Australian National University, School of Resource and, Environmental Management, Canberra. ACT 2600
One simple definition of organic farming is "farming without the addition of artificial chemicals" (Burlace, 1990). While the avoidance of agricultural chemicals is a major difference between organic and conventional farming systems, there are others. Focusing on just the avoidance of chemicals can create a misleading impression. Many farmers can testify to the effectiveness of chemicals such as herbicides and can see the problems of removing them from their production systems. Organic farmers are not immune to the normal agricultural problems but they choose to use other solutions. Conventional farmers should realise that organic farming is likely to be more than just their farming system minus the chemicals and fertiliser. A much wider definition of organic farming is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (1980):
"A production system which avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators and livestock feed additives. To the maximum extent feasible organic farming systems rely upon crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, legumes, green manures, off-farm organic wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral bearing rocks, and aspects of biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and tilth, to supply plant nutrients and to control insects, weeds and other pests."
This definition gives a better idea of how an organic farming system is likely to function and the range of alternative strategies open to organic farmers.
Permaculture is a design system and philosophy developed by Bill Mollison. It is a very comprehensive system which covers every aspect of land use and management. In this paper I have only been able to give the briefest description, for a full description the reader is recommended to consult one of the books listed in Appendix 1. The name is derived from two words: permanent agriculture. Permaculture systems, although based on natural ecosystems, are actually cultivated ecologies. Various descriptions can be found but the following quote gives a good indication of its aims:
"Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order". (Mollison, 1988, Design Manual IX).
The comprehensive nature of permaculture is illustrated by the following diagram (Mollison, 1988).
Permaculture for a wheat/sheep property
Every farm is unique and would require an individual design. I have, however, attempted to identify some of the features of a "typical" wheat/sheep property which has been converted to run along permacultural lines. Permaculture advocates the use of organic farming or low input farming and other strategies such as agroforestry and keyline planning of the property. Permaculture also emphasises the development of self-sufficiency strategies, for example the development of a vegetable garden and orchard. A major feature of permaculture designs is the concept of dividing properties into zones (Mollison, 1991). A typical wheat/sheep property could have the following:
Zone 0: The house would be of passive solar design to provide comfort for the occupants and to minimise power consumption. It could be fitted with its own electricity generating system, i.e. solar panels.
Zone I: Close to the house this area would contain frequently visited places such as the vegetable garden and workshop. There are only a few particularly useful trees.
Zone II: This area is slightly further from the house and contains such things as orchards and poultry.
Zone III: This would be most of the land area and would consist of the paddocks used for cropping and grazing. It would contain many trees for windbreaks, fodder production and timber.
Zone IV: This area might not be present on every farm but consists of semi-managed areas such as semi-cleared hill country and would be used for some stock and timber production.
Zone V: Again this area might not be present on every farm. It would consist of virtually unmanaged native vegetation. Its value would be for aesthetics and wildlife conservation.
One of the aims of a permaculture design would be to convert a large proportion from annual crop production to tree crops. One aim of this strategy is to spread yields over time rather than having harvest in a concentrated period. The claimed benefits of converting a property to permaculture include a reduction in fuel consumption and increased on-farm fuel production, reduced soil loss, reduced pollution, increased genetic diversity in crops and livestock, increased employment and improved human and environmental health.
In Australia to date the greatest use of permaculture appears to have been in areas such as the north-east of New South Wales and its application to broadacre properties appears to be very rare. The application of permaculture to the inner zones of a broadacre property might well be attractive at present, indeed most farms would have some of the features advocated by permaculture. However the conversion of large areas to tree crops seems unlikely under current social and economic conditions.
Biodynamic farming is a system of farming based on the teachings of German philosopher Rudolph Steiner. Initially developed in Germany in the 1920s, its use on Australian farms commenced in the 1950s (Seivers, 1975) and it is now claimed to be used over a large area (Hassall and Associates, 1990) and has been modified to suit Australian conditions (Podolinsky, 1992). There is a great deal of philosophy behind this system of agriculture and only a brief summary is presented here (for more detail refer to one of the books listed in Appendix 1). The aim of biodynamics is to enhance the action of the forces controlling natural processes (Seivers, 1975).
An important way of doing this is the use of various preparations. Preparation 500 is made by filling cow horns with cow manure in autumn and then burying them over winter. Whilst underground the raw manure is transformed into a humus-like substance. This is then applied to paddocks at very low rates after being mixed with water and stirred in special stirring machines. The purpose of this spray is to stimulate soil biological activity which should produce a number of benefits including improved nutrient availability. Preparation 501 is made from very finely ground quartz of a particular quality. The purpose of this is to bring more light into the plant. In Australia's sunny climate it is required less than in Europe. A further six preparations, 502-507, which are made from various plant and animal parts, are used in compost heaps to improve biological activity. Fundamental to these practices is the belief that plants have to obtain their nutrients from the soil ecosystem and not from nutrients dissolved in the soil water (Podolinsky, 1992).
Little scientific research has been conducted into biodynamic farming in Australia. A study being conducted in Victoria has found some interesting results (Small, 1992). Biodynamic dairy farms are being compared to conventional dairy farms. No inputs of phosphatic fertiliser had been used on the biodynamic farms for 13 years yet only one animal showed signs of phosphate deficiency and the mineral content of the milk was the same. The biodynamic farmers were irrigating their pastures once every 15 days compared to every 7.5 days on conventional farms. Improved soil structure was observed on the biodynamic farms. Other information can be found in the occasional article in the rural press (The Land, 1992) or conference proceedings (Haupt, 1987).
Organic Farming Systems In Practice
Organic farmers often use techniques they have developed for themselves. These work well on their own farm but may not be applicable elsewhere although there are often similarities in the methods used. The information presented here comes from a survey of 11 organic wheat/sheep farmers (Derrick, 1990) conducted in 1990. The farms were located in traditional wheat producing areas of south-east Australia. The farms ranged in size from 255 to 1252 ha and were all full-scale commercial enterprises.
Average annual rainfall ranged from 356 to 610 mm. Only two farms had land which had been cleared for less than 60 years and four had been cleared for at least 100 years. The organic farming systems had been in place for varying periods, the longest being 28 years and the shortest being one year.
The machinery used on these farms was typical for this type of farming although its age may have been above average. The size of the largest tractor on each farm ranged from a 242 kW four-wheel drive to a 57 kW two-wheel drive. Four of the 11 had four-wheel drive tractors. Most were in the 70-90 kW range. Local agronomists consulted in each area felt that the size of these tractors was generally below average for the district.
For harvesting, one farmer used a contractor, three had self-propelled headers and the remainder used PTO headers. The age of these machines ranged from 11 to 26 years, with an average age of 20 years. The proportion of these farmers using PTO headers may be above average because these farmers are cropping relatively small areas for which PTO headers remain practical.
Only one farmer used an air seeder, the remainder used combines. Five had trash handling combines. Most were generally satisfied with their equipment although several who did not have trash handling machinery felt it would be an advantage.
As these farmers choose not to use herbicides they cannot use techniques such as "spray topping" to control weeds in the pasture phase. They do, however, use various techniques to control weeds in the year prior to cropping. These included heavy grazing, slashing and cultivation prior to grass weeds setting seed.
Most of the farmers fallowed their land and made the first cultivation in August or September. Three farmers used disc ploughs for the first cultivation, one used disc harrows and the remainder used various tined implements. One used disc harrows to maintain the fallow while the remainder used scarifiers. The number of cultivations depended on the amount of summer rainfall received. All the farmers used grazing to a greater or lesser degree to control weeds during the fallow. Cultivation is very important for weed control in these systems and all farmers reported problems during wet autumns when weeds were hard to kill.
The emphasis on cultivation raises the question of the increased risk of soil erosion. The scope of this survey prohibited any detailed investigation of this question. Where paddocks were inspected no signs of serious active erosion were seen. Five of the properties had contour banks and some properties were virtually flat which reduced the risk of water erosion. The increased use of cultivation may also be offset by the lower proportion of the property in crop each year.
When cropping a paddock for the second time, none of the farmers burnt stubble. To avoid problems with the straw, some had straw spreaders on their headers, most grazed the stubble and some had trash handling combines. Some reported that it took several years before their soils readily decomposed stubble.
All farmers, except two, used fertiliser and the two who did not were located in an area where this was common practice. The main fertiliser used was rock phosphate and several farmers were also using chicken manure. Some farmers had experienced difficulty in getting rock phosphate to flow freely through the seeding tubes on combines. Although some farms were fairly recent converts to organic farming, several had been farming organically for so long that reliance on phosphate residues from previous fertiliser applications was extremely unlikely.
The main crop grown was wheat and a range of varieties was grown. Although some farmers were using old varieties, the majority were current Department of Agriculture recommendations. Sowing times were also within the period recommended. The seeding rates used by the farmers in NSW were generally within Department of Agriculture recommendations and ranged from 34 to 79 kg/ha. In Victoria, most of the farmers were using higher rates which ranged from 67 to 112 kg/ha. Two were using the higher seeding rates to improve weed control.
For the 1989-90 harvest the farmers reported yields ranging from 0.4 to 3.6 t/ha. The 0.4 t/ha yield was produced by a farmer growing on a sandy mallee soil and with low input costs he claimed it was profitable. The main point is that organic farming systems are capable of producing good yields. Wheat accounted for approximately 60% of the cropped area on these farms.
The other crops grown were barley, oats, triticale and rye. Only very small areas of grain legumes were being grown and none of the farmers were growing canola. Weed control in these crops may be a problem. These crops are now advocated as break crops for control of root diseases but despite the emphasis on cereal crops the surveyed farmers did not regard root diseases as a problem.
The proportion of arable land cropped each year on these farms varied from 6 to 100%. Only one farm had this continuous cropping system. Most farms had 25 to 40% of arable land in crop each year. The level of cropping on these farms was generally regarded by local agronomists as being below average for the district.
The Economics Of Organic Farming
The best information on the economics of organic farming comes from a survey conducted in 1986 (Wynen, 1988). In this survey, 13 organic farms were paired with equivalent conventional farms and their relative economic performances were compared. The study concluded that in 1985-6 the financial returns from each system were similar. This occurred even though some of the organic farmers were only receiving Wheat Board prices for their wheat rather than a premium price. As organic farmers crop less land, a greater portion of their income is dependent on returns from livestock. The relative values of wheat, meat and wool are therefore critical to the relative economic performance of organic and conventional systems.
Organic And Conservation Farming: Is There Common Ground?
Certain similarities can be identified. Both are producing similar crops often using the same machinery. Both retain stubble and aim to prevent soil damage, enhance soil condition and ensure the productivity of the system. There are, however, some differences, some of which seem irreconcilable. It would conceivably be possible for conventional farmers to use less soluble fertilisers in their system. However, it is in the area of cultivation and weed control that the two systems seem farthest apart. Herbicides are an integral part of conservation farming yet are forbidden under organic standards. The use of fallow and cultivation for weed control are anathema to many proponents of conservation farming.
This appears to be a fundamental difference of opinion as to what constitutes an appropriate way to manage an agricultural system. Which is the "best" system may well depend on the management skill of the operator in that a well managed conservation tillage system could be more environmentally benign than a poorly managed organic system or vice-versa. There is no simple answer to which is the more appropriate for cereal production in the Riverina. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and it is a matter of opinion how these are regarded.
1. Burlace, M. (1990). Organic farming: an introduction. Agnote ISSN 1034-6848. NSW Agriculture and Fisheries, Sydney.
2. Derrick, J. (1990). Some organic cropping systems for south-east Australia. Graduate Diploma thesis, Geography Department, Australian National University, Canberra.
3. Hassall and Associates (1990). The market for Australian produced organic food. Australian Special Rural Research Council, Canberra.
4. Haupt, A. (1987). A farmer's experience with a sustainable agricultural system, p.21 in Sustainable Agriculture: A New Direction, proceedings of a symposium held at Dookie College June 1987. NASAA, PO Box A366, South Sydney, Sydney 2000.
5. The Land (1992) July 9, p.40.
6. Mollison, B. (1988). Permaculture; a designer's manual. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, NSW.
7. Mollison, B. (1991). Introduction to Permaculture. Tagari Publications, Tyalgum, NSW.
8. OPAC (Organic Produce Advisory Committee) (1992). National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Produce. Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, GPO Box 858, Canberra, 2601.
9. Podolinsky, A. (1992). What is Biodynamics? p3 in Newsletter of the Canberra and District Biodynamic Gardeners and Farmers Group May 1992.
10. Sievers, C. (1975). The Biodynamic Method of Agriculture; an introduction. Publisher not stated.
11. Small, D., McDonald, J. (1992). Biodynamic and conventional soils. p.13 in Abstracts of Oral Presentations, National Soils Conference, Adelaide 1992. Australian Society of Soil Science.
12. USDA (1980). Report and recommendations on organic farming.
13. Wynen. E. (1988). Sustainable and conventional agriculture in south-eastern Australia: a comparison. Discussion paper no. 22/88, School of Economics, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria.
Appendix 1 - Other Useful References Not Listed Previously
14. Biodynamics: Modern Sustainable Agriculture by Terry Forman, published by Biodynamics Tasmania, C/- Post Office, Lilydale, 7268
15. Biodynamic Agriculture. Introductory Lectures Vol.1 by Alex Podolinsky, published by the Gavemer Foundation, 83 York Street, Sydney, 2000
16. Biodynamic Agriculture, Introductory Lectures Vol.2 by Alex Podolinsky, published by the Gavemer Foundation, 83 York Street, Sydney, 2000
17. Biodynamics, new directions for farming and gardening in New Zealand, published by Random House, New Zealand.