Making Organic Agriculture Accessible to Low-Income Farmers 

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TACOMA, Washington — The organic farming movement began in response to growing awareness of the consequences of industrial farming. Organic agriculture claims organic methods like crop rotation and organic fertilization can promote biodiversity and enhance soil quality to promote healthy crop growth.

Brief History of Industrial Agriculture

Industrial agriculture began in the early 1900s to satiate the food demands of the world’s exponentially expanding population. Chemical fertilizer and pesticides promised greater crop production per acre of land. The availability of specialized synthetic inputs and advances in agricultural mechanization encouraged monoculture practices, which is only planting one crop species at a time. In tandem with urbanization, the industrialized world’s predominant food system departed from many rural small-scale farms to a few large-scale monoculture farms.

Impacts of Industrial Agriculture

Experts anticipate that the global food demand could approximately double by 2050. But by 2050, the Earth may no longer tolerate industrial agriculture practices. The introduction of synthetic elements into food production systems has various adverse consequences on the environment and the economy. Runoff from nitrogen fertilizers pollutes waterways. This can cause eutrophication, defined as excessive nutrients increasing the growth of plant matter but negatively affecting animal species. It necessitates expensive filtration processes to create drinkable water.

Unabsorbed nitrogen from fertilizers forms nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, which contribute to air pollution and atmospheric temperature. Applying chemical fertilizers in place of organic matter can cause soil acidification. Monoculture practices deplete the soil of nutrients, decrease drought resistance and make farmland more susceptible to erosion. These consequences of industrial agriculture can hinder crop growth and reduce long-term land productivity.

In addition, overreliance on specialized synthetic pesticides has proven ineffective. Pests rapidly reproduce and adapt to chemicals, creating the need to continuously develop stronger chemicals to suppress such pests in a process called the “pesticide treadmill.”

Organic Agriculture and Low-Income Farmers

In response to increasing awareness of industrial farming’s consequences, the organic farming movement gained traction. Organic farming prohibits synthetic inputs and reduces overall pollution due to the absence of excessive chemical runoff and dissolution into the atmosphere. Prioritizing soil health in organic farming may increase long-term crop growth, yield and quality. Overall energy costs for organic farms are typically less than for industrial farms. Furthermore, the organic label premium financially supports organic farmers.

Regardless, the upfront costs of organic farming remain prohibitive for many low-income farmers. The time and labor required to produce compost are significant obstacles in adopting organic agriculture. Making compost from organic matter can take two months or longer. In addition, compost requires regular aeration to ensure the survival of essential microorganism colonies. This kind of labor and time often isn’t plausible for low-income farmers who require quick returns on investment.

The Compost Tea Project

In response to these obstacles, the Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineers (DHE) undertook the Compost Tea Project. DHE is a student group at Dartmouth College dedicated to humanitarian aid projects. Compost tea extracts microorganisms and soluble nutrients from small amounts of compost steeped in water. It introduces the benefits of compost to farming systems but requires far less in quantity. This, in turn, saves farmers time and labor.

Compost tea systems existed before the DHE adopted the Compost Tea Project as a key component of organic hydroponic agriculture. Jack Sadoff, a Dartmouth College student in the class of 2021 and a member of the Compost Tea Project team, spoke with The Borgen Project. He explained that the DHE’s goal was to “boil down” existing compost tea systems into an affordable practice that is “easy for anybody to use whether it’s for their own backyard garden or supplying larger farms.”

The compost tea process takes fewer than three days and two cups of fertilizer. To create its compost tea system, the DHE attaches an aquarium pump to the bottom of a bucket and fits a PVC pipe perpendicular to the base. Team members fill the bucket with water, throw in a couple of handfuls of compost and turn on the aquarium pump to aerate the system. Nutrients seep out of the organic material and create organic liquid fertilizer that can be used to water crops. Sadoff says the materials used to create the system only costs around $50-75 at a typical home improvement or pet store.

Compost Tea in Action

In the course of the Compost Tea project, the DHE collaborated with an NGO in Quito, Ecuador called ConQuito. ConQuito supports sustainable economic growth in its namesake city and surrounding areas. The organization promotes food growth in urban areas as a means to make fresh and healthy food accessible, generate income and employment and promote environmental management. Students on the Compost Tea Project team traveled to Ecuador with their system and introduced it to farms associated with ConQuito.

The Compost Tea Project struggles to tweak its system to use materials locally available to low-income and rural farmers. Distribution logistics also pose a challenge to the team. “I think actually a pretty big trend across… humanitarian engineering projects is you deliver these products into an environment where they’re needed, but the need’s not super obvious or the people aren’t adequately educated on how to use it or how to maintain it,” says Sadoff.

To continue doing as much good as possible, the DHE plans to write a user-manual as one of the next steps for the Compost Tea Project, and it hopes to continue to partner with regional NGOs like ConQuito to discover and assess the benefits of compost tea systems within communities of low-income farmers.

– Avery Saklad
Photo: Flickr

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