Wes Jarrell discusses the principles of organic agriculture at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference. He and his wife, Leslie Cooperband, own Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.
Wes Jarrell discusses the principles of organic agriculture at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference. He and his wife, Leslie Cooperband, own Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Implementing the properties of organic agricultural systems is an important step toward being successful.

Wes Jarrell, who, along with his wife, Leslie Cooperband, own Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery in Champaign, discussed those properties and the principals of organic agriculture at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference.

They cultivate about 350 organic fruit trees and several hundred berry bushes and operate Illinois’ first farmstead cheese-making facility on a 22-acre farm just outside Champaign.

The couple’s 70-plus Nubian and La Mancha milk goats, fed on a diet of rotationally grazed pastures and homegrown hay, provide milk for a variety of fresh French-style cheeses, including fresh chèvre, bloomy rind cheeses and a raw milk tomme-style cheese.

Jarrell opened his presentation with a summary of some of the organic high points over the last 80 years, adding that James Northbourne, in his book, Look to the Land , published in 1940, made the first known written reference to “organic farming.”

“In the long run, the results of attempting to substitute chemical farming for organic farming will very probably prove far more deleterious than has yet become clear,” Northbourne wrote. “And it is perhaps worth pointing out that the artificial manure industry is very large and well organized. Its propaganda is subtle, and artificials will die hard.

“The farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life.”

Prior to that, Albert Howard published The Waste Products of Agriculture in 1932. He is considered by many as the father of modern organic agriculture.

“Sir Albert Howard was working in India looking at recycling organic waste for farming,” said Jarrell, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “He did an incredible job developing integrated holistic systems that did a highly effective job of recycling nutrients and carbon and getting it back into the ground.

“He’s not just talking about better yields. He’s talking about the whole quality of life for all of the farmers.”

Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association of England in 1942, said at the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements conference in 1977, “There are two motivations behind an ecological approach — one is based on self interest, however, enlightened, i.e. when consideration of other species is taught solely because on that depends the survival of our own.

“The other motivation springs from a sense that the biota is a whole, of which we are a part, and that the other species which compose it and helped to create it are entitled to existence in their own right. This is the wholeness approach, and it is my hope and belief that this is what we, as a federation, stand for.”

“Obviously, a systems approach is what they’re talking about and that we could suffer when we only concentrate on bits and pieces of the system and don’t make an effort to look at the whole system. That includes the farmer, the farmer’s family, the community and everything else,” Jarrell said.

Through the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established standards for crop and livestock production.

“That’s the way we have to do it because that’s how we can actually enforce and establish these kinds of guidelines,” Jarrell said. “That said, the overall feeling certainly was this was a holistic approach that are supposed to keep in mind at all times.

“We have to be careful about getting too embedded in the rules without remembering that we’re really trying to create an integrated system, which is a lot harder.”

The properties of successful organic agricultural systems are:

n Building soil organic matter through recycling all available nutrients, use low-till and low soil disturbance, keep roots alive and active as long as possible and having deep and shallow root systems;

n Products healthy for animals and humans;

n Resilient to climatic variability through diverse growth habits — vegetative pasture, perennials and annuals — and enhances soil structure utilizing infiltration, retention and plant-available water;

n Diverse subsystems in time and space with multiple cropping systems, diverse vegetables and pastures, along with rotating cover crops and other crops;

n Resilient to pest and disease damage through diverse crops, natural enemies, resistant plants and healthy plants;

n Efficient nutrient, carbon and water use by recycling organic products and keeping soils covered to avoid runoff; and

n Enhances communities and society in general by educating about food, ecology and systems and sharing food with others.

“These are things that you all do if you are in the business. If you’re looking to come into the business, you need learn about these things and start practicing them,” Jarrell said.

He noted the economic impact, referring to Richard Merrill’s book, Radical Agriculture , that included eco-pioneer Jerry Goldstein’s notion of what part of each dollar spent on organically-produced food should mean.

Goldstein said such an investment results in less money for pesticides and fertilizers, more money for farmers and farm workers and more jobs with adequate compensation on farms growing crops by labor-intensive organic methods.

It also would mean more economic incentives to bring composted wastes from city to farmland, more economic support for small entrepreneurs, more demand for personal services and less for mass-distributed, environmentally hazardous products and more incentives to have local farmers supply the local market, according to Goldstein.

“We should worry about the organic matter in the soil, recycling organic matter and making organic systems whole, but we should also think about organic as the organism in managing our farms,” Jarrell said. “The organism of the planet is also the organism of our farm and how can we make those pieces of the organism work.”

He closed with a quote from Albert Howard’s introduction in the 1945 book, Pay Dirt , that “the remedy is to look at the whole field covered by crop production, animal husbandry, food, nutrition and health as one related subject and then to realize the great principal — the birthright of every crop, every animal and every human being is health.”