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Introduction to Biological Farming

By Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand

The following is an excerpt from the book, The Biological Farmer, 2nd edition, and is reprinted
with permission from the publisher.

How can farming be profitable? With input costs soaring and returns declining, problems on the farm seem to be getting out of hand. The business of farming is very confusing, with such complex questions as: Who do I trust for information and advice? What methods will work on my farm? What products should I buy? What level of spending is profitable? Can I make improvements? Do I have limiting factors? Is my method of farming harming the environment? Are my soils eroding? Is my method of farming sustainable for future generations? How much time will it take to get my soils to maximum health and production? Do I believe it is possible?

Biological farm in Wisconsin
Biological farming utilizes resources of both science and nature in a superior farming system.

I recommend taking a commonsense, basic approach to farming. There are ways to reduce your input costs and increase your profits while at the same time improving the health of your soil and livestock. I call it biological farming. It utilizes resources of both science and nature in a superior farming system. Biological farming works with natural laws, not against them.

Widespread and serious man-made ecological destruction — degraded air, water, soil, and food — tells us that methods which try to overpower nature will fail in the long run. Biological farming is a systems approach, a set of commonsense practices that can reduce erosion, reduce disease and insect pressure, alter weed pressure, and produce high-yielding crops. A complete biological farming program accomplishes these feats by feeding the soil and managing for a diverse and dynamic soil microbial community.

What Makes a Successful Biological Farmer?

Skilled biological farmers learn how to take care of soil life — they nurture it, feed it a balanced diet, and use the proper tillage tools and methods to enhance it. Farmers must also understand proper use of livestock manure, compost, and cover crops. They learn how to evaluate soil for its health, tilth, and soil life. Biological farmers learn how to evaluate crops and roots and look for plant deficiencies as well as comprehending the whys and hows of insect, disease, and weed indicators. Finally, biological farmers develop an understanding of fertilizers and soil fertility, the methods to balance soils, and the proper use of fertilizers. Biological farmers learn the when, how, and what of fertilizer use for soil correction, feeding soil life, balancing nutrients, and feeding the crop with the proper balance of soluble and slow-release materials buffered with carbon for long-term exchangeability.

Three important parts of your soil are:

  1. The organic particles that serve as a reservoir of plant foods,
  2. The minerals, and
  3. The living portion, consisting of bacteria, fungi, algae, and larger organisms such as earthworms.

These organisms are alive and need air, water, organic matter (food), and a safe place to live. Work with them, because the productivity of your farm is in direct proportion to the number, activity, and balance of soil organisms.

Sustainability is a key factor in becoming a biological farmer. Ensuring that your program is sustainable means that soil erosion is stopped, soil tilth is ideal, soil nutrient balance is correct, and soil life is abundant (in many soils a good measure is a minimum of twenty-five earthworms per cubic foot of soil). Sustainability to you as a farmer means you maximize crop production while maintaining soil fertility levels and minimizing disease and insect problems year after year as long as you have good growing conditions with proper moisture and degree growing days.

Hands holding a clump of soil with an earthworm in it.
Abundant soil life is a key element for the biological farm.

Balance is the key, not only for economic reasons but for ecological reasons as well. It is essential to provide all elements to your crops and to soil organisms in the proper balance. An excess of some nutrients can be as limiting as deficiencies of others. Agronomists and soil scientists have written that at least 20 elements are needed to grow plants. The productivity of a soil can never be greater than the plant food element in least supply. You need to make these nutrients “exchangeable,” or available to the roots of the plant. Because nutrients can interact, too much of one element can lead to too little of another, even though it appears there is enough on a soil test. Managing your soil and crops to produce large root systems that will recover the nutrients, plus working with soil organisms to make nutrients available and exchangeable, can make farming fun and profitable.

Common questions about biological concepts include:

  • Do we have to add all 20 elements plants need to the soil?
  • Do we need to return minerals to the soil in the amount that we remove?
  • What types of fertilizer materials should we apply for greatest efficiency and return?
  • How much should be applied for maximum return? When and where should I put them?
  • Should we use all-soluble materials (conventional fertilizers) or provide slow release with more natural, complete fertilizers?
  • What are the benefits of soil nutrient balance?
  • What about calcium, magnesium, sulfur, and trace elements?
  • Do I really need cover crops?
  • How do I best manage residues?
  • What is the best way to handle livestock manure?
  • Where do biologicals, growth stimulants, and plant hormones fit in?
  • Can I use herbicides, insecticides, and biotechnology on my farm?
  • What about feed quality and livestock health? How do we measure them, and how do we attain them?

In this book, I will answer these and other questions about successful biological farming practices.

To keep reading about biological farming – get your copy of Gary Zimmer’s The Biological Farmer today!

About the Author

Gary Zimmer teaches a group outside in a field on his farm
Gary Zimmer teaching biological farming at the 2022 On-Farm Intensive in Lone Rock, Wisconsin.

Gary Zimmer was given the label of “father” of biological agriculture for his work introducing
soil biology as a critical piece of soil management, during a time when minerals and chemistry
were the only real considerations. Zimmer owns Otter Creek Organic Farm, a family-operated,
award-winning 1,000 acre farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin, and has been on the board of
Taliesin Preservation Inc. since 2011. Zimmer is the author of several books, including The Biological
 and Advancing Biological Farming, as well as numerous articles on soils and livestock nutrition.

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