Making organic farming accessible to low-income farmers


TACOMA, Washington – The organic farming movement has emerged in response to a growing awareness of the consequences of industrial farming. Organic farming claims that organic methods such as crop rotation and organic fertilization can promote biodiversity and improve soil quality to promote healthy crop growth.

Brief history of industrial agriculture

Industrial agriculture began in the early 1900s to meet the food needs of the exponentially expanding world population. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides promised greater crop production per acre of land. The availability of specialized synthetic inputs and advances in agricultural mechanization have encouraged monoculture practices, which only plant one crop species at a time. Along with urbanization, the predominant food system of the industrialized world has shifted from many small-scale rural farms to a few large-scale monoculture farms.

Impacts of industrial agriculture

Experts predict that global food demand could roughly double by 2050. But by 2050, the Earth may no longer tolerate industrial farming practices. The introduction of synthetic elements into food production systems has various negative consequences for the environment and the economy. The runoff of nitrogenous fertilizers pollutes the waterways. This can cause eutrophication, defined as an excess of nutrients increasing the growth of plant material but adversely affecting animal species. It requires expensive filtration processes to create potable water.

Unabsorbed nitrogen from fertilizers forms nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, which contribute to air pollution and atmospheric temperature. Applying chemical fertilizers in place of organic matter can cause soil acidification. Monoculture practices deplete the soil of nutrients, decrease resistance to drought, and make agricultural land more susceptible to erosion. These consequences of industrial agriculture can hamper crop growth and reduce land productivity in the long run.

In addition, over-reliance on specialized synthetic pesticides has been shown to be ineffective. Parasites reproduce and adapt quickly to chemicals, creating the need to constantly develop more powerful chemicals to suppress these parasites in a process called a “pesticide conveyor belt.”

Organic farming and low income farmers

In response to the growing awareness of the consequences of industrial farming, the organic farming movement has gained ground. Organic farming prohibits synthetic inputs and reduces overall pollution due to the absence of excessive chemical runoff and dissolution in the atmosphere. Prioritizing soil health in organic farming can increase long-term growth, yield and crop quality. The overall energy costs of organic farms are generally lower than those of factory farms. In addition, the organic label premium financially supports organic farmers.

Regardless, the initial costs of organic farming remain prohibitive for many low-income farmers. The time and labor required to produce compost are significant barriers to adopting organic farming. Composting from organic matter can take two months or more. In addition, compost requires regular aeration to ensure the survival of colonies of essential microorganisms. This type of work and time is often not plausible for low-income farmers who need quick returns on their investment.

The Compost Tea Project

In response to these obstacles, Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineers (DHE) undertook the Compost Tea Project. DHE is a group of students from Dartmouth College dedicated to humanitarian aid projects. Compost tea extracts microorganisms and soluble nutrients from small amounts of compost soaked in water. It introduces the benefits of compost into farming systems but requires much less in quantity. This, in turn, saves farmers time and labor.

Compost tea systems existed before DHE adopted the compost tea project as a key part of organic hydroponics. Jack Sadoff, a Dartmouth College student in the Class of 2021 and a member of the Compost Tea Project team, spoke to The Borgen Project. He explained that DHE’s goal was to “reduce” existing compost tea systems into an affordable practice that is “easy to use for everyone, whether for their own backyard or to supply larger farms. “.

The compost tea process takes less than three days and two cups of fertilizer. To create its compost tea system, the DHE attaches an aquarium pump to the bottom of a bucket and fits a PVC pipe perpendicular to the base. Team members fill the bucket with water, throw in a few handfuls of compost, and turn on the aquarium pump to aerate the system. The nutrients seep out of the organic matter and create an organic liquid fertilizer that can be used to water crops. Sadoff says the materials used to create the system cost only around $ 50 to $ 75 at a typical home improvement store or pet store.

Compost tea in action

As part of the Compost Tea project, DHE collaborated with an NGO in Quito, Ecuador called ConQuito. ConQuito supports sustainable economic growth in its namesake city and its surroundings. The organization promotes food growth in urban areas as a means of making fresh and healthy food accessible, generating income and jobs, and promoting environmental stewardship. Students from the Compost Tea project team traveled to Ecuador with their system and presented it to farms associated with ConQuito.

The Compost Tea Project is struggling to refine its system to use locally available materials for low-income and rural farmers. Distribution logistics are also a challenge for the team. “I think actually a pretty big trend in… humanitarian engineering projects is to provide these products in an environment where they are needed, but the need is not very obvious or people are not sufficiently informed. on how to use or maintain them. that, ”says Sadoff.

To continue doing as much good as possible, DHE plans to write a user manual as one of the next steps for the compost tea project, and it hopes to continue working in partnership with regional NGOs like ConQuito to discover and evaluate the benefits of compost. tea systems within low-income farming communities.

– Avery Saklad
Photo: Flickr


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