Features of Organic Farming

Organic farming is widespread throughout the world and is growing rapidly. In Germany alone there are about eight thousand organic farms occupying about 2 percent of the total arable land. In Italy organic farms number around eighteen thousand, and in Austria about twenty thousand organic farms account for 10 percent of total agricultural output. In 1980 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that there were at least eleven thousand organic farms in the United States and at least twenty-four thousand farms that use some organic techniques. In California, organic foods are one of the fastest-growing segments of the agricultural economy, with retail sales growing at 20 percent to 25 percent per year. Cuba was the only country undergoing a massive conversion to organic farming, promoted by the drop of fertilizer, pesticide, and petroleum imports after the collapse of trade relations with the Soviet bloc in 1990.

Given new market opportunities, farmers grow all kinds of crops, including field, horticultural, and specialty crops, as well as fruits and animals such as cattle, pigs, poultry, and sheep.

Although research on organic farming systems was very limited until the early 1980s, pioneering studies of R. C. Oelhaf (1978), the USDA (1980), W. Lockeretz and others (1981), D. Pimentel and others (1983), and the National Research Council (1984) on organic farming in the United States provide the most comprehensive assessments of organic agricultural systems. These studies concluded the following:

1. As farmers convert to organic farming, initially crop yields are lower than those achieved in conventional farms. In the corn belt, corn yields were about 10 percent less and soybean yields were about 5 percent less on organic farms than on paired conventional farms. Un-

biota the sum total of living organisms in a region of a given size biota the sum total of living organisms in a region of a given size

Parasitic encarsia wasps are introduced to the foliage of a South African 'Yellow Trumpet' (Phygelius aequalis 'Yellow Trumpet') in order to combat whitefly at the botanical gardens in Swansea, Wales.

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF CONVENTIONAL AND ORGANIC FARMING

Characteristics Conventional Organic

Petroleum dependency

High

Medium

Labor requirements

Low, hired

Medium, family or hired

Management intensity

High

Low-medium

Intensity of tillage

High

Medium

Plant diversity

Low

Medium

Crop varieties

Hybrids

Hybrid or open pollinated

Source of seeds

All purchased

Purchased, some saved

Integration of crops and livestock

None

Little (use of manure)

Insect pests

Very unpredictable

Unpredictable

Insect management

Chemical

Integrated pest management,

biopesticides, some biocontrol

Weed management

Chemical, tillage

Cultural control

Disease management

Chemical, vertical resistance

Antagonists, horizontal

resistance, multiline cultivars

Plant nutrition

Chemical, fertilizers applied in

Microbial biofertilizers, organic

pulses, open systems

fertilizers, semi-open systems

Water management

Large-scale irrigation

Sprinkler and drip irrigation

der highly favorable growing conditions, conventional yields were considerably greater than those on the organic farms. Under drier conditions, however, the organic farmers did as well or better than their conventional neighbors. Beyond the third or fourth year after conversion and after crop rotations became established, organic farm yields began to increase, so that their yields approached those obtained by conventional methods.

2. Conventional farms consumed considerably more energy than organic farms largely because they used more petrochemicals. Also, organic farms were considerably more energy-efficient than conventional farms. Between 1974 and 1978 the energy consumed to produce a dollar's worth of crop on organic farms was only about 40 percent as great as on conventional farms.

3. Studies conducted in the Midwest between 1974 and 1977 found that the average net returns of organic and conventional farms were within 4 percent of each other. Organic farms had a lower gross income by 6 percent to 13 percent, but their operating costs were less by a similar amount.

4. The USDA formulated Midwest farm budgets in order to compare crop rotations on organic farms with continuous conventional crop practices. The analysis assumed that yields on organic farms were 10 percent lower. In addition, rotations tie up part of the cropland with forage legumes, such as alfalfa; on conventional farms this land would be producing either corn or soybeans. Since corn and soybeans command a higher price, potential income is reduced in proportion to the amount of land tied up in forage legumes. In essence, organic farmers are turning part of their potential income into renewal of the soil (by adding organic matter) in order to assure sustainability of future crop production. The conventional system maximizes present income and is not as concerned about viewing soil as a long-term investment. In conclusion, although initially yields are likely to be lower in organic farms, variable costs are likely to be much lower. With lit tle or no expenditure on agrochemicals, and the availability of premium prices for certain crops, the net result may be similar or higher gross margins for organic farmers.

5. Many organic farms are highly mechanized and use only slightly more labor than conventional farms. When based on the value of the crop produced, however, 11 percent more labor was required on the organic farms because the crop output was lower. The labor requirements of organic farmers in this study were similar to those of conventional farmers for corn and small grains, but higher for soybeans because more hand weeding was necessary. A number of other studies indicated that organic farms generally require more labor than conventional farms, but such needs can be kept to a minimum if hand weeding or handpicking of insects is not used. The labor required to farm organically is a major limitation to the expansion of some organic farms and an important deterrent for conventional farmers who might consider shifting to organic methods.

In many ways, organic farming conserves natural resources and protects the environment more than conventional farming. Research shows that soil erosion rates are lower in organic farms, and that levels of biodiversity are higher in organic farming systems than in conventional ones. In addition, organic farming techniques tend to conserve nitrogen in the soil/plant system, often resulting in a buildup of soil organic nitrogen. Organically managed soils have more soil microorganisms and enhanced levels of potentially available soil nitrogen.

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