Friday, November 02, 2007

Organic farming isn’t always easy

Everyone is talking these days about the virtues of organically grown fruits and vegetables. Consumers are anxious to buy, even at higher prices, produce that do not contain chemicals. Agricultural experts and environmentalists argue that use of compost and herbal pesticides protect the soil from turning toxic and offer produce free of dangerous chemicals.

There is no doubt that plants and trees grow well if sufficient qualities of compost material is applied to soil periodically. It also ensures adequate moisture holding capability and avoids toxicity of soil from residues of chemical fertilizers, usually called NPK – nitrate, phosphate and potassium. Soil remains healthy with compost application, and fair crop output is assured every year.

There is no doubt that use of chemical pesticides pose danger to the environment, especially by contaminating ground water. Fruits and vegetables protected by spraying toxic chemicals may leave residues that are very harmful for human consumption. Healthy plants have the best in-built protection; use of herbal and other natural ingredients such as neem offer alternatives to the use of certain chemical pesticides.

Unfortunately, there are just too many forms of diseases and pests that attack plants and trees. They are usually soil and air borne, affecting the root system, stems, leaves and crop. For example, caterpillars and termites attack bananas and grapes in their early stages of growth. Nematodes that prevail in most soils can become a serious problem when they take hold of the root system. There are stem borers that consume and degenerate the entire plant. Funguses can spread wild after few days of rain. Different types of viruses, bacteria, fungus and parasites cause havoc to the plant and the crop. If the infected area is not properly taken care of, the problem will most likely spread to the entire field. Certain crops are more susceptible to diseases than others, and none are totally resistant.

Herbal remedies do not always arrest the problem before it spreads wide. For example, caterpillars and termites can multiply and attack a wide area in less than a week or two, and we have not found a way to prevent extensive loss without chemicals. There might be natural remedies for every situation, but they may not be fast-acting or readily available locally in sufficient quantities. Whether one likes it or not, often the needed solution may lie in the use of appropriate chemical pesticides.

The George Foundation has been growing bananas on over 200 acres for the past 4 years, and recently we have been switching over to grapes. It is one thing to use organic and herbal products on small areas, but large scale farming cannot avoid the use of some form of chemicals, especially pesticides, if the entire farm crop is not to be lost to diseases and pests. Though chemicals have their place in farming, to the maximum extent possible it is better to work with good quality compost and herbal pesticides, insecticides and repellants.

The trouble with the use of compost alone is that it is unlikely to offer high crop output that chemical fertilizers may provide in the short run. Further, all compost material may not contain sufficient quantities of micronutrients such as magnesium, boron and others, and may be deficient in potassium as required for certain types of crops. In those cases, use of chemical fertilizers and micronutrients as supplements may be required occasionally.

For example, bananas are large potassium consumers, and despite the heavy use of compost, our farm could not obtain high yield without supplementing with chemical forms of potassium, such as potassium nitrate or potassium sulphate. We have also found that the absence of certain micronutrients result in poor quality produce. We have tried to overcome these with improved quality compost, but this effort too has its limitations.

In another blog, I will try to communicate our knowledge and experience in preparing good quality compost. We have been using over 3,000 tons of compost prepared in our own farm every year. The difficulties associated with producing good compost in large quantities are a subject that every serious farmer needs to understand before embarking on totally organic cultivation.


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2 comments:

workhard said...

Great blog..love reading your posts..




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K.S. Chami said...

Hi,

I am also a 68 year old NJ resident who has been spending 4 or 5 months at Hosur with my aged father (in Bagalur road senirs complex)..and am looking for organic or semi-organic sources for salad material around Hosur . would appreciate any help

Swami Nathan