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Ecological farming has bright future

Natural systems agriculture offers a practical alternative to ‘command and control’ production models

woman trimming a plant in a classroom

Industrialized countries use a “command and control” model in agriculture — where we try to control many of the biological processes in farming. But, problems like herbicide and antibiotic resistance, water pollution and loss of wildlife and biodiversity demonstrate that no matter how hard we try, the most diligent “command and control” approach cannot keep up.

Failure of “command and control” approaches are sometimes due to ecological realities such as evolution of resistance, and sometimes because they simply cost too much money to sustain over the long term.

Natural systems agriculture, on the other hand, represents a different view of farming. The system’s ecology is the focus and a major aim is to “naturalize” all the biological steps within the managed process, including crop nutrition, plant improvement (breeding), and pest management.

Laurie Drinkwater of Cornell University calls this Ecologically Integrated Agriculture while Wes Jackson of the Land Institute calls it Natural Systems Agriculture.

Most familiar

The best-developed form of ecological agriculture is organic farming. Organic often gets a bad rap for being a fringe movement based on idealistic production practices.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the rules for organic agriculture have been developed over the past 100 years, mostly in Europe and Asia. “Organic” farming has common-sense ecological processes built right into its rules.

Some examples include: diverse crop rotations and cover crops to conserve soil and feed soil organisms like mycorrhiza; dairy animals must be pastured in summer and always require a high proportion of forage in the diet; and manure must be composted before land spreading in order to stabilize nutrients and control disease.

In Manitoba, organic agriculture has moved from niche to mainstream. Manitoba is home to one of Canada’s largest organic potato producers and we now produce and process our own organic milk and dairy products. Manitoba is producing significant amounts of organic grains, beef and other animal products and there is rapid growth in organic vegetable production.

Significant benefits

Southwestern Manitoba farmers Ian Grossart and family combine organic and certified grass-fed beef production practices. The environmental and human health benefits of their work are significant. They are putting into practice what academics and bureaucrats are mostly just talking about — and criticizing.

Manitoba is a terrific place for ecological agriculture. First, Manitoba farmers have excellent management skills. When farmers apply these management skills to ecological systems such as cover cropping, grass-fed beef production or organic soybean production, for example, their investment of time and effort can be very profitable.

I teach “Organic Crop Production” to diploma and degree students and their farm plans are always terrific — and doable. There are now over 150 graduates with some formal training in organic agriculture.

Other advantages include our favourable soils and climate and the growing processing capacity for organic farm products.

One farmer told me that after switching to organic, his soil “smells more like garden soil.” This farmer was experiencing what we have been documenting in our long-term (22-year) study, that organically managed soils are more biologically active than conventionally managed soils.

You cannot “command and control” life in the soil. We have to allow soil organisms to “be themselves.”

Excitement in organic processing has also been building. In addition to our organic milk processing facility at Notre Dame des Lourdes, this province is also the place where all of President’s Choice organic flour is milled. Who knew we were doing so much?

I want to end with the most hopeful observation.

Growing community

We have the pleasure of interacting with ecological farmers, and the growing ecological agricultural industry, at our annual “Ecological and organic” events at Carman. Over the past two years we have had an average 160 visitors to the summer field days and about 85 people at the winter event, which is planned together with our agroecology students. Farmers represent a significant part of the program, so the farmers are participating as teachers.

This is exactly what Sir Albert Howard, Britain’s organic guru of 100 years ago, instructed us to do. What makes me most hopeful, however, is that a community of ecological farmers has emerged from these interactions. Using social media and other tools, these farmers are now supporting each other in this exciting new chapter of Manitoba agriculture.

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