So, there’s organic and then there’s organic. We’re somewhere in the middle. Let me try to explain.
If you think of ag as a subset of nature it might help. Let’s use a rainforest as our example of nature. In the rainforest, you have a form of balance, but truly it’s more of a dynamic equilibrium. It’s more about oscillations around a sweet spot as opposed to a perfect and unchanging balance. Plants eat all the nutrients in the soil and air (think orchids and bromeliads), then grow and produce habitat, flowers and fruits, which provide homes and food for insects, birds and bats, which provide food for larger animals, which excrete what they ate and again provide food for the plants. Cyclical.
When all these characters live in the same environment for a substantial period of time, they find a relative balance. Fruit doesn’t overproduce and go to waste, because the animals' populations grow to the right amount to eat them all. If any one organism starts to boom in population, whatever eats it, will eventually increase in population too, so that the population boom subsides to a sustainable level for that ecosystem. Everything fluctuates within a reasonable range and extreme changes are rare (assuming no human intervention or major climate changes take place).
I’m speaking in generalities of course, but the main point is that you have an interconnected web of life all interacting in such a way that major imbalance (like a plague of locusts) is rare. The population of locusts (grasshoppers) can’t get that big, because there are plenty of predators to keep the locusts in check.
Growing crops in this manner is the purest form of “Organic” you can get. It’s more likely to be found in a thoughtful subsistence homestead, garden, or permaculture site. It’s philosophically ideal, but sacrifices too much efficiency to remain financially viable for any farm I know of.
All large scale commercial ventures tend towards efficiency over resiliency. It makes more money per fiscal year. That’s why our supply chains collapsed at the onset of Covid. We outsourced production to cheap labor in other countries, so when shit hit the fan and the system encountered stress, it failed. We had no means to supply ourselves. No means of production. All we had was a depleted inventory of products that had great profit margins for the distributor when times were good. That’s efficiency (of profit) over resiliency. It’s amazing in the short term, when stresses are minimal. Zoom out though and it loses its luster a bit. You walk further and further out on a limb that weakens with each step taken.
In conventional agriculture this pattern holds true. To maximize efficiency of space and profit, you sacrifice resiliency. You remove all the trees, grass, bushes, along with the birds, bees, butterflies, etc and if you use Roundup, Grazon, etc… you remove all the micro-organisms in the soil too. You do all this, so you can plant your one favored plant. Your cash crop. You squeeze as many as possible onto your acreage. You can control all the nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous etc.. (except for the excess which flows into creeks, rivers, lakes, and oceans with devastating effects). When times are good, you can maximize your harvest per acre this way, but in the big picture, you are no longer resilient. If one pest or disease gets the opportunity to flourish, it no longer has any buffers to stop it. No birds, bats, or predator insects. No trees or bushes to slow it down. All you have is acre upon acre of food, perfectly feeding a fast reproducing population of pest/pathogen that takes advantage of the situation and just explodes. So you spray more poison. Stronger poison. And hopefully you save your crop. Never-mind that the crop is covered in poison, and it runs into the streams, rivers, etc.. and contaminates the bees, butterflies, birds, etc..
Monoculture ag reliant on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is the epitome of this tendency. You now rely on chemicals to do all the jobs nature once did for free. It works great, until it doesn’t. There’s also the “Tragedy of the Commons” effect, but that’s a discussion for another day. Worth a google though. Anyways…
Here’s the delineation between organic and organic: Large scale organics improves on conventional ag significantly by replacing synthetic pesticides and nutrients with biological ones. The pesticides are not as potent and they cause less collateral damage. They break down quickly so as not to destroy waterways or other insects and animals.
Organic farms rarely use herbicides (I don’t know any that do), so all those beneficial microorganisms in the soil are unharmed by things like Roundup and once again, waterways are spared.
Organic fertilizers don’t easily wash into waterways due in part to their larger physical make up and how slowly they break down as opposed to just being a powdered nutrient that's physically light and immediately available.
Those are all massive improvements. So, with large scale organics, you’ve replaced a toxic “efficient” system, with a much healthier “efficient” system. You still don’t have much resiliency though. This form of organics is much better, than conventional ag, but still shares some of its weaknesses due to lack of biodiversity. You are still playing god to a degree by stripping away most of nature's services and intervening with organic fertilizers, pesticides, etc..
It still removes all the natural buffers of a healthy ecosystem and relies completely on human inputs. Yes, these inputs cause much less harm than their conventional counterparts, but it’s not quite the garden of Eden either.
The other form of organics I referred to at the outset is one wherein you take your cues from nature to increase resiliency and thereby significantly reduce the necessity for even organic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. This is the epitome of resiliency, but conversely it sacrifices efficiency. You no longer have rows of anything. You can’t streamline planting, weeding, or harvesting. You can’t plow or till your soil. You require a lot more space and labor/time to produce the same amount of any given crop. This translates to sacrificing valuable growing space and money in favor of greater biodiversity and resiliency.
If you plant a variety of plants, bushes, and trees, you increase biodiversity and invite pollinators, birds, bats etc… You create habitat for a whole array of insects. Some will nibble your plants, but others will eat the ones that eat your plants and ultimately reduce the overall damage to an acceptable level.
You attain a version of that dynamic equilibrium this way. A form of balance. You can rely on mulch, compost, bacteria, and cover crops to replenish your soil, so you don’t need so much fertilizer. You can rely on every crawling or flying thing to eat each other so you don’t need to spray even organic pesticides much. You can rely on all the growing things to prevent erosion and to protect the soil microorganisms.
Philosophically speaking, this is the ideal approach. But reality shows that perfection rarely exists. We need to cultivate our version of balance and avoid extremes. Do as little harm, while promoting as much good as we can, while staying solvent.
With that in mind, we are always working to find the sweet spot and to push as best we can towards creating multiple ecosystems within and around our crops. It’s still a business, so we have to find our own ratio of efficiency to resiliency in order to keep the lights on, but for most of the year, we use nothing but nature to help with nature.
Next week, I’ll talk about how we took our cues from nature to eliminate even organic pesticides in our dahlias, which at one time were our most pesticide reliant crop…. Stay tuned..