Muck and mystery – bringing organic agriculture to the mainstream


Rae Allen: Muck and Mystery That’s a description of organic agriculture quoted at a recent meeting looking at the establishment of a National Association of organic agriculture. Muck and Mystery It’s a phrase used by many engaged in contemporary Australian agricultural practice to describe a form of plant and animal production considered archaic in today’s high technology, capital intensive primary production. Muck and Mystery as a comment, it has been applauded recently by a student of soils and life forms who emphasized that certainly the deeper in the muck you get, the more mystery you find. As a judgment, the phrase is less kind. To suggest to today’s farmer, with his high capital and input costs, that these inputs may not only be superfluous but actually harmful is to invite ridicule from mainstream agricultural practice. Organic agriculture does have one input that most consider is higher than contemporary agriculture. Labor estimates on exactly how much extra labor is required vary, and even the fact that extra labor is needed is open to question. Lionel Pollard from Victoria is a member of WWOOF, standing for Willing Workers On Organic Farms.

Lionel Pollard: I’m not at all sure that this is in fact the case, although it is commonly accepted to be so. I think this comes about from the idea that most organic farmers spend an awful lot of time chipping at weeds and hoeing and preparing beds by hand, or preparing beds with small machinery where the normal uh practice by most horticulturalists uh would be to use large scale machinery. I’m not at all sure that this is the true picture. I think the larger scale machinery, the more intensive use of machinery is just as valid on an organic farm, particularly one producing food in large scale for a market situation as it is for the farmer who prefers to use chemicals. What it does indicate, however, is a slightly different approach. For an instance, there uh, is the uh, use of insoluble fertilizer as opposed to the use of soluble fertilizer. In a situation like this, by using an insoluble fertilizer and relying upon the organic matter in your soil to dissolve it and make it steadily available to plants over a greater number of years, you reduce the number of applications of fertilizer so that you can use the same equipment to do it. But instead of owning a fertilizer spreader which you’re going to use every year on the land, you can hire one which you want to use once in five to ten years at a time. Other areas where biological methods are used to control pests uh is another way in which the approach of the organic farmer would be exactly the same. A spray boom on the back of a tractor will do the same job, but you may be using a substance, for instance, such as Dipal, to control cauliflower, maggots, and so on, as opposed to using some much more harsh and environmentally, uh, unsound chemical material.

Rae Allen: Lionel Pollard’s reason for being in Tasmania recently was similar to a number of other visitors from New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and New Zealand. Together with Tasmania’s Organic Gardening and Farming Society, they were meeting to discuss the possibilities of forming a national organic agriculture association. The need for such an association was expressed by Sandy Fritz, convener of the meeting and part of Apace, the Appropriate Technology and Community Environment Group from Sydney.

Sandy Fritz: There are many organic groups in all the States. Some of them are very isolated. Some of them don’t have the resources to answer the problems that farmers have, the questions that consumers have about how food is produced, whether you’re on the producer side or the receiving side. And I think we could combine our people power and our resources in order to provide this service for consumers and farmers to answer questions about how to produce food without hazardous chemicals and what the obstacles to actually doing that are.

Rae Allen: who do you see belonging to a National Association?

Sandy Fritz: Well, this is why I’ve nominated the title of the National Association of Regenerative Agriculture, because there’s a lot of people who might be termed organic growers, bio-dynamic growers, permaculture, or, um, perhaps farmers that have used methods their whole lives and have never known any other way. They never adopted chemical practices. And so we call it regenerative because it regenerates the soil. Anyone who has that kind of knowledge, and certainly even farmers that are using chemicals now but want to get off using chemicals, want to regenerate their soil. They can join. As I, um, see it, some of the benefits would be to have more access to that information, to join, become a member of this and help each farmer make that transition to reduce or eliminate their chemical use.

Rae Allen: So if you’re setting up a national, uh, association, is it just, uh, going to be a grower’s, uh, body?

Sandy Fritz: I think of it as not just a grower’s body, but this is the first of a series of meetings. There will be, um, the Tasmania meeting. There will be a couple of meetings in New South Wales, hopefully one in Victoria, and by next November, I’ll be in South Australia and we’ll find out from all those involved just who should be involved and what kind of issues can we tackle. That will mean we’ll have to look at what resources we’re going to have available. I mostly see it as those people who are already involved in the kind of groups I mentioned as well as farmers.

Rae Allen: You mentioned resources. How much resource do you expect to have for a national body?

Sandy Fritz: There’s certainly a growing interest there’s farmers who we heard it from the first meeting last night. There’s many farmers who have been using organic practices, who come to a point where there are things they don’t know and they need information. We know from the Connachar study coming out of Western Australia that that was the number one problem of organic farmers is they have lack of resources for adequate, um, information about practices, about marketing. They have problems with financing. So, um, there certainly is a large number of farmers who would want to be part of this.

Rae Allen: New Zealand has had a national organic agriculture body for two years and indeed a couple of members from the New Zealand body were interested observers at the Tasmanian meetings. A description used by many in discussions aimed at setting up Australia’s National body is that of a sustainable community as a type of agricultural practice many would like to see as preferable to present conventional agriculture.

Lionel Pollard: I think the phrase sustainable community refers to, uh, the idea that a community comes into existence, should be able to feed itself pretty well from its own resources and do so in such a way as to leave its soil resources intact for future generations. It’s not necessarily a totally organic approach in doing this. There are possibilities, uh, of blending certain usages of chemical materials into the scene, but doing it and applying them in, um, a wise and careful method so that you do not cause harm to the environment and more importantly, so that you do not cause degradation to the soil if you can keep your soil fertility intact for generation after generation. And remember that the Chinese have been doing this for about 5000 years now on the same land. We’ve only been doing it for 100 years and we’re seeing most of our soils disappearing in dust or down the river. So it, uh, is a question of having a reverence, if you like, but more importantly, not just a reverence for the soil as such, but a reverence for the idea that human settlement is here forever and we want it to stay here. We want to hand our farms down to our children and to our grandchildren and know that they will be looked after wisely and carefully.

Rae Allen: The Organic Gardening and Farming Society of Tasmania is probably the strongest and most well organized of all the state bodies involved in organic agriculture. The society itself has debated whether there is a need for a national body. Considering the strength of the local organization, the debate arose over the benefits able to be gained from a national body. Joan Bell chairs the Vital Issues Research Committee for the society and concede definite and positive benefits.

Joan Bell: We feel there is a need for cohesion of groups regarding this. This would help considerably, um, legislative action, uh, on labeling laws, etc. They would be strengthened. From a theoretical point of view, a National Association can help these groups and bring this about.

Rae Allen: Isn’t it enough that there is a State Organic and Guardian and Pharmacy Society in Tasmania?

Joan Bell: Well, for this state, I think we have to educate people now on a higher level on a broader, um, issue as regards organic principles. We have to look at this as an agricultural program which in the past has tended to only cater for the small backyard gardener. And we want people to realize that organic agriculture is not only possible, but is very effective and is working among many of our farmers who are doing this on.

Rae Allen: Um, a, uh, large scale and a national body would get examples of this working over to a large number of people nationally?

Joan Bell: Yes. It would also cover, um, many other points that are not being covered now by individual organizations. They have to be United. Federated probably is the word so that, uh, we can have a more effective voice in the Australian community.

Rae Allen: The meetings in Tasmania resolve to set up a steering committee to formulate guidelines for the national body. This committee will have two representatives from each state for the interim period. Sandy Fritz will be the executive administrator, and she sees a long term expansionary role for a national society for Regenerative or Biological agriculture.

Sandy Fritz: In terms of communicating, if you had a National Association, you could have a National Journal that would help you disseminate information. Part of the communication is also having a clearing house. I’ve suggested that the clearing house could be at an agricultural College. That way you’d have literature and you’d have the expertise of the people at the College close at hand and at that facility, you’d be able to have people write or call in or come and visit. Perhaps you’d have a demonstration farm to demonstrate the kind of practices we’re talking about. And people would know where to contact to get the information they need. That’s an opportunity they don’t have now, a resource they don’t have now to just know just where to contact. Through the clearing house, you’d be bound to eventually from the different areas of different States and regions and bioregions within States? No. What are the most common problems? You could develop the discussions of solutions in the Journal, address those problems in more detail and be able to become more expertise. Um, in the area of resolutions about what the most common problems are.

Rae Allen: In the area of lobbying, do you think that an organic association is going to have enough strength to lobby successfully?

Sandy Fritz: Yes. In the area of lobbying, what I imagine is there are some very obvious areas right now that are problems. Those are the areas of unequal treatment for people who want to use non chemical methods, such as, um, they don’t have access to the low interest loans. They don’t have access to subsidies where synthetic fertilizers are subsidized. Non synthetic fertilizer or organic fertilizer sources are not subsidized. So there’s some pretty obvious things that could be handled right away, and I would hope that this National Association would. One of the things is, in being United, we’d strengthen that argument to be able to put to the general public what our argument is so that they can understand and to be able to discuss this with the policy makers, why it would be to everyone’s benefit to have that option have equal treatment. Why? It would be to the benefit of Australian soils and the health of Australian people.

Rae Allen: Research?

Sandy Fritz: Yes, definitely. Research right now is very fragmented. You might be looking at one pest control system or one weed control system but what organic and those are practices that might be adopted by chemical farmers. Um, in some ways, but it’s far more successful if you adopt those kind of practices into a whole system of farming. So you aren’t just having a chemical, um, agriculture system where you try to introduce a non chemical method that makes it much more difficult. The method is less successful. We’d like to see research of a whole farm system and certainly at least a minimal of 1% of the agricultural research budget should be applied towards what kind of systems are really regenerative and not degrading of the resources so that we can think in future generations we will continue to have productive capacity and certainly more productive capacity than we have now.

Rae Allen: Sandy Fritz. By the end of this year the people who are trying to set up the national society for regenerative and biological agriculture should have some idea about the number of people they can expect to be part of such a body. Just as importantly, they should have some idea about funding the organization, where those funds are going to come from and how much is going to be available. The next step is mobilization with such a diverse cross section of the community involved, the group’s adolescence may be more painful than its birth. Speakers on today’s program included Sandy Fritz of the appropriate technology and community environment group in Sydney. Lionel Pollard from willing workers on organic farms. Victoria and Joan Bell from the vital issues research committee. Tasmania I’m Rae Allen and you’ve been listening to Friday Journal.

By Rae Allen

Rae Allen is a digital media professional.

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