Most growers now understand the necessity for soil testing to avoid driving blind. This information is essential when designing crop nutrition programs, but you do need to understand the figures to make productive decisions.
All minerals affect other minerals and that influence may be negative or positive. If you follow the common NPK prescriptions favoured by many of the fertiliser companies, they usually remain the same year after year regardless of the soil test results. How can this be possible you may well ask? A crop removes a whole range of minerals and they need to be replaced. There is obviously more than NPK involved here but even the simplistic, NPK prescriptions, repeated year after year, do not gel from a soil science perspective. The amount of each of these three key minerals required each season will vary based upon many environmental and biological factors.
I have argued long and hard for the flexibility of the biological approach overorganics. I have suggested that organics is largely about what you can’t do, while biological farming is all about what you should be doing to achieve nutrient dense, flavoursome food. However, it is a simple fact that depending upon your marketing skills, the organic produce will usually return a higher premium. It is often worth jumping through some extra hoops to access this premium. There is also the issue that organic certification offers the only ironclad certainty that the food you are buying is completely free from chemicals.
Recent research published in this month’s issue of “The Townsend Letter For Doctors”, a highly reputed industry journal, adds extra impetus to the need to be chemical-free. This research covers the effects of farm pesticides on the intellectual development of children. There is now compelling evidence linking exposure to organophosphate pesticides to significantly lower IQ in children and this also applies to low level prenatal exposure. This exposure can lead to lasting metabolic disruption in children. In newborns this exposure is related to an increased number of abnormal reflexes but in adolescents the effects manifest as emotional and mental problems.
You can produce record crops of high quality fruit and vegetables and leave them unharvested because the market falls in a heap. You need to become a price maker rather than a price taker. Marketing your produce is as important as growing it, but it is often the neglected skill in the armada of talents involved in modern food production.
Sending your hard won produce to distant markets to be sold by strangers is a risky practice rarely mirrored in other industries. A writer, for example, does not market his work as an anonymous wordsmith at the mercy of all comers and the winemaker is similarly discerning regarding the outcome of his labours.
There are some simple tricks that can increase the odds of success if you are sending food to the large markets. It’s not just enough to develop a reputation for quality, although it definitely helps. Branding is important. Create your own catchy colours, logo and product name on your box and make sure that labelling reflects your key selling points. If you are growing biologically, then include a reference to “biologically grown with forgotten flavours and extended shelf life” on your box, or you have sold yourself seriously short!
Agriculture is the biggest single green house gas polluter accounting for 25%of CO2 emissions, 60% of methane emissions and a whopping 85% of the nitrous oxide released into the atmosphere every year. It is only due to the importance of food production and food security that farmers have yet to be penalised for their premier role in global warming.
I am not suggesting that this will change in 2012. In fact, the industry is set to be rewarded for reclaiming some of the CO2 it has contributed (via carbon credits). The loss of 70% of our soil humus over the past 150 years has contributed 470 gigatonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere. All of mankind’s other enterprises, including industry and transport, have contributed 270 gigatonnes of CO2. Agriculture has been the big culprit and it will also prove to be the savior as no one else can save the day in time.
The biggest mindset change in the move toward a more sustainable agricultural future is the recognition that you are dealing with a living systemand that everything you do will impact that system. Your goal is to make that impact positive. However, a second paradigm shift involves an understanding that risk reduction, recession proofing and financial reward are intimately linked to the health of your soil life. It amazes me that research is still required to prove this point.
Disease is the biggest risk factor limiting financial success in cropping and there is no disease that is not naturally controlled by a fully functioning soil foodweb. There are hundreds of papers linking specific disease protection to particular beneficial soil organisms. There are older farmers the world over who lament the loss of earthworms, soil structure and resilience, linked to the rise and rise of extractive agriculture. There are younger farmers, of course, who have never seen an earthworm on their properties and perhaps they are the audience for the latest “findings”.