Converting Your Farm to Organic for Profit and Pleasure—Chapter 2: Diversity is the First Principle of Organic Agriculture

several grain fields

In my mind there are two great principles in organic agriculture. Both are found in nature. And both are necessary as they work together to create and maintain a sustainable, regenerative organic system. In this chapter, I will discuss the first principle: diversity.

When you look at any natural landscape, whether it is the prairie, a forest, wet lands, river bottoms or even the tundra, what do you see? Do you, anywhere in nature, see a monoculture? You don’t need a college degree to know the answer to that question. What you find in nature all over the earth is incredible diversity. It starts with diversity in the microorganisms below the ground and ends with diversity in the animals that roam the surface of our planet. And it includes everything in between these two extremes. Every species is giving to and taking from the natural system in a completely interwoven and interdependent fabric of life. Everything is working together to sustain a natural system resilient enough to survive and maintain itself over the centuries.

The take home lesson is that diversity begets stability. This is true not only in nature but also in business, in organizations and in towns and communities. It is the goal of a regenerative organic system to duplicate nature with respect to diversity. Although there are some companion crops which can be grown together to avoid monocultures, our choices for that possibility in the Upper Great Plains are quite limited. So we accomplish the goal of diversity with crop rotations.

Crop rotations mean that the same crop is never planted in the same field two years in a row or even 2 years out of three or four. Here on our farm, we use a 9-year crop rotation. Some may find that a little excessive and indeed, I would never suggest starting with such a complex system. Generally a four-year rotation would be an adequate start as you begin to become better acquainted with the very individual needs of your farm.

On the Northern Great Plains, there are lots of choices for crops. Here on our farm, we normally try to rotate fall and spring seeded crops, shallow and deep rooted, narrow and broad leaf, heavy and light feeders, short and late season, as well as annuals, biennials and perennials. The reason we do this is three fold. We want to break up cycles of weeds, diseases and pests. Most weeds, diseases and pests have companion crops they grow and develop best with. So if those particular crops are grown in the same field for several years in a row, the companion weeds, diseases and pests will naturally build up with each year’s planting until they make a significant economic impact. As a result, chemical control is considered the standard solution of choice for such a problem. However, if a significantly different crop is planted in each field, each year, the companion pests are always in their first year of establishment and not normally causing economic concern. Using crop rotations, chemical control of weeds, diseases and pests are unnecessary.

In summary, we must view most of today’s modern, high tech agriculture for what it is: an artificial system of agriculture based on a monoculture which can only be maintained by excessive inputs of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. It is neither sustainable nor affordable and in recent years American farmers are only able to continue this type of agriculture because of a huge government subsidy program. Along the grain belt, most of those subsidies are being channeled into subsidized insurance programs and with the current low price of wheat, many grain farmers are unable to show a profit or even get normal operating notes any longer. A solution for many farmers heading toward difficult financial situations could be a conversion to a sustainable and more profitable organic system.

I invite you to consider the possibilities and to help you get started, I’ve included a couple possible crop rotation options. The first is a short, four-year rotation which I recommend to begin with. The second is the longer, nine-year rotation that we use here on our farm.

Short Rotation (4 years):

  1. Winter wheat
  2. Fall seeded winter peas for green manure
  3. Spring wheat under seeded with yellow blossom sweet clover
  4. Second year sweet clover for green manure

Long Rotation (9 years):

  1. Winter wheat
  2. Fall seeded winter peas for green manure
  3. Spring wheat
  4. Buckwheat for green manure
  5. Safflower
  6. Spring seeded peas for green manure
  7. Barley under seeded with alfalfa
  8. Second year alfalfa for hay
  9. Third year alfalfa for green manure