January 8, 2009
WILL 'ORGANIC' EVER BE A THING OF THE PAST?
The quietly practiced art of biodynamic farming appears to be more in line with what 'organic' should really stand for.
The skeptical questioning of agricultural methods has likely existed ever since agriculture itself was first applied as a model for procuring food.
Today, the questioning of how we practice agriculture is receiving special attention in light of a rapidly increasing global population and an unpredictably changing climate.
Among the models of food production that are on the 'table', organic methods of farming are indeed receiving notable attention. There are many critics, however, who propose that the more common 'organic' models being applied today are still leagues away from what should properly be defined as 'sustainable'.
Farmer Karl Hann of Biota Farm in Abbotsford, British Columbia is a passionate critic of the agricultural status quo. He views the more commonly practiced models of organic production as a stepping-stone towards a more holistic and sustainable approach to producing food.
Similar to many of the farms in the region, Biota Farm is primarily in the business of raising hens for egg production.
However, Hann's farming philosophies are quite different from his neighbours.
Whereas most of the hens raised in Abbotsford rarely see the light of day, Hann practices what is known as biodynamic farming, whereby interactions with the natural environment are paramount for a successful harvest.
The philosophies of biodynamics revolve around the interrelationship among the soil, plants and animals, and the farm is viewed as a closed, self-nourishing system.
While this model may sound like a common sense approach to growing and raising food, for most farms, achieving sufficient yields requires a heavy dependence on off-farm inputs.
Certainly not 'self-nourishing'.
For biodynamic farmers like Hann, the key to allowing a farm to 'nourish' itself is to first understand the importance of soil microorganisms.
As Hann points out, most farming methods have destroyed much of the living matter within their soils.
"When I moved onto my farm in 1992, I was shocked when I dug my first holes to plant bushes; there were no worms," recounts Hann. "There wasn't a beetle hole. There was nothing in the ground."
Like many of the farms today, Hann's farm had been chemically farmed for about 25 years and there was no life left in the soil. "Organic matter in the soil was .8 percent," says Hann, which he says is still quite good because many farms only have .5.
Hann describes that today, fifteen years since he first began applying biodynamic principles to the farm, some sections yield soil samples of 16!
While many farmers would view such a high level of organic matter as a recipe for breeding damaging pests, disease, and thereby a loss of control, the key to biodynamics is to allow nature to control the appropriate balance within the soil.
"So what biodynamic farmers are doing," says Hann, "is not making an improvement on nature, we're just trying to make it possible for nature to move back onto the land and support plant, animal, and human growth as it was meant to be."
"Humans got it into their heads that they have to control nature for our own good and probably for nature's own good and I think that we have screwed up pretty badly," believes Hann. "It's time to recognize that."
There is indeed still the ongoing rhetoric from agribusiness and policy makers that industrial agriculture is 'needed to feed the world'. It's rare to hear any dialogue on whether lower yields and more nutritious foods is perhaps a more efficient and effective use of our earth's resources.
"So let's say that maybe the quantity is a little bit less but the quality is so much higher that the net gain is actually higher," says Hann of biodynamic methods. "And this is what's important for me. It doesn't matter that I grow a chicken that is six pounds in forty-two days, but the guy wolfs it up in fifteen minutes or less and is still hungry and has to go for a chocolate bar."
As Hann suggests, prior to the industrial food system being the primary source of food, a family would sit down with a six-pound chicken and everybody had enough. "There were no side effects, no cancers, no stomach-aches," he adds.
Perhaps the most powerful observation Hann makes is his comparative analysis of the average conventional farmer versus the one who is more connected with the soil.
"The guy has absolutely no relationship to his soil," says Hann of the conventional farmer. "Why? Because he is sitting six feet above the ground in a cabin, air conditioned, listening to a friggin' football game.
That is our mistake. Our mistake is a mindset, an attitude, an approach. That is what I am fighting. Let's be normal again like your ancestors and my ancestors, because we survived thousands of years and now we are killing ourselves at a really, really high speed."
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. More information on today's topic can be found at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/120408.htm).
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