Tech and Tradition Converge at Organic Workshop

บรรยายBy Brian Berletic

When some think about organic agriculture they think of a throwback to a simpler era of traditional, idyllic techniques that cannot possibly compete with modern big-agriculture. However, they would be wrong. Organic agriculture simply means the lack of chemicals being sprayed on crops as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides as well as a lack of artificial laboratory-borne genetic manipulation.

It does not, however, mean other means of boosting efficiency cannot be used such as automation, precision irrigation, sensors, data loggers, solar energy, and other methods new and old, high-tech and low-tech.

At a Phetchaburi organic workshop, a local network of organic farmers converged to impart their knowledge on other farmers and prospective farmers. Most remarkable about this network is the age of most of the farmers, many of whom are in their 50s and 60s. Despite their age, they have shown mental flexibility first in moving away from the widely practiced chemical farming that takes place nationwide to go organic, and second in incorporating various forms of technology to improve the efficiency of their organic agriculture.

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1. Onsite Organic Fertilizer Production

During the 3-day workshop, several farmers presented various methods of producing onsite organic fertilizer.

One of the biggest costs for farmers using chemicals is fertilizer. This is bought in copious amounts and often, by the encouragement of suppliers, over-applied to fields at both the cost of the the farmers’ bank accounts and the health of their crops. Indeed, over-applying fertilizer can be just as bad as under-applying it.

ใช้นะEveryone knows about composting, but few know how to actually do it properly. The workshop showed attendees how to compost in a variety of ways, as well as how to produce fertilizer using vermiculture. 

With onsite organic fertilizer production, not only is the cost of fertilizer negated, but because there is often excess fertilizer on hand, it can be sold as an additional source of income.

Methods of producing organic compost presented by the network included composting and vermiculture (worm farming). Biogas production (mentioned later) also creates as a byproduct a rich organic fertilizer.

2. Integrated Fertilizer + Irrigation

Having organic fertilizer produced onsite is great, but what about getting it out into your fields? Farmers from the network have developed an integrated fertilizing and irrigation solution that allows maximum control of both water and fertilizer application by mixing fertilizer in with irrigation water when needed.

535079_696082983827438_5152880086802024170_nWater pumps that include mixers for fertilizer allow farmers to automate and more precisely apply both water and fertilizer, cutting costs and providing plants no more and no less than they need for optimal growth.

Irrigation can also be automated with timers, with farmers needing only to check to make sure the timers and pumps are working as required.

3. Onsite Water Storage

Automated watering and integrated fertilizer production only works if you have water to begin with. Aside from water released by the government through a national irrigation system, many farmers are beginning to see the merit of onsite storage of water.

Farmers in the network often construct cheap concrete towers using cement pipe sections stacked one atop another up to 6 meters tall to store and distribute water as needed at various locations throughout their farms. Water can be collected during rains or when released into irrigation canals and stored when water is scarce (during droughts).

1462187362129Simple DIY water towers for storage/irrigation.

4. Solar Powered Pumps

Scattering water tanks across your farm may seem like a good idea until you realize to fill them and to distribute water to your crops from them, you will need electrical lines to connect to pumps, or you must use gas-powered pumps. That is, unless you have solar powered water pumps. Farmers in the network have begun using solar power to generate electricity to operate various systems across their farms where power lines do not reach and independence from petrol is desired.

5. Biogas + Biodiesel

Despite the utility of solar power, cooking gas and fuel for motorized ploughs and other farming equipment is still a necessity. Biogas is a means of waste management for organic leftovers, using bacteria to convert organic waste into flammable methane which can be used as a reliable daily source of cooking gas, with the “digested” byproduct consisting of a rich odorless organic fertilizer that can be used in the fields.

12313800_926562080793857_7486666032275278621_nDropping costs of solar power equipment is making it easier for farmers to use electricity in remote areas local power lines don’t reach, making it a perfect solution for automated irrigation systems used extensively by the organic network. 

Biodiesel is a fuel derived from vegetable oils that can be used in place of petroleum based diesel fuel. Farmers from the network explained the process of producing it and deemed it a necessary skill to learn for when energy prices once again spike after the current artificial lull in prices ends.

12823232_1690838574527489_6990381943858000044_oIn the background, a simple biogas production system for a single house. It produces enough cooking gas to meet a family’s daily needs. It also produces organic fertilizer as a byproduct which is used for the raised bed in the foreground and elsewhere on the farm. 

Biogas reduces dependency on cooking gas suppliers, while biodiesel reduces dependency petroleum-based fuels. Independence and self-sufficiency are two recurring principles that the network encourages, and that if adhered to can lead to better results, and reduced costs meaning more profits for each farmer.

The Power of Organic Networks

The greatest aspect of this organic network is that it arose from farmers simply talking with each other, collaborating, and becoming determined to share their knowledge with others. In the process of doing so, they’ve also been able to find and fulfill new markets for their products without the need for “middlemen” taking a cut for themselves. In an age where localized farming has begun to pose a serious threat to established industrial-scale farming, being organized, collaborating, and creating large networks is a good way to be strong enough to head off confrontations, exploitation, and abuse before it even happens.

PhetchaburiFarmersMarketThe network not only collaborates in training others to become organic farmers, but also combines their resources to organize regular farmers’ markets and find customers, i.e. hotels and restaurants locally interested in a steady stream of locally produced organic food.

When setbacks do occur, farmers need not depend on only themselves to bounce back, but have a whole network lending them support.

Chances are you have organic farmers living near you. They are innovators who regularly think outside the box and generally have a true passion for what they do. They are likely to want to share their knowledge and experience with anyone who will hear them, and there is a good chance that you too, can organize similar networks and workshops where you live.

Brian Berletic writes for Follow on Facebook here or on Twitter here.

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