Author: John Mason
This book is about foreseeing and understanding problems and addressing them before it is too late.
John Mason examines and explains the concepts and long term benefits of sustainable farming systems such as permaculture, biodynamics, organic farming, agroforestry, conservation tillage and integrated hydroponics.
Chapter 1 Different things to different people
Chapter 2 Sustainable concepts
Chapter 3 Soils
Chapter 4 Water management
Chapter 5 Pest and disease control
Chapter 6 Sustainable natural weed control and cultivation
Chapter 7 Management
Chapter 8 Managing plants - crops and pastures
Chapter 9 Managing plants – tree plantings and windbreaks
Chapter 10 Managing animals in a more sustainable way
Chapter 11 Understanding products used in sustainable agriculture
"No doubt, the book will be useful to environmentally aware farmers, particularly in Australia."
Sayed Azam-Ali (Experimental Agriculture v.40, 2004)
"This well-researched, down-to-earth book makes for a good introduction to the principles and practices of more sustainable soil, water, crop, stock, pest, weed and disease management. It's a must-have for small hobbyists, full-time farmers and big corporates alike. . . jam-packed with useful tips, hints and full-blown strategies for better farm businesses, better conservation on farms and altogether better farming."
Habitat Australia, February 2004
"This is an important guide for students, farmers, conservationists and anyone interested in sustainable agriculture options . . . It does include plenty of useful advice that can be applied immediately."
Conscious Living, Issue 65 2004
"Much information is summarised into points and charts, making it easy to find and clear to read. The book would be useful for anyone on the land wanting to incorporate sustainable farming methods into their daily life, as well as student, enviro groups and even gardeners."
Grass Roots, no.161 Feb/Mar 2004
Extract From Book
DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE
Sustainable farming means different things to different people, however they all share a common concern in preventing the degradation of some aspect of the farm. Some farmers are primarily concerned with degradation of natural resources (eg. their land is becoming less productive). Other farmers may be more concerned about degradation of profitability, which could be due to increased labour or material costs, poor planning, or simply changing conditions in the economy. The causes and the solutions to such problems are different in each situation.
Sustainable agriculture is a philosophy: it is a system of farming.It empowers the farmer to work with natural processes to conserve resources such as soil and water, whilst minimising waste and environmental impact.At the same time, the “agroecosystem” becomes resilient, self regulating and profitability is maintained.
WHAT TO DO
There are many different ideas about how to be more sustainable. You will find different people promoting different concepts with great vigour and enthusiasm, and in most cases, these concepts will have something valuable to teach you. Many are quite similar in approach, often being just variations of a similar theme. Each approach will have its application; but because it worked for someone else does not necessarily mean it will work for you. Some of these concepts are explained below.
Low Input Farming Systems
This approach is based on the idea that a major problem is depletion of resources. If a farmer uses fewer resources (eg. chemicals, fertiliser, fuel, money, manpower), farm costs will be reduced, there is less chance of damage being caused by waste residues or overworking the land, and the world is less likely to run out of the resources needed to sustain farming.
Regenerative Farming Systems
This seeks to create a system that will regenerate itself after each harvest.
Techniques such as composting, green manuring and recycling may be used to return nutrients to the soil after each crop. Permaculture is currently perhaps the ultimate regenerative system. A permaculture system is a carefully designed landscape which contains a wide range of different plants and animals. This landscape can be small (eg. a home garden), or large (eg. a farm), and it can be harvested to provide such things as wood (for fuel and building), eggs, fruit, herbs and vegetables, without seriously affecting the environmental balance. In essence, it requires little input once established, and continues to produce and remain sustainable.
This approach concentrates mobilising biological mechanisms. Organisms such as worms and bacteria in the soil break down organic matter and make nutrients available to pastures or crops.
Under the appropriate conditions, nature will help dispose of wastes (eg. animal manures), and encourage predators to eliminate pests and weeds.
Traditionally this involves using natural inputs for fertilisers and pest control, and techniques such as composting and crop rotation. In Australia and many other countries, there are schemes which "certify" produce as being organic. These schemes lay down very specific requirements, including products and farming techniques which are permitted, and others which are prohibited. In Australia, you can find out about such schemes through groups such as the Biological Farmers Association (BFA) or the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture (NASAA). See directory for addresses.
This is based on the idea of conserving resources that already exist on the farm. It may involve such things as identifying and retaining the standard and quality of waterways, creek beds, nature strips, slopes, etc.
This approach involves separating plant growth from the soil, and taking greater control of the growth of a crop. This increases your ability to manage both production and the disposal of waste.
Hydroponics is not a natural system of cropping, but it can be very environmentally friendly. A lot of produce can be grown in a small area; so despite the high establishment costs, the cost of land is much less allowing farms to operate closer to markets. In the long term, a hydroponic farm uses fewer land resources, fewer pesticides, and is less susceptible to environmental degradation than many other forms of farming.
Matching Enterprise with Land Capability
Some sites are so good that you can use them for almost any type of farming enterprise, for any period of time without serious degradation. Other places, however, have poor or unreliable climates or infertile soils and may only be suitable for certain types of enterprises or certain stocking or production rates. If you have a property already, only choose enterprises that are sustainable on your land. (See section on Land Capability in this chapter.)
This principle involves breeding or selecting animal or plant varieties which have desirable genetic characteristics. If a particular disease becomes a problem, you select a variety that has reduced susceptibility. If the land is threatened with degradation in a particular way, you should change to varieties that do not pose that problem.
Many modern farms practise monoculture, growing only one type of animal or plant. With large populations of the same organism, though, there is greater susceptibility to all sorts of problems. Diseases and pests can build up to large populations. One type of resource (required by that variety) can be totally depleted, while other resources on the farm are under-used. If the market becomes depressed, income can be devastated. A polyculture involves growing a variety of different crops or animals, in order to overcome such problems.
This concept holds that good planning and monitoring the condition of the farm and marketplace will allow the farmer to address problems before they lead to irreversible degradation.
Chemical pesticides and artificial fertilisers may still be used, but their use will be better managed.Soil degradation will be treated as soon as detected. Water quality will be maintained. Ideally, diseases will be controlled before they spread. The mix of products being grown will be adjusted to reflect changes in the marketplace (eg. battery hens and lot-fed animals may still be produced but the waste products which often damage the environment should be properly treated, and used as a resource rather than being dumped and causing pollution).
KNOW YOUR LAND
EVALUATING A SITE
Farmers need to know their property as well as possible, to ensure the best management decisions are made and the most suitable production systems and techniques are chosen.
Many site characteristics are seasonal so observations need to be made throughout the year, and over many years, to gain an ability to predict conditions. Also changes to a site, such as removal or addition of vegetation in an area, can alter future patterns.
Useful measurements/indicators may include the following:
Rainfall and temperature readings can help determine when to do different things (eg. planting), and help plan future operations on a farm. Regional records do not show the subtle differences that can occur from one property to the next, or within different parts of the same property.
If possible keep your own records, but be sure to do so on a regular basis. Even a few weeks of missed records can give a distorted picture of local conditions.
This refers to how acidic or alkaline the soil is. Most pastures or crops have a preferred pH level in which to grow. Simple soil pH tests can allow you to change crops according to their suitability to different pH levels, or to carry out works to alter the soil pH to suit the crop you wish to grow. Failure to do so could result in expensive losses or greatly reduced yields. It is also important that tests are repeated at least every year or two, as pH levels can change over time, particularly if acidifying fertilizers are used, or the area has been regularly cropped with legumes.
*Soil EC (electroconductivity)
An EC meter can be used to readily provide a quick reading of the electroconductivity of a soil sample. A higher EC reading indicates that electrons are flowing faster through the soil and indicates that there are probably more nutrients available to feed plants. Low readings indicate an infertile soil. Extremely high levels indicate toxic levels of chemicals in the soil (eg. salinity).
Use a portable temperature meter with a probe to measure at a depth of 10-15cm. This enables farmers to determine when to sow (ie. when germination temperatures are suitable for a crop or pasture species). Don't rely on one reading. Do several readings in different parts of the field/paddock to be seeded, as temperatures can vary from place to place. One high reading may give you a false outlook on the overall temperature conditions of the site.
The quality and quantity of water available will determine what crops or animals can be raised.
Some farming techniques make more efficient use of water than others (eg. hydroponic produce may require less water than row cropping, but water quality must be excellent). Water quality may be gauged by simply performed measurements such as electroconductivity (EC) (see the chapter on Water Management for further information).
*Monitoring Soil Moisture
Higher levels of nitrogen will bring an improved growth response in plants if soil is moist, but are wasted when soil is dry. It is useful to make two or more nitrogen applications to a broadacre crop (eg. wheat), if and when moisture is appropriate. It also is important to pay attention to soil moisture at critical stages (eg. sowing, tillering, flowering and pre-harvest). A neutron probe might be installed to make such measurements.
The electromagnetic characteristics of a site may indicate certain things about crop or livestock production capabilities, such as:
¦Sources of underground water
¦Natural radiation which can influence growth rates
¦Sub-surface characteristics, such as certain mineral deposits.
Factors affecting electromagnetic conductivity may include:
¦Size of pores (porosity or spaces between soil particles)
¦Amount of water between pores
¦Salinity in soil and groundwater
¦Mineral material in soil (eg. clay, rock type)
¦Amount of organic material
Electromagnetic characteristics of a soil can be measured by using a device such as an EM31 Electromagnetic survey probe. It does take a degree of experience to use and interpret the results from such a probe, so be cautious about who advises you.
*Herbicide or Pesticide Resistance
The effectiveness of certain chemicals can decline as weed or pest strains develop more resistance. It is valuable to ascertain if this is happening and change pesticide or weed control practices when it is seen to ensure good control. It has also recently been reported (1997) in Australia that a glyphosate resistant species of weed has been observed. There is considerable interest by researchers in finding out if the ability to resist glyphosate can be genetically introduced into selected crop plants, thus widening the potential use of that chemical.
LAND CARRYING CAPACITY
A technique that is increasing in use classifies land into different types according to its characteristics. This can help determine potential for different uses. It aims to establish the best use for each land type, while hopefully balancing production (eg. agriculture) versus other needs (eg. conservation).
The characteristics of a site can affect:
¦the type of enterprise it can be used for
¦the type (quality and quantity) of inputs required to achieve different outcomes
In Australia (for example) Agricultural land is commonly classed into eight levels of capability or use:
I Land suitable for all types of agriculture on a permanent basis.
II Land suitable for most types of agriculture in a permanent basis provided careful planning and simple modifications are applied (eg reduced tillage, fertiliser applications)
III Arable land with moderate limitations for most types of agriculture provided careful planning and intensive management practices are applied.
IV Land with high levels of limitations usually requiring high levels of management skill or has low productivity.
V Very high limitations, low productivity and high management requirements.
VI Steep sloped or rocky land that is not traversable by standard equipment.
VII Extremely limited land which requires protection. Productivity is not a significant factor.
VIII Land with no productive potential nor protection requirement.
(ref: Land Care by Bill Matheson (1996) Inkata Press.)(p 48)
The use of these land types for agricultural production must be balanced against other required or potential uses for that land, including conservation, water catchment, etc.