in carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and other life sustaining minerals and nutrients.
What soil management practices lead to healthy soil?
Improving the health of soil requires intentional soil management practices. Research shows that some strategies are more successful than others in maintaining the health of soil. Farmers who wish to increase or maintain their soil’s health should:
- Ensure that soil is covered as much as possible. Avoid having exposed soil–even in winter!–to prevent stripping of organic matter and healthy topsoil.
- Maximize the presence of living roots in soil. Utilize cover crops and other plants to keep live roots in the ground year-round.
- Minimize disturbance of soil. Mechanical management such as tilling should be used as little as possible to allow nutrients and organic life to remain in soil.
- Add biodiversity. Use natural inputs, like green manure, to add nutrients to the soil that will lead to increased organic life.
Learn more about organic agriculture, certification, and OCIA International.
- Should you transition to Organic?: The decision to transition a conventional operation to organic is deeply personal. Organic certification requires resources, like time and money, and perseverance in the face of the challenges that you will inevitably encounter along the way. Is transitioning to organic the right step for your operation?
- Organic System Plan: Everyone seeking organic certification–whether applying for the first time or the seventeenth time–must submit an updated Organic System Plan (OSP). But what is an OSP? And more importantly, how will it help you?
Every operator’s path to organic certification is different. Learn more about about the different paths to organic certification in our “Operator Spotlight” series.
- Bessette Creek Farm: Through traditional organic farming methods like the use of cover crops and crop rotation, Bessette Creek Farm improved the quality of their soil, reduced their water usage, and now better retains moisture in their soil even during the driest months of the year.
- Ryan Albinger and Parallel Production: He initially transitioned his entire operation to organic. However, as Ryan Albinger’s farm grew, he decided to use parallel organic and conventional production methods. Albinger argues such an approach offers economic and social benefits.
- Jack Geiger: The farm crisis of the 1980s forced Jack Geiger’s family to consider farming methods that required fewer and less expensive inputs. They naturally turned to organics.
- Variety Coffee: Variety Coffee has a simple mission: provide customers with the freshest, highest quality coffee possible. The Brooklyn based coffee roster and chain of cafes does this by sourcing coffee beans from around the world, focusing on acquiring beans that reflect growing seasons of different coffee producing regions.