Unlocking secrets of the soil… (The Principle of Ecology)

This is my 33rd article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

The second principle of Organic farming is that of ecology. This means that Organic farmers must base our method on living ecological systems and cycles. We must work with them, emulate them, and help sustain them. This to me is one of the most exciting aspects of Organic farming.

The primary ecosystem that we work with is that of the soil. To most people soil is just dirt. True its base material is composed of sand and clay but its real mass is composed of teeming trillions of microbes. On top of that are the larger animals such as various insects, nematodes and earthworms.

Fungi are an important member of this soil community. The longest organisms known are the mycorrhiza fungi, which can form a continuous individual over a couple of kilometres in length. These fungi form a symbiotic arrangement within the roots of plants and aid the plant in its absorption of nutrients.

This community, this ecosystem produces a rich humus that provides all the nutrients a healthy plant will need. Our aim as organic farmers is to work with this system and to sustain it, as this will result in long term fertility and health. There is a lot to learn about the soil and I think it still relevant to quote Leonardo da Vinci when he said,”We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

An organic farm is an ecosystem itself in that we emulate natural ecosystems. The term “organic’ is used in its holistic sense meaning a “farm as an organism”. Plant, animal and mineral interact in a sustainable system. The soil sustains grass, which feeds the animals, whose manure is then returned to the soil where the soil life break it down so that the plants will be nourished.

Pest management on an organic farm is dependent on a rich biodiversity of plants and animals which interact in a balanced way to prevent infestation. We encourage plants which provide a haven for predatory insects such as ladybirds. Frog ponds are provided so frogs can breed and help in insect predation. Similarly bat houses are placed between the fields to encourage bats which feed on night flying insects.

One of the projects I am keen on is creating hedgerows to border fields as this will create a bio-diverse buffer zone. When we plant our fields we emulate nature in that crops are never planted as a large expanse of mono-crop. Instead we inter-crop by planting different crops side by side. This confuses insect pests and also minimises the spread of diseases.

We aim to increase the bio-diversity on our farms, both that of wild and domestic species, because natural ecosystems teach us that the more diverse a system is, the more resilient it will be.The tendency of conventional farming is that of simplification and efficiency as opposed to diversity and resilience. To do that requires energy and the application of chemicals which are toxic to the soil and to the larger ecosystem.

This is not sustainable and in this age of approaching limits is both foolhardy and short sighted. It is essential to observe the principle of ecology if we are to ensure food security in the future.

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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