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close this bookSPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 40 (CTA Spore, 1992, 16 p.)
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View the documentUnderstanding organic farming

Understanding organic farming

Mr John Njoroge
is one of three founder members of the Kenya Institute of Organic Farming, an NGO involved in the dissemination of information on organic agriculture to smallholder farmers in Kenya. He has been the Director since its formation. Previously he worked with Inades Formation Kenya, a pan-African organization involved in adult education and rural development.

In modern agriculture we have become dependent on purchased inputs to produce crops and livestock instead of utilizing the range of materials that are available, or could be made available, on the farms.

The result is that as production costs have become more expensive the margin left to the producer has become less. While farmers are persuaded to spend more on chemical plant foods and protectants and on purchased feeds, vaccines and medicines for livestock, nature provides an alternative option: abundant and healthy, production of crops and livestock at little or no financial cost.

In the natural bush and forest we can see that plants grow without the application of fertilizers. There is abundant growth and nutrients are recycled as plants shed their leaves and branches, animals leave their droppings and dead organisms return to the soil. All this organic matter combines with the naturally weathered rocks to form a healthy productive soil. If we remember that all things come from the earth and return to the earth we can begin to understand organic farming.

Organic farming is a form of agriculture which mimics the natural system of plant and animal growth and death. The natural system is a closed system since everything is recycled more or less where it grows. In agriculture, fertility is removed in the crops and livestock products consumed off the farm and that fertility must be returned. To achieve a fertile and productive soil on a sustainable basis farmers must put effort into proper cultivation, selection of pest resistant varieties, crop rotation, mixed cropping, growing trees on the farm, making compost and providing the right conditions for beneficial insects to control pests. Soil erosion must be prevented as the soil that erodes is the most fertile soil. Nitrogenfixation can be achieved through growing leguminous crops and trees. Trees also provide foliage for mulching and adding nutrients to soil and for feeding livestock, while composting provides a hygienic way of converting all available vegetable and animal waste matter into a form that both improves the physical structure and the nutrient status of the soil.

We waste so much that we could use to great benefit. Vegetation which could be composted and bring fertility to crop land is allowed to die and rot around homesteads and along roads. Livestock manure is left in kraals, when it could accelerate the composting of vegetable matter. Household wastes which could go back on the land via the compost pits are thrown aside or buried.

To make compost efficiently requires some knowledge. First, a series of three shallow pits is required so that the compost from Pit 1 can be turned into Pit 2 after 21 days and from Pit 2 into Pit 3 after a further 21 days. Following a final 21 days in Pit 3 the compost should be ready for use - 63 days from start to finish. The pits themselves should be 0.3 metres deep, 1 metre wide and 2-3 metres long.

The width is critical: it should be possible to reach to the middle of the compost heap without walking on it. At the bottom of each pit there should be a layer of fibrous vegetation to assist aeration, and whenever a layer of material is added it should be covered with a 10 cm layer of soil to stop gases escaping. Water can be added during dry weather to hasten decomposition, but too much water will cause the internal temperature of the compost heap to fall and not only will decomposition slow down or stop, weed seeds and disease spores will not be killed by the heat. To safeguard compost heaps in the rainy season they may be covered by plastic or corrugated metal sheets, or by banana leaves.

Organic farming is not easy, but it is sustainable. If more farmers were to keep their farms fertile through organic means, many of today's farm problems would be solved. The soil would have natural fertility restored for producing healthy crops and animals, it would hold more water and it would be easier to cultivate. Fertile soils contain more living micro-organisms which are beneficial to plant life, and they help plants resist or grow away from pests and diseases.

Modern agriculture has its limits. It does not acknowledge these issues and does not take into account specific problems of smallscale producers in developing countries. Imported fertilizers and pesticides are expensive both for the state and the producers. When utilized without care, particulary pesticides, they destroy the natural balance of the land.

There are many ways of benefiting from local resources while conserving the environment for a sustainable production of abundant and quality food products. This is the essence of organic farming. All concerned with agriculture development should bear this in mind in decision-making.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CTA.