Sales of organically produced goods in 2008 slowed from their meteoric rise over the past decade to a measly 6%. Of course, given the state of the economy, 6% growth in 2008 is tremendous and underscores the continuing evolution of our food system toward a more sustainable and healthy future.
Farms that produce organic goods must undergo a certification process wherein they agree to farm organically for three years before earning their certification. This allows for sufficient breakdown of chemicals in the soil from any conventional agriculture that occurred on the site previously, so that the items grown there are virtually free of any chemical residues. The backbone of organic certification is its chemical-free process, though it is not the only sustainable aspect. Sulfites can’t be added to ‘organic wines’, for example, and there are rules about genetic modification (GMO’s).
So….organic is our best hope for a sustainable and healthy food future, right? After a recent tour of a farm employing biodynamic agricultural methods, I beg to differ.
Biodynamics as an agricultural science began in Europe in 1924. It has quietly grown and become more accepted as people increasingly turn their back on conventional agriculture.
It’s actually a relatively simple concept. Biodynamics treats the farm as a functional ecosystem.
The healthier the ecosystem is, the healthier the production should be. Instead of growing a monoculture, which nature abhors, complementary plants are arranged around a crop. Pea shoots and other legumes grown under a tomato or grape vine, for example, help to fix nitrogen and produce heathy humus layers. Plus, you can harvest them and sell them.
To control rodent and other pests, hawks, kestrels, and owls are lured in with free housing, perches, or nesting trees. One hawk can patrol about 500 acres and significantly reduce crop damage from European Starlings. Given that the other option for controlling Starling damage is a 500 acre netting system, one hawk seems like a fantastic alternative. A family of barn owls can eat 1,000 moles per year. First of all, that’s gross. Second, that’s way cheaper than rodent bombs, fumigants, and extensive fencing. Speaking of gross, bats can eat 1/4 of their body weight each night in insects. Birdhouses that attract bluebirds can help reduce the amount a farm spends on insecticides. Bluebirds eat insects that carry diseases like Pierce’s, which can decimate a grape crop.
After the harvest of legumes from undergrowth, cows and sheep can be utilized to clear undergrowth (they don’t like grape vines, for example, so they would nicely clear the legumes and leave the vines in place). Milk, cheese, and meat can be harvested, as well. Chickens come in after the cows and sheep have done their work, and eat the maggots and grubs that grow in cow poop, as well as cutworms that eat the young roots of agricultural crops. By scratching at the soil, chickens are natural tillers and mix fertilizers into the earth. Chicken meat and eggs can be harvested later.
Biodynamics goes further. To become Demeter-certified biodynamic, 10% of the land space has to be wild. It should reflect the conditions of what the space would look like if left to its own devices. Wetlands and native gardens, of course, help to attract pollinators, and fertilization from a variety of wildlife.
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and hopes that someday, the green economy will simply be referred to as….the economy.
Photo Credit: Alexispz on Flickr Creative Commons