The 3 challenges of organic farming

By Emily Blake
Organic farming is nothing new… it has been practiced since 5800 B.C. However, farming with pesticides has only been common within the last 50 years (Fossel, 6). Many commercial farmers would tell you that it’s not even possible to successfully grow crops without them.

With recent studies done on the effects of pesticides on our health, organic farming is having a strong comeback. With this comeback have come new ideas. Technology today affords us a lot more luxury and variation when it comes to farming. This technology ranges from herbicides to tractors and doesn’t stop there. As a new farmer, it can be confusing coming into all this progress and trying to decide what works and what doesn’t. Every farmer has their own miracle fix or ideas on how best to solve the three main farming issues: soil composition, weed control and dealing with pests and disease. 

 Experimentation is the best way to learn what will work on your land and in your particular climate as a farmer, but in order to experiment, farmers must know what’s available.

Here are three farmers' methods and what works for them:

These farmers are: Peter Fossel, who has been organic farming for more than 25 years; Harvey Ussery, a published modern day homesteader; and Bill Kaysing a farming activist and farmer for 40 years.

 One of the most important components of an organic farm is the soil. Pesticide farmers have chemical fertilizers that they use to create a topsoil layer. They have to apply this every season as it washes away easily with rain. The key to good soil for organic farming is building up nutrient rich soil that will last. Fossel feels that by applying compost at the beginning of every season and working it in with shallow tilling you will obtain the best soil possible (Fossel, 28).

All three farmers explain how to create compost. You must have a proper balance of phosphorous, nitrogen, carbon, and potassium in order to achieve the rich humus that farmers want to add to their soil. This requires time, and means you must be careful about what you add to the heap. Manure must be allowed to rot, nitrogen sources such as cardboard or wood must be shredded, and if you are to be organically certified, your pile must reach between 131 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three days on order to be considered safe.

In order to kick start your compost you must add some sort of rotted manure. Chicken manure works the best, though it is very high in phosphorous, so you should be careful how much you add. It is very important to have between a 25:1 and 40:1 carbon: nitrogen ratio. High carbon components include wood ashes, garden soil, and shredded newspaper, while nitrogen rich items include food waste, garden waste, and manure. These should be layered starting with carbon. The compost should also be moistened if it begins to dry out and covered if it is subjected to a high wind or if the ground may freeze (Fossel, 38-42).

Cover crops
The homesteader, Ussery, believes compost is just too much work. He supports the idea of cover crops, also known as green manure. Soil should never be left bare, all three farmers agree. Ussery keeps the soil covered with nutrient rich cover crops and then either lets winter kill them or cuts them off at the base and allows the roots to decompose underground. The purpose of cover crops is for them to decompose and slowly release their nutrients into the soil to become available to the cash crops. Good cover crops include cereal grains and legumes. These keep nutrients in the soil and then once killed release those and more back into the soil. It also opens channels in the soil that allow worms and moisture to infiltrate deep throughout.

Another way to kill the cover crop and release its nutrients is by using your own chickens. If you set up a wire around the part of the garden where the cover crop is planted, the chickens will scratch, trample, and eat the cover crop down to nothing. They will also defecate in the fields, leaving behind their manure as fertilizer (Ussery, 2005).

Soil analysis
All three farmers place varying importance on getting a soil analysis. Kaysing, however believes this is key. He offers several sources of free or cheap analysis such as the USDA soil conservation services. The cheapest way to test your soil is to scoop up about a pound of topsoil and put it into a glass jar. Fill the bottle with water and then shake. The first layer to settle would be pebbles, then sand, then organic matter, and finally clay. This can tell you what your soil is made up of, but still doesn’t tell you what nutrients are lacking (Kaysing, 54-57).

Once you know what your soil needs, Kaysing feels that you should enrich the soil. He believes you should add rock phosphates, greensand, and limestone to achieve the perfect soil once you have gotten your analysis. These are the basic components that make up most good soil, various forms of decomposed rock and seabed deposits (Kaysing, 58). 
Stifling weed growth 
Commercial farmers of today’s day and age deal with weeds by using chemical fertilizers on cash crops and heavily tilling in between the rows. This destroys topsoil and opens the field up to even more weed growth the following year. Fossel offers many ways to control weed growth, but has had the most success with limiting the weed plants that reach germination and thus cutting weed growth in half every year. Fossel achieves this through regular shallow tilling, which opens up weed seeds to predation by birds and small rodents (Fossel, 66). The other two farmers feel that little to no tilling should take place even if it’s shallow, because it buries the nutrient rich topsoil. Fossel also goes after the weeds by hand before they germinate and scatter their new seeds (Fossel, 67).

Both Fossel and Ussery agree that planting cover crops under cash crops can stifle weed growth, while holding onto nutrients. Ussery, though, thinks the best way to limit weeds is by planting wide, thick beds of the cash crop and then to thin those out once they have grown larger.  This shades the soil around the plants and prevents weeds from getting in and taking over. If you place your plants right, less than fifty percent of light should reach the soil through the crops (Ussery, 2005).  This basically eliminates weed competition and some farmers even feel that this healthy competition amongst the plants allows only the strongest, and thus the tastiest, to survive.

The third farmer, Kaysing is a firm believer in mulching. He thinks every bare piece of soil, even right up around the plants, should be covered in mulch. He recommends a wide array of mulching including straw, pasture grasses, dried leaves, wood chips, and even plastic sheeting to cover up around the plants. He also recommends no tilling whatsoever, just leaving dead cash crops in the soil to enrich the next season’s crops and then covering up this green manure with some mulch material such as straw. This leads to soft moist soil below the mulch, easy to stick a finger into and plant a seed. Mulching keeps the soil locked from erosion and also provides excellent ground cover for beneficial bugs. Not to mention the fact that it absolutely smothers weed growth (Kaysing, 116). 
Pest control, not elimination
The main reason chemicals were induced so rapidly into farming lifestyle is because of pests. Chemical pesticides are said to eliminate the risk of losing crops to bugs. Commercial farmers see bugs as enemies coming in and deliberately trying to destroy their delicate crops. Organic farmers see them differently. They see the bugs as predators that come after the weak or diseased. Crops that use chemicals as a means of nutrients are weak crops. Fossel feels that if you strengthen the plant, predators will not go after it. He does this by adding compost and other nutrients to the soil. Also, by making sure that not too many of the same crops are in a row. Bug species often have a very small range, so even just planting a crop of the susceptible variety just 10 yards away from an infected plant can prevent spread (Fossel, 60). If you rotate fields it can improve soil nutrients and also prevent a return visit of the same pests.

The balanced farm ecosystem is something that Ussery agrees wholeheartedly on. Ussery achieves this by promoting beneficial bug life. An organic farmer understands that not all bugs are your enemy. Many bugs actually eat the varieties of pest that attack your plants, so it pays to invite these in as guests. They are like little interns, getting paid in room and board to take care of your pest problem. The best way to attract beneficial bugs is by planting habitat for them. There is a very large variety of plants that attract beneficial bugs; mostly these are of the flowering variety. The mint family is one group of plants that are very popular bug attractants. Mulches work very well for many ground bugs’ habitats, including spiders and the praying mantis.  It’s not just bugs that can be useful, though. Birds, toads, and bats also play an important role in garden ecosystem. You can encourage these animals through habitat as well. Build bird and bat houses, and try to have a farm bordered by woods with a water source nearby (Ussery, 2005).

Kaysing sees the benefit of enlisting allies and feels that rich soil is necessary, but he says that sometimes you just need more help. He occasionally uses homemade herbicides to curb pest problems. One of his favorite varieties is made from hot peppers he grows himself, ground and then diluted with water, and mixed in with a bit of soap to make it stick. He says that this works like a charm to keep the pests away (Kaysing, 265). Fossel uses herbicides on some plants that have very extreme pest problems.

Every farmer has their own tricks to the trade, some that swear their way is the best way.  As a new farmer or even as an experienced farmer looking to try new things, all you can do is experiment and try to figure out what way works for you. Every farm has slightly different soil makeup and every region has a different climate and different concerns. Fossel, Ussery, and Kaysing each had their own ideas of what works for the three main issues of organic farming: Soil composition, weed control, and keeping off pests. Fossel favors compost for soil, shallow tilling to prevent weeds, and strengthening the plants to resist pests. Ussery uses green manure, plants his crops in wide beds, and attracts beneficial bugs. Kaysing thinks you should enrich the soil, mulch to prevent weeds, and make homemade herbicides to curb pests. All three farmers have had success employing their methods on their own farms, but this does not make their ideas right or wrong. The ideas that work for them work because their soil and climate can support and be strengthened by them. The best method arrives from experimentation.


Fossel, Peter V. Organic Farming. St Paul: Voyageur Press, 2007.

Kaysing, Bill. First-Time Farmer's Guide. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1971.

Ussery, Harvey. A Few Thoughts on Organic Gardening. 2005.
www.TheModernHomestead.US (accessed October 20, 2012).

1 comment:

  1. Your article is just great. It is very informative also .It contains many useful facts which can be used in organic gardening.

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