Natural Farming

Natural Farming



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Natural farming is based on the observation. It is about working with natural energies rather than trying to conquer wild nature. It is distinct from organic farming that is simply a return to the agriculture of the pre-chemical age. The problem of agriculture long pre-dates modern industrial farming methods. Everywhere farming has been widely practiced soils have been eroded and depleted and the natural biodiversity has been reduced.

Why are the lands, once called Fertile Crescents (modern day Iraq, Turkey..) who supported the first agricultural civilisations, today barren and arid? The theory that it is the result of climate change has long been discredited. These are man-made deserts, due to an agriculture that caused soils to wash away.

Understanding of soil is central to natural farming. Soil is far from an inert substance, it is a complex living ecosystem comprising innumerable microorganisms that enable plants to take up nutrients essential for their growth and help defend them against diseases and insects. These beneficial microorganisms include Rhizobium bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium for use by plants, mycorrhizal fungi that help plants take up phosphorus and other nutrients, and many microbial pathogens that attack insect pests. Soil ecologists are just beginning to understand some of the complex interactions between soil microorganisms that enable nutrients to be retained and recycled, processes that are essential to the ecosystem above ground.

The basis of soil is decaying plant and animal matter bound together with rock particles. As plant life colonised the earth it crept up slopes holding soil particles in place where there had once been bare rock. As the soil became richer and deeper and plants and animals became larger and more diverse, increasing amounts of organic matter were added to the soils. Vegetation holds the soil in place, slowing down the natural process of erosion caused by wind and rain. Fertile soils are rich because for millennia they supported plant communities and accumulated organic matter.

The moment humans removed natural vegetation for agriculture soil erosion was accelerated, particularly on slopes. Beneficial organisms are killed and the balance between organisms is upset. Decomposition of organic matter is slowed, fewer nutrients are retained, and more are lost to leaching and erosion.
The modern age’s mechanised plowing, chemical pesticides, fertilisers, soil fungicides and fumigants has released a whole new onslaught upon the soil. Today 600 million hectares, almost 40 % of the world’s farmland soil is classified as in a degraded state.

Masanobu Fukuoka
Fukuoka has written “Nature left alone is in perfect balance… far from being the answer, working the soil with plow and hoe actually interferes with these processes. If we leave the soil to itself, the force of nature will enrich and loosen.” For over 50 years Fukuoka developed a method he sometimes calls do-nothing agriculture, and for good reason, he used no plowing or digging, no imported fertilisers, no weeding and of course no chemical pesticides.

Fukuoka’s method of growing grain is simplicity itself. He grows seasonal crops, rice in summer, and barley and rye in winter. He uses just the scattered straw of the preceding crop, a cover of clover and an occasional sprinkling of poultry manure for fertilizer. Instead of planting seeds and transplanting seedlings as in traditional rice cultivation, Fukuoka simply broadcasts earth and clay pellets containing seeds onto the ground. Then he floods his paddies, but for a much shorter duration than the usual rice farmer. The flooding is timed to after the barley harvest while the clover is still very thick and the rice is just getting started. This weakens the clover and other weeds but does not slow the rice down. Each rice stalk yields 200 to 300 grains, which compares very favorably with the yield of other forms of cultivation.

Rhizobium bacteria that live in association with roots of the clover break down atmospheric nitrogen, some of which is supplied to the growing rice plants. As in many natural ecosystems nitrogen-fixing plants are the major source of nitrogen, which is the most important nutrient for plant growth. Nitrogen-fixing plants are central to the development of crop rotations that enable permanent use of the land while not depleting soil fertility.

Grains, directly or indirectly (as animal feed), are the source of most human energy, have and always will be central to agriculture. Developing methods of grain cultivation that do not deplete natural resourses is vital. What works in Mr. Fukuoka’s favourable moist tropical climate might not be applicable elsewhere.

With the exception of tree and bush crops almost all the well-known and widely grown foods are annuals. Annuals have the disadvantage of requiring reseeding each season; perennial food crops are ideal for growing in no-dig and permanent cover systems. At the Land Institute, in arid Texas, they have been researching the use of perennial grain crops for 20 years, they call it Natural Systems Agriculture. As yet yields are low, but they are increasing and the aim is in time to achieve yields comparable to annual grains.

Other options available include lesser known, under utilised crops, ancient varieties and relatives of modern grains. Lately there is growing interest in Quinoa, a highly nutritious Andean grain and there are many other grains from every continent that are worth more attention. These minor grains have lent themselves less to large scale production and processing but may be both more healthy to eat and better suited to natural farming.

Plants for a Future is a pioneering project that has produced a database of 7000 useful plants, an excellent resource for those interested in perennial crops especially for temperate climates.

Forest Gardening
Tropical forest gardens have long consisted of herbaceous plants mixed among shrubs and tree crops. The system mimics natural forest vegetation using edible and other useful plants to fill each niche. This idea has been adapted to temperate climates by the late Robert Hart and others. Once established forest gardens are the most diverse and productive growing system, and require little work to maintain.

When forests were cleared domesticated grazing animals prevented the natural regrowth. This was the major cause of soil erosion prior to mechanisation. Modern livestock farming has removed animals from the land that supports them, apart from the inherent cruelty of these industrialised methods, this is highly inefficient. Wastes are not returned to the soil and instead become a pollution problem.

There are mixed farming systems in which livestock play an integral part in maintaining the agricultural ecosystem, such as have been developed by traditional farmers to make the most efficient use of small areas of land. Agroecolgy is a new science, dating back only 20 years or so, that has demonstrated the efficiency and ecological sustainability of some of these integrated systems.

Once as gatherers we relied on a much wider range of plants to feed us. As agriculturists we lost the knowledge of local edible plants and began to see them as weeds in the fields. The key to natural vegetable production is encouraging the “wild” characteristics of vegetables. This means beginning with the seed of ancient non-hybrid varieties and local edible wild plants and sowing as much variety as possible. Plants which self-seed and those grown from saved seed are those most suitable to local natural conditions.

At this time when agricultural practices are leading to more rapid widespread ecological destruction than ever before, there is a small but growing awareness of the need for, and potential of natural systems of agriculture.

Using natural techniques, depleted soils can be rejuvenated and even the deserts can be reforested. These methods will never be applied by a top-down commercial approach to food production. It is up to us to develop them ourselves and in doing so, we may regain our connection to nature, the key to our health and well being.