As a concept and ideal, organic agriculture began in the early part of the twentieth century, primarily in Europe, but also in the United States. The pioneers of the early organic movement were motivated by a desire to reverse the perennial problems of agriculture – erosion, soil depletion, decline of crop varieties, low quality food and livestock feed, and rural poverty. They embraced a holistic notion that the health of a nation built on agriculture is dependent on the long-term vitality of its soil. The soil’s health and vitality were believed to be embodied in its biology and in the organic soil fraction called humus. A soil management strategy called humus farming emerged, which employed traditional farming practices that not only conserved but also regenerated the soil. These practices – drawn from mainly from stable European and Asian models – included managing crop residues, applying animal manures, composting, green manuring, planting perennial forages in rotation with other crops, and adding lime and other natural rock dusts to manage pH and ensure adequate minerals.
Since the strategy revolved around soil building to nourish crops, “feed the soil” became the humus farming mantra. “Feeding the soil” meant feeding the soil food web. The soil food web is the living fraction of the soil, composed of bacteria, fungi, earthworms, insects, and a host of other organisms that digest organic matter and “meter” nutrition to crop plants. This contrasts with the (then emerging) strategy of using soluble fertilizers, which bypass the soil food web to fertilize plants directly. Humus farmers typically avoided, or used very few, synthetic fertilizers. Obviously, they were not consistent with the idea of crop fertilization through the soil food web. Humus farmers felt that soluble fertilizers led to imbalanced plant nutrition and “luxury consumption,” which reduced food and feed quality. Many also believed that many synthetic fertilizers actually harmed the soil biology – either killing organisms or upsetting the natural balance. They also saw this danger in the use of pesticides, and chose to use few, if any, of those. Still other humus farmers recognized that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides would lead to shortcuts in crop rotation – eliminating many of the soil building and pest control benefits that good rotations confer. The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, especially, would reduce the inclusion of perennial legume forages and green manure crops in cropping sequences. These crops not only supplied nitrogen to subsequent crops in rotation, but sustained soil biology and organic matter levels. Wherever synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were used to cut corners on biodiversity and soil building, they were in direct opposition to the principles of humus farming.
Humus farming, then, was a conscious, wellfounded approach to farming and soil management. It embodied a commitment to sustainability through soil regeneration; it sought to avoid wasteful exploitation of natural resources. This was in stark contrast to many of the world’s agricultural systems, which, in so many cases, led to the downfall of nations through mismanagement of resources. It puts a lie to the commonly held notion that organic agriculture is simply farming as it was practiced before the advent of synthetic chemicals.
* From A Brief Overview of the History and Philosophy of Organic Agriculture, by George Kuepper, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, 2010