Challenges and Opportunities of Organic Farming
Organic farming is difficult. Organic farmers must do what’s best for the planet and their soil without sacrificing profit. It’s a common assumption that profit and sustainability are opposed. Given the challenges organic farmers face, this assumption seems reasonable.
Organic farmers have to go without many pesticides, herbicides, and other spraying products. Instead, organic farmers rely more on natural symbiosis for crop protection. They must also fertilise with only organic fertilisers.
Organic farming also requires a farmer to change practices. Organic farmers often use strategies like low-till or no-till cultivation and intercropping.
Nevertheless, there is no reason why organic farming must be unprofitable, especially given the long-term prospects for improvements in soil health.
Australian farmers certainly seem to see more opportunities than drawbacks. Australia now has the largest organic farm area of any country in the world, with over 35 million hectares of organic land. This represents about 9% of Australia’s total agricultural land.
The Importance of Crop Planning in Organic Farming
Difficulties of Planning on an Organic Farm
Because they rely on different fertilisation strategies, organic farmers must develop a new approach to crop rotation and planning. An organic farmer’s crop rotation plans often stretch four or five years into the future.
Still, crop planning is extremely complicated. Producing a meaningful plan so far into the future is frustrating work. A plan must comply with regulations, rotate crops for soil health, reduce task complexity, and make money.
The importance of a plan is perhaps clearest with respect to the harvest. A late harvest can be a catastrophe for farmers. Rubert Saluoks turned to organic farming in 2010. He explains, “I’m the one who makes the most expensive mistakes. If an employee breaks an expensive machine in the field, that’s costly, but it’s nothing compared to me choosing the wrong crop or variety. That’s the choice that most affects the plan, which then affects the harvest schedule. A delayed harvest can lose you 30 to 50% of your yield. If the quality drops, you can lose 80 or 90%.”
A Good Plan is Still Flexible
A good plan means a more efficient season with respect to tasks, workforce, machinery, and land use. That means that the farm is better ready for harvest season, and better able to harvest at the right moment.
Of course, plans will change. Flexibility is essential. “Sure, no plan is permanent,” continues Rubert. “That’s especially true in organic farming. But if I don’t plan, I can’t schedule the harvest or come up with a decent timeline. You can’t make that kind of decision in the field. You just rush it. So of course you’ll change your plans, but changing a plan means you’ve got the plan. You’re changing something you’ve already thought through.”
The Example of an Organic Farm in Estonia
Coping with Difficult Seasons
2017 was a difficult year for farmers globally. Australia and the United States both struggled with difficult harvests. Australian production of wheat, barley and oats fell by 42%, 44%, and 40%, respectively. With so much diversity between countries, it can be hard to characterize European agriculture as a whole. Though European farm incomes grew in 2017, there was cause for concern: the data did not take into account farm income from non-agricultural sources, and if people leave the agricultural sector, the income of each person remaining increases–even if the total stays the same.
Nevertheless Rubert was able to harvest all of his fields without yield loss for a yearly profit of €381 000. When asked how he did it, he replied, “a great plan.”
Coming Around to Organic Farming
Rubert explains made the decision to go organic as early as 2010, when it was mainly a financial decision. As he made changes to his practice, his outlook became broader.
“I am becoming more environmentally friendly in general. In 2010, organic was a financial decision, but now it’s become, let’s say a political decision. I started to think about being more environmentally friendly alongside creating a more successful business. It’s been a great choice. I don’t regret it at all.”
Planning an Organic Farm
Before he searched for a software, Rubert used a mix of tools to record and plan his seasons. The combination of paper notebooks and spreadsheets made planning tedious and unproductive. At times Rubert was entering data into as many as ten different systems.
When his son developed an early version of eAgronom, Rubert was able to see his plan in a single place. This reduced his data entry load and allowed him to better see the consequences of his decisions. If he changed the crop on a particular paddock, he could see immediately how that might affect the entire farm’s crop rotation.
The Results of a Clear Plan
Farmers have to wait a long time for feedback. It may take years to see the consequences of a decision today. Nevertheless, Rubert’s example is impressive. He began planning with a prototype version of eAgronom in 2015. Rubert’s profit increased by €37,000. In 2016, his profit was €199,000, which represented a 338% increase. In 2018, his profit was €381,000.
Organic Farming for Profit and Soil Health
Rubert’s example is proof that there is no necessary conflict between organic farming and profit. Organic farming takes a different approach to agronomy. Its approach to soil health and sustainability is different. Its approach to pesticides, herbicides, spraying and crop protection is also different.
What does not change is the need for a good plan. Given the growth of organic agriculture around the world, quality planning tools are in high demand. For the sake of profit, soil health, and the environment, farm management software is essential.