Organic farmers don’t just seek to maintain the soil in a healthy, fertile and natural state – they also try to enhance its condition through the provision of appropriate nutrients, improvements to soil structure and effective water management.
Important practices used by organic farmers to maintain and improve the health of the soil include:
- Adopting wide and varied crop rotations – to break weed and pest cycles, allow soil recovery time and add useful nutrients. Legumes such as clover, for example, “fix” nitrogen from the atmosphere
- Using manure-based organic fertilisers – to improve soil structure and prevent soil erosion
- Strictly restricting the use of artificial fertilisers and chemical synthetic pesticides – to avoid long-term changes to the chemical consistency and dependency of the soil
- Providing a mixed variety pasture for grazing – to avoid overgrazing, allow soil recovery time and avoid nutrient loss
- Sowing green manure crops to cover soil after harvesting – to prevent soil erosion and nutrient leaching
- Planting hedges and meadows – to prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss
Where possible, organic farmers employ mechanical and physical methods of soil cultivation to achieve optimum results for soil health and structure. In other words, organic farmers control weeds, for instance, by cutting, rather than using herbicides to kill them. This helps to maintain biodiversity both above and below the soil.
Some studies have found organic farming leads to an increase in the number of beneficial organisms living in the soil, which helps provide healthy crops and livestock.
A 2002 study called Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming found that organic farming:
- Doubles the number of dung beetles in the soil
- Produces 50% more earthworms
- Produces 60% more rove beetles
- Doubles the number of spiders
Organic farming systems generally have fewer livestock per hectare grazing in each field. This helps to reduce livestock stress and pest and disease pressure, improves farmland biodiversity, and has the knock-on effect of decreasing soil compaction and the risk of soil erosion.
As well as being preferred methods on the part of the farmer, many of the practices that are beneficial to the soil are prescribed by the organic farming Regulation. For example, the new EU Regulation on organic farming contains the following points:
- Organic plant production shall use tillage and cultivation practices that maintain or increase soil organic matter, enhance soil stability and soil biodiversity, and prevent soil compaction and soil erosion
- Fertility and biological activity of the soil shall be maintained and increased by multi-annual crop rotation including legumes and other green manure crops, application of livestock manure or organic material, preferably composted, from organic production