Traditional Agriculture in the Modern World: A Look at Three Alternative Farming Techniques
As we transition into the fall season we can feel the change in the air. The days are getting shorter, and if the sun isn’t pouring through the trees, more time is spent beneath the canopy, talking over the drizzling rain. The slowing of the season offers time to contemplate our work, and discussions around the many methods of farming naturally arise. Just as COVID-19 has forced us to consider our own food security, growing food from seed to harvest has allowed us to examine the various methods used when farming. I thought it would be fun to explore some of these methods (there are so many!). In this blog post we are going to shallow dive into the organic, permaculture, and biodynamic agricultural movements.
My hope is that you feel slightly less confused after reading this post, and more inspired by all of the methods being implemented on Thetis Island, as well as all over the world!
Organic agriculture grew in popularity in Canada during the 1950s in response to rapidly changing farming practices. It is defined by the Canadian Organic Standards, General Principles and Management Standards (CAN/CGSB-32.310) as “a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The principle goal of organic production is to develop operations that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment”. The standards place strict limits on the use of persistent pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetic engineering, as well as processing aids.
I remember flipping through my parents' various “organic living” books displayed on the coffee table and finding my own sense for the meaning of the word. To my childhood self it was to be in harmony with my surroundings, lots of happy bugs and butterflies, a small strawberry overflowing with flavour because it was raised by a loving farmer down the road. While I’m sure this is still the experience for many, I have noticed as time goes on I see this term a little bit differently. It was curious to me that you can find organic tomatoes wrapped in plastic at Walmart, and organic apples from New Zealand at the grocery store down the road. I suppose these are some of the reasons why the topic of organic farming has become so contentious. I've heard small-scale farmers hesitate to answer the question “are you organic?” because today this term often comes with a government certification that costs small-scale farmers more than they can easily afford.
While I do very much value organic agriculture, any agricultural movement can still be subject to critique when carried out under an industrial model. For example, industrial "organic" agriculture is almost exclusively monocultures. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area, and in this system the plants are more vulnerable to disease and predation, and thus require more inputs. The ecological integrity of a farm can become compromised when biodiversity is undervalued. In contrast, when multiple crops at the same farm are prioritized; Polyculture, the ecosystem functions tends to be much higher. Let us recognize that nature has inherent value, and is not solely for its usefulness to human beings.
The term permaculture was coined in the 1970s by Bill Mollison, an Environmental Psychology professor at the University of Tasmania, and David Holgren, an Australian Environmental designer. Mollison spent a lot of his time as a biologist observing nature and assessing the impacts humans have on their environment. Instead of getting discouraged he used his knowledge of natural systems to come up with a more harmonious approach to growing food. Originally the term meant “permanent agriculture” but developed into “permanent culture” since he saw that the social aspects were key to sustainable farming. The three ethical pillars of permaculture are: care for the earth, care for the people, and share with others.
Mollison and Holgren have co-authored many books but the first, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, outline the 12 principles of permaculture:
Observe and Interact
Catch and Store Energy
Obtain a yield
Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Produce No Waste
Design From Patterns to Details
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Use Small and Slow Solutions
Use and Value Diversity
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Creatively Use and Respond to Change
We, the ThINCpod, use a few of the permaculture principles in our work at the People's Apothecary. We have made a path that is more fluid in its design, with key holes that allow us to access the different beds. The paths are also made using local wood chips, and the beds are fertilized with local horse manure (Thanks Kachari and Savvy!). We also created a spiral bed, a fun project made possible by the kind community members that donated their rocks (thank you!). We will be planting various hardy herbs and prepping the beds for winter over the next few weeks. We hope you’ll come check it out when it is ready!
Biodynamic agriculture is similar to organic agriculture in that it restricts pesticide use, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering, and focuses on using compost and manure to build up the soil. The guidelines around pesticide use are more strict with biodynamic agriculture than with organic certification. Biodynamic agriculture goes a step further, not unlike permaculture, and considers the care of the soil, the plants, and the animals to be part of an interconnected system. What is unique to biodynamic agriculture is the use of an astrological planting calendar (see Figure 1). Animal organs and organic substances are also incorporated into this farming method. The horns of cows or other animals are often stuffed with manure and left over a few months to make a product rich in humus (a dark, organic material that forms when plant and animal matter decays). It is then mixed into water and added to the soil. Another practice associated with biodynamic agriculture is the use of crystals. Quartz crystals are ground up, and during the summer months are sprinkled onto the plants. The idea is that it helps the "sun and air forces" in ripening and nourishing the plant (more information on this found here). Other methods used include putting chamomile flowers in cow intestines, and dandelions in the mesentery of a cow... (from what I understand these are the biodynamic farming ways to create nutrient rich humus for the soil), but these methods also incorporate a certain spiritual element, as they are used to invite the “cosmic forces” into the soil.
Figure 1: Biodynamic Agricultural calendar used by farmers in Italy. Retrieved from https://news.italianfood.net/2018/02/06/rise-biodynamic-agriculture/
As you can see, there is a lot to dig up on alternative methods of farming! Whether you have a favourite method already, or are in the process of trying new methods, it never hurts to see what creative solutions farmers are implementing to grow their own food. Some other methods of farming I find really interesting are hydroponics and aquaponics, natural or “do nothing” farming (started by a super interesting Japanese philosopher by the name of Masanobu Fukuoka) as well as Agroforestry and food forests... Perhaps that is another blog post for the future!
If you’re keen to learn more, come check out the many methods of farming that are applied locally on Jollity farm and at the People's Apothecary!
Thanks again for reading!