An Organic Farmer’s Guide to Improve the Soil Health in 2021

How do organic farming practices relate to soil health

Since the historical foundation of organic farming, two of the things have been given utmost care and significance when it comes to running a successful organic farm:

  1. Soil.
  2. Water.

And coincidently, both are related and largely dependent on each other.

However, a vast difference lies in organic vs conventional farming.

Organic agriculture is the chemical-free and sustainable method of agriculture that thrives with its soil and resists pests as it uses no synthetic fertilizers.

This is only one of the reasons for organic farming to be an advantage concerning its soil health.

However, everything is not only positive here.

Sometimes, there may be days when you are struggling to sustain your organic soil.

Fighting pests and so on.

If this has happened to you, you are definitely not alone.

In this guide, I will tell you exactly how to build healthy organic soil so that it can fight against diseases all by itself.

Sounds cool?

Let’s begin.


How to Improve Soil Health in Organic Farming?

1. Reduce the tillage

Is organic farming profitable?

The answer is yes and no. Yes, if you follow the organic methods and implement them as intended. And no if you go against the rules.

Extensive tillage is one of those rules that you should never cross.

Tillage is beneficial – only if done under a certain limit.

Less use of tillage leads to numerous benefits. Some of them are:

  • Soil erosion decreases.
  • Increment in soil potency.
  • SOM (Soil Organic Matter) increases.
  • Gives soil some time to regain the necessary compounds.
  • Etc.

As per one of the studies done by the University of Minnesota, tillage seriously damages the existing soil structure, if done exceeding a certain limit – and therefore reduces biodiversity.

Not just that, if done than required, tillage leads to less crop residue which in turn allows extra rainwater to enter the soil.

This leads to inappropriate water infiltration in the soil as uncovered by the Lowa State University.

So should you do instead of extensive tillage?

There are alternatives, in fact, many of them.

  • Roguing
  • Crop residue management
  • Use compost
  • Use green manure
  • Free-range livestock (inexpensive method)
  • Let the land revive on its own – do nothing.

2. Practice crop rotation

Crop rotation

The main aim of crop rotation is to improve soil health by planting various crops one after the other on the same field at different points in time.

Please don’t confuse it with intercropping.

In intercropping, various crops are grown in the same field and in the same period.

Crop rotation, favorably, not only improves soil health but helps fight pests, diseases and weeds.

It is one of the most commonly and widely used techniques among organic farmers.

But when I say widely, that wide figure is only between 3 to 7 percent.

Yes – as per the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture – the actual crop rotation technique is only practiced by 3 to 7 percent of the total farmers.

No matter what, you should rotate crops every year.

Almanac suggests rotating the same crop once every 3 to 4 years so that it maintains soil health and avoids itself from getting attracted by the same pests and diseases again and again.

3. Integrate cover crops

Most of the farmers’ practices crop rotation timely.

But here’s the main problem among many: Crop rotation done using cover crops gives significant results, yet taken into consideration only by a few.

The main objective of cover crops is to cover the land and the soil, in simple terms.

And if you are planting cover crops, your main purpose should be the same i.e. to cover and protect the soil and not for the only sake of selling it as a cash crop.

They are widely cultivated during seasons when the land remains the most unused. By doing so, these cover crops help protect the soil from erosion, unusual winds, etc.

By increasing the soil properties, it will ultimately increase the soil quality and land diversity.

As per the NRCS, a cover crop should be chosen keeping in mind the existing seeds disease and so on.

Read this article to educate yourself on some of the potential risks of planting cover crops so that you can avoid those risks easily.

Cover crops with hairy vetch can help substantially.

Besides that, you can consider growing wheat, barley, cereal rye, millet, etc, or anything favorable for your soil and climate.

4. Increase the SOM (Soil Organic Matter)

Soil organic matter is the town hall of any organic soil. This is what makes the soil pest-free, fertile and stronger in general.

It usually includes all the animals and plants’ materials (irrespective of them being alive or dead).

But mainly, things like plants roots, leaves, and mulch contribute majorly to the existence of the soil organic matter which is then decomposed by the diversity – including main insects and organisms like earthworms.

The important thing to discuss here:

Increased soil organic matter has numerous benefits.

  • Holds moisture (absorbs water for a long time for the plants to thrive).
  • Allows water and air to pass freely under the soil by creating more yet safe spaces.
  • It is the main source of nutrients (e.g. nitrogen and phosphorus).
  • And many others.

The main question is – how to increase the SOM?

Well, as per the guidance of the Department of Primary Industry, you can try executing any of these established methods:

  • Grow long-period pastures (at least 1-2 years).
  • Grow more cereal crops.
  • Rely on organic pesticides.
  • Use more green manure (Useful in all cases).

These things will suffice to build a robust organic soil that withstands even the deadliest diseases ever known to crops.

5. Crop residue management

Crop residue management

Crop residue management is one of the most unappreciated ways to surge soil health.

In fact, a subtle crop residue management system can be one of the biggest environmental benefits for your organic farm.

To fully understand crop residue management, you need to first know about the crop residues.

The leftover crop waste after harvesting the ripened crop is often referred to as crop residue.

And if you put the residue to better use rather than burning it, then you are managing that residue the right way.

As simple as that.

If you manage your residue, you can easily improve your soil’s health without even investing in anything new.

The residue contains significant gases like carbon which can be injected into the soil and give great returns in favor to the soil.

You are already reusing what is already available in your field.

Not bad.

6. Decrease the use of the pesticide (even though it is organic)

Did you know that pesticides (synthetic and organic) are one of the root causes of more pests and diseases in the field?

Yes – and not only do they increase the pests, but they also degrade the soil.

I agree that organic fertilizers are safer than synthetic pesticides, but many researches have shown that no matter which pesticides you are using, overusing any can lead to unintended harm.

Therefore, it is better to decrease the use of pesticides as required as possible.

Biological Diversity confirms through their data that pesticides reduce soil growth organisms and sometimes directly slay them.

If you sit in a quiet place for few minutes and give your thought to it, you will perhaps realize that spraying more pesticides than necessary will only do more harm than good.

Why?

The soil will absorb the beneficial nutrients from the pesticides to some extent.

Once it overflows, the negative start to show up.

The United States alone uses over a billion pounds of pesticides every year – out of which only 0.1 percent of pesticides reach the target pests and portray the benefits, as per Springer.

Thus, use pesticides with caution and you will instantly solve 50% of the problems related to the soil and increase the biodiversity in your organic land, I promise.

Tip: If you constantly face outrageous pest attacks on your organic farm, then have a look at this easy and practical guide on pest and disease management.

You are welcome 🙂

7.  Increase the AMF colonization

AMF

MDPI defines Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi or AMF as fungi that are good friends with most of the crops meaning that AMF helps crops intake an adequate amount of minerals and nutrients, improve water, and soil health along with resisting fatal diseases to crops.

As AMF is a soil-borne fungus, there are various ways to increase the amount of AMF.

Here are two of the effective methods that I have come across:

  • Cover crops.
  • Varied crop rotations.

Don’t worry when you hear terms like AMF. Nothing in this world is complex unless you make it look like that.

AMF is good fungi that is useful for the soil. That’s it.

All you need to do is to increase AMF in your field through the above two mentioned methods.

8.  Timely health-check your soil

Though calling a professional to check the health of your organic soil is recommended, you can do some of it by yourself.

How, exactly?

By observing.

If you see a lot of activities going on in your soil, then it’s considered to be healthy.

By healthy, I do not mean soil full of pests.

If there are beneficial insects like earthworms and fungi, then it’s good news.

Also, if your soil is darker than usual, then it is rich with organic matter which is also a sign of healthy soil.

By measuring these simple yet effective metrics, you will be able to figure out the current state of your soil health and improve it accordingly.

Just like a regular body check-up, your soil needs to be treated likewise.

If you wish to learn more ways to identify and check your soil health by yourself, have a look at this listicle by Kelloggarden.

They have done a great job in simplifying things, which is my motto at this blog too.

Lastly, Keep Things Simple to Succeed

Luckily, organic farming does many good things for your soil regularly.

And this is one of the biggest pros of organic farming.

Not just the name, the word ‘organic’ justifies its purpose.

The main purpose of organic farming is to reduce the pressure on the soil by using and experimenting as little as possible.

I have seen people who keep experimenting with any new trend that they see on the internet.

This is disastrous.

To be honest, you do not need to know everything about organic farming to succeed in it.

You do not need to try new things on your farm every day just because your neighbor farmer did it.

Double down only on what works for you.

Learning to keep things simple and understanding that – microorganisms and diversity can do their job well will alone help you gain much more profit in organic agriculture.

All you need to do is to implement the above-listed strategies and tactics to assist the soil to thrive in adverse conditions.

This was all from me.

Now, I would like to hear from you.

Out of 8 methods, which one are you currently using or going to implement on your organic farming journey?

Is it integrating cover crops?

Or is it increasing the AMF colonization?

Either way. Let me know by leaving a quick comment below right now.

Also, share this article with all those folks who are interested to learn organic farming.

It would help them as well.

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