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The compromises of organic growing

A lived investigation into the compromising realities of organic farming systems VS the abundant synergies of natural farming

This writing aims to highlight the often unspoken realities of organic farming at scale, on its reliance on plastic, inputs, energy and often cheap/free labour. This is not to criticise or judge, but rather to self-reflect on the compromises many organic growers (including ourselves) have to grapple with and transform in this liminal phase between conventional agriculture and natural farming. We exist in the middle ground whilst moving in the direction of the latter, and this needs acknowledging and speaking about honestly. We are in a restorative phase of farming, as many lands are already degraded and lacking diversity. Regenerating biodiversity and soil vitality are the first steps in the long journey towards a natural farming system.

There exist various trade-offs in organic farming: e.g. (upper image) Enviromesh netting covering early salad and brassica crops to prevent cabbage white and frost damage, (lower image) using plastic membrane to kill off established monoculture grass whilst growing squash

The shift from organic agriculture to natural farming doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen in a perfect way without contextual trade-offs. For example, we have taken on a 16 acre field recently which had a relatively low diversity of plants and animals. To begin ‘growing 100% naturally’ requires a balanced thriving ecosystem, deep soil biomass, insect life, pollinators and perennial sources of fertility (such as leaf or woodchip mulch from tree crops). All of these factors take years/decades to establish, so we have to make trade-offs and compromises in the meantime. Using uncomfortably large quantities of ‘enviromesh’ crop netting to protect food crops until natural biodiversity can do this job for us. Buying in large quantities of compost to make permanent no-dig beds is certainly better than deep tillage or artificial fertilisers, but it’s not ideal and in the long term we can develop systems to cycle nutrients more fully. Using plastic mulch sheeting, (albeit recycled, reusable and UV stabilised), to cover the established monocultural grasses in order to then sow a diverse range of nitrogen fixers, cover crops and veg crops. Using mains water and overcomplicated irrigation systems until we can work with nature to redesign the spring and rainwater flows to water plants as nature has done for eons. And finally, the most ironic compromise in our early days of setting up the site – using a petrol generator to charge an electric bike for deliveries (whilst we await solar panel installation to capture and store energy perennially).

One question I often ask myself is: why don’t we just help develop those natural systems and eco-diversity before the food growing, and then grow with less/no compromise? But a stronger intuition in my mind and heart knows that we don’t have the luxury of time for this, and that every item of food that we don’t grow in an organic way will be instead produced elsewhere in a destructive way hence negating our efforts of restoration. The context of climate emergency and sixth mass extinction is important, because we are entering irreversible tipping points and catastrophic levels of turbulence if we don’t act in this decade. So we navigate the middle ground, using some enviromesh netting, plastic membrane weed suppression, irrigation, some precious fossil fuels and significantly more labour than a natural system would require. In this liminal phase in the long and deep shift towards natural farming we require the courage to compromise, the faith to persist, the idealism to experiment and the persistent realism to make it work economically in todays world.

Two things are important to me in this discussion: scale and permanence. This article will explore the various trade-offs organic farmers make through the lens of scale and permanence.

Appropriate scale organic farming mitigates for many of the trade-offs mentioned above. By this I do not necessarily mean small-scale is the only way and the best way. Its certainly less destructive in general, more human-scale, connected to community and often romanticised. But there can be issues with smaller scale too. We have found that the economics of growing at a tiny scale meant that we were reliant on cheap/free labour. Shifting from a small market garden to 18 acres of mixed agroecology and diverse income streams has allowed our community interest company to thrive economically, with a decent revenue to support over 4 livelihoods, run a paid traineeship, re-invest in long term design (e.g. nut trees), invest in delivery bikes hence avoiding emissions from our transport of food and has allowed a more pleasant less stressful working atmosphere as we’re not chasing our tails all the time. We still have to work hard and compromise to make this thrive economically, and its not easy in organic growing, but we have found it to be easier at an appropriate scale than at a tiny scale (which may not be true in other contexts, economies or land plots).

The other potential drawback for me of a tiny scale is the ratio of materials, inputs and labour required for the number of people fed. When we doubled the size of the market garden, we didn’t need twice as many materials, plastic, energy, bikes or inputs. We needed 20% more of some materials, 30% more labour, the same amount of other things. Income doubled whilst costs only increased marginally. This could be pitted as a cold-hearted economist or neoliberal analysis of market gardening. But ‘economies of scale’ are not a direct correlation where bigger means better, rather there is a sweet spot for specific contexts where the scale makes sense economically, socially and ecologically. Furthermore, the oversimplified ‘economies of scale’ limit us and detracts from the necessity to make a bridge between ‘where we are now’ (e.g. conventional paradigm or at best organic growing) and ‘where we need to be’ (e.g. natural farming paradigm). We could have 5,000 tiny farms that would feed this relatively small city of Bath (even in this calculation each tiny farm would need to provide year round balanced diet for 20 people – not so easy a feat on a 1/2 acre in reality!), and these 5000 farms would each be buying material inputs, requiring infrastructure, deliveries, plastic, netting, labour… This points towards the need for both appropriate scale AND collaboration.

Within appropriate scale is not the suggestion of an exact acreage (e.g. 250 x 20 acre farms for Bath). Instead, appropriate scale means a functional diversity of scales. We do need the tiny farms to grow at a peri-urban level, providing perishable nutrient dense crops on the doorstep of consumers and restaurants. We also need the larger scale restoration agriculture projects with rotational grazing and regeneration of land, including mass planting of edible tree crops like nuts, fruits, berries & medicines. As we exist in the paradigm of fetishized gigantism (to quote E.F. Schumacher) and massive scale agriculture, there needs to be a rebalancing act of scales, to return to an appropriate human scale and an ecological bioregional scale design. This will necessitate many large thousand acre farms to let go of some acres for appropriate scale agroecology and market gardening. This may also require some small garden or homesteads or allotmenteers to consider growing more surplus for local community, mimicking the peri-urban market garden or community allotment food models. All of these different and necessary scales weave together in a mosaic of food system change, tied together through bioregional designs and land redistribution which locates/maps the most appropriate scale of permanent design nested in each social and ecological context. For example, taking a permaculture design lens, the ‘zone 1’ of the biodregional design would focus on the city centre with small scale city farms and community gardens producing high value perishable crops (eg greens, herbs, fruits) for local communities, shops and restaurants on their doorstep. As the design moves out from the urban centre towards wilder lands (‘zones4/5’), the most appropriate land designs may be larger scale agroecological co-op farms of 25 acres, 100 acre regenerative farms with restorative grazing and tree planting, and dare I say it – ‘rewilding projects’ (where appropriate!). Thus the complexities of scale cannot pinpoint an exact acreage but instead point towards an ecosystem of appropriate scales of design, rooted in regeneration and permanence.

In any organic system, the level of permanence is the second important variable in the farms sustainability. This means the level of resilience, durability and hence diversity of the design. An impermanent organic system is one still rooted in annual and conventional agriculture modes of production, such as the deep tillage of soil each season to plant annuals crops mechanically. With this method, topsoil and fertility is eroded each year and thus the agriculture is not perennial or durable in the long-term, rendering itself reliant upon heavy industrial inputs from extraction elsewhere. Permanence is more important to me than organic. It is however unlikely to have permanent agriculture that it non-organic, as the reliance on harmful chemicals will eventually erode the base natural capital of the land, water, air and soil health, actively diminishing/destroying the long-term capacity to nourish and feed anyone. Permanent design (often called permaculture) is thus central to the next agricultural paradigm. It intersects with scale, as the design must be holographic and integrated. This means that the permanence of design at a tiny scale (e.g. for our own lives and back garden), must be integrated with its holographic reflection in the macro-scale designs of our larger farms, cities, bioregions and planet. Permanent design principles can be modelled on a tiny scale and at larger scales, the latter often necessitating collaboration.

Organic farming emerged from the sustainability paradigm in the mid 20th century, at that time from an appropriate call to reduce harm to nature, as the larger trade-offs of conventional agriculture became apparent. This is situated within a reformist approach, whereby the Organics movement made great steps to reform parts of destructive agriculture and reduce the amount of chemicals and fertilisers used. Many farms now are describing themselves as ‘beyond organic’, or as we like to say: “organic, AND…”. This comes from the recognition and evidence that simply replacing non-organic chemicals and fertilisers with their organic counterparts does not really tackle the root of the issue. If the methods of industrial agriculture, deep & regular tillage, monoculture and exploitative global supply chains are not addressed, then the organic conversion will at best reduce harm and at worst entrench the problem with a banner of greenwash. This again returns us to the point of scale and permanence, and adds a third important element which underlies all of this: regeneration. We are in a new planetary phase, now labelled the Anthropocene where human impact has already changed life on earth on geological ecospheric scales. It is thus too late to sustain or to simply reduce harm as conventional organics has done last century, instead we are all required to be active regenerators within a restoration culture paradigm. In land practices and farming, this requires going beyond organic. Pesticides and fertilisers of course need to be phased out to zero, whilst acknowledging that this is just a small step in the journey and will only address the root issue if approached holistically with steps to regenerate land, water, soils and souls.

There are many more interesting and nuanced compromises to explore in the efforts to grow naturally, such as the use of plastic Polytunnel's to grow year-round food in the UK climate, the use of packaging of produce to extend shelf-life/reduce waste and the broader social-political compromises (look out for next blog post on this!). it is hoped that an honest and open investigation into the realities of growing food can inspire a collective and pragmatic shift towards natural farming systems, which have been , are and can be a reality. We need to prefigure these systems but both learning from ancient practices, modelling the new in the now and challenging each trade-off as an invitation to evolve and transform it alchemically into a synergy.

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