The Biological Farmer - book review

by Liz Beavis
Since I did the Sustainable Agriculture course in July last year, I have been reading The Biological Farmer, by Gary Zimmer.  Biological agriculture is all about maintaining soil fertility in pasture and grain crop farming.



While biological agriculture shares many philosophies with organic agriculture, they are not the same thing.  Like organic agriculture, biological agriculture focuses on soil fertility and working with natural systems, however biological agriculture also uses limited amounts of synthetic chemicals where they will help the soil to rebuild.  

This may seem a contradiction, but when you get into the detail it does make sense.  Its fairly obvious that all synthetic herbicides and pesticides will damage natural systems and these are not recommended by biological agriculture, however, certain synthetic fertilisers can help to balance soil minerals and feed soil microbes.  Biological agriculture is a way to transition from chemical agriculture to organic agriculture without losing too much productivity.

Six rules for biological agriculture

  1. test and balance soil - replace deficiencies and provide for the crop, replace major elements and then trace elements, restore soil biology
  2. use fertilisers which are life-promoting and non-harmful - some fertilisers are better than others
  3. use pesticides and herbicides in minimum amounts and only when really necessary - a few weeds in a forage or hay crop don't matter, but for cash crops it will depends on customer requirements, use tillage to control weeds where possible
  4. use a short rotation - change crop type every 1-2 years, or don't use a monoculture (particularly for forage)
  5. use tillage to control decay of organic material and to control soil air and water - organic matter (green manure or animal manure) must be tilled into the soil to a shallow depth to enhance decay, also use optimal calcium and soil biology to improve aeration
  6. feed soil life - major elements, plant material, manures and legumes (nitrogen) and then fine-tune with 'biological' inputs such as seaweed, fish emulsion, inoculants etc.

 

The Secret to Biological Farming

Gary says "the secret to biological farming is to use crops, soil life and fertilisers to make more minerals available to future crops".  Another important point is that yields from biological farming may be lower than yields from chemical farming, but the input costs are also lower.  The main problem with chemical farming is that the input costs will always increase.  As natural fertility is degraded, more synthetic fertiliser, more herbicide and pesticide is required to achieve the same yield.  In biological farming, the natural fertility increases each year and the input costs decrease.  

It has been our aim since we bought Cheslyn Rise to use organic farming principles, but as we transition the farm from chemical farming (used by the farmer before us) to organic farming, we have been using some synthetic fertilisers to help us.  Now we know what to look for to buy synthetic fertilisers that will do no harm to the soil biology, and we understand how to enhance the natural soil fertility, we can continue that transition.  Organic farming works when everything is in balance, but when everything is out of balance due to long-term chemical farming, careful management and techniques such as biological agriculture can smooth the transition to organic farming.
This book focuses on crop farming, however, I believe that the principles can also be applied to animals.  Our focus with the cattle is in building their natural immunity by feeding mineral supplements, but where necessary we will also use chemicals (in this case pesticides) to assist the cattle when they are under threat from pests such as paralysis tick, until they develop natural immunity.
Biological agriculture also has an interesting parallel with permaculture, as Gary points out that whenever part of the natural system is eliminated (eg the earthworm), the farmer must take over their function in the system (eg increase tillage for aeration).  If the natural system is maintained, the farmer does less work, which is also the aim of permaculture design.
If you want to know more about biological agriculture I recommend that you read Gary's book.  I am about to order the sequel, Advancing Biological Agriculture, as I want to keep learning more.

Have you tried any of the concepts from biological agriculture?  What do you think?



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