Organic farming called blend of old and new

Conference is told farmers can boost crop productivity without chemicals by using the power of the life within their soil

Freeing yourself from the mindset of farming with chemicals doesn’t mean going back to the days of the horse and plow, a Montana farmer told a western Canadian conference on organic agriculture.

Farmers need to question their basic assumptions so they can fulfill their true purpose, said Bob Quinn at the recent Organic Connections event.

“I tell whoever wants to listen to me that my farm does not grow a single commodity,” he said.

“I only grow food — good food, nutritious food, which contributes to the health and vitality of all those who eat it, and because I’m certified organic, I receive a premium for this. And because I farm in a regenerative, organic way, I can grow all my own inputs…. The result is a better financial position for my farm, a better life and better food for my family.”

Related story in this issue: New wheat varieties could target organic production

Organic Connections, a non-profit organization that holds events for the prairie organic industry, held its latest conference online Nov. 5-6 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 150 people attended.

Modern farmers must revive knowledge gained from thousands of years of traditional, chemical-free farming combined with scientific research into things such as soil fungi and bacteria, said Chris Trump, who grew up on a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii he later managed.

He said he was the first person to implement Korean natural farming on a large-scale farm. He told the conference that farmers can boost crop productivity without chemicals by using the power of the life within soils.

“We don’t have enough computing power in the whole world to understand the interconnections in a cubic inch of soil — how all these microbes work in a community,” he said.

Quinn, who has a PhD in plant biochemistry, is the co-author of a book called Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food. His work with an ancient Egyptian grain called khorasan led to his founding Kamut International, a multimillion-dollar heirloom grain company.

He lives on a wheat and cattle farm near Big Sandy, Mont., which was founded by his grandfather in 1920 and has been fully organic since 1989.

“I had been taught all my life through high school, through university, that a plant can’t tell the difference between a molecule of nitrogen coming out of a manure pile and one from a bag of ammonium sulfate or other chemical fertilizer,” he said.

But he learned how organic farmers were using legumes to eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers. By rotating various crops to break up cycles of weeds, diseases and insects, they also avoided using things such as chemical pesticides, he said.

As an experiment, Quinn organically farmed 20 acres of winter wheat next to 20 acres farmed chemically. Not only were the yields almost identical, he realized that organic farming would save tens of thousands of dollars per year in chemical inputs.

Trump said farmers have lost the knowledge their ancestors had about how to practise chemical-free agriculture. But the knowledge is waiting to be rediscovered, and scientific advances are offering fresh insights that can help farmers.

Some of the things now happening in organic farming are “pretty big, almost a new frontier, and an undiscovered territory of agriculture,” he said.

Quinn said chemical agriculture is part of a system that sees farmers as producers of commodities destined for commodity trading markets that seek the highest yields at the lowest prices. Their goal is to extract “as much wealth from our farmers and rural communities as possible,” he said.

Farmers competing in this system use chemical fertilizers to make plants grow faster than normal in ways that Quinn said weakens them, in turn requiring further chemicals to fight insects, weeds and diseases.

It has made it difficult for many farmers to earn a living, and that has led to the depopulation of rural areas, he said.

Quinn said use of such chemicals harms the environment and promotes what he called low-priced, but nutrient-poor foods that can cause ill health in consumers.

“So when I speak of taking farming back to the future, I am speaking of returning it to its original purpose to provide health and nourishment to those who depend on it for good food.”

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