Mini-Farming: A Sustainable Farming System
George Kuepper, Kerr Center/ATTRA.
During the mid-1970s, an interesting alternative production system was gaining both notice and respect. It was referred to as the French-Intensive/Biodynamic method, because it shared techniques and philosophies from both these European farming systems. In more recent years, the name has evolved to Biointensive Mini-Farming [BIMF]. A mini-farm is small. It looks like a large, diverse garden, with an arrangement of raised beds and paths rather than traditional rows. Equipment, such as rototillers, tractors and plows, is totally absent. [hand tools and hand implements are used: wheel hoes, string trimmers, etc. KH] BIMF is an organic system. Synthetic pesticides and commercial fertilizers are not used. Its organic character means less pollution of the environment and a more stable agroecosystem, where natural, biological control agents proliferate. Beds and the paths between them become permanent. Growers avoid walking on finished beds to reduce compaction. Likewise, no fertilizer, water or extensive tillage is wasted on paths.
Beds are fertilized routinely with large quantities of compost and supplements with other natural fertilizers if needed. The proper production and use of compost is paramount to maintaining soil fertility. BIMF permits the use of manures but depends mainly on vegetation-based compost. Proponents feel heavy reliance on manures creates nutrient imbalances (Jeavons1979).
On the other hand, a great variety of vegetation can be grown on-site. Even in urban situations, an abundance of plant materials, such a leaves, grass clippings and kitchen scraps is usually available. Double-digging and concentrating fertility into beds allows for high population of crops. Companion planting is also used to maximize space and gain added pest control and fertility (Philbrick and Gregg, 1966). Potential of BIMF Since BIMF needs little land or capital, it has been of particular interest to agencies that aid subsistence farmers in developing countries. It has also captured the imagination of many gardeners in industrialized nations. Some believe BIMF may effectively address many of the ills of modern commercial agriculture both in the United States and abroad. Certain characteristics of the system lend credence to these assertions.
BIMF is highly productive and has been found to grow two to four times as much food per unit area as conventional agriculture. Cucumber yields have ranged from 9 to 15 times the national average. Carrots have not exceeded 2.5 times the national average in 17 years of evaluation. Of course, the skill of the grower and the fertility of the beds are relevant factors (Jeavons, 1989). Jeavons (1976) estimated that one mini-farmer working 40-45 hours per week could produce enough food for 24 people on about three-quarters of an acre. These figures came from attempts to provide a complete diet using BIMF in northern California. Researchers at Janus Farms Institute in the Piedmont region of North Carolina have reached comparable results (S Jamir, 1994, personal communication).
BIMF requires fewer off-farm inputs. Many practitioners rely only on compost. Those who employ other fertilizers use half the amount of organic nitrogen typically applied. Compared to conventional American systems, BIMF uses 1/3 to 1/31 the amount of water per pound food produced. After a balanced soil is achieved, BIMF also conserves energy. It consumes 1/100 or less the human and mechanical energy of mechanized farming (Vesechy, 1986). BIMF wastes little. Nutrients are recycled through the composting of all crop waste. Cover crops, plant diversity and limited tilled ground ensures little loss of soil and nutrients to erosion and leaching. BIMF practices also have the potential to build soils for long-term production. Research has shown that 500 years worth of humified soil carbon, a major indicator of fertility and soil maturation, may be accumulated in as little as eight and a half years. Furthermore, this increase in soil carbon may be accomplished by employing a closed system in which a portion of the crop is grown specifically for making compost (Jeavons, 1989).
Capital requirements are one of the most significant barriers to entry in modern agriculture. BIMF uses small areas, does not need expensive irrigation equipment, avoids the purchase of petroleum-fueled cultivation and harvesting machinery and reduces expenses for annual inputs. As a result, it is an enterprise accessible to those with limited financial and land resources. In order to keep stewards on the land, agriculture must supply them with an adequate standard of living. By one estimate, a grower might be able to net US$10,000 to US$20,000 annually (1978 dollars) on a 1/10 acre mini-farm, working a 40 hour week and taking up to four months vacation (Jeavons, 1979). [Average gross in l998 is $8,000 per acre. A family can garden 3-6 acres. KH] Trends that might favor the growth of BIMF include the heightened interest in locally grown and organic foods. The continued rise of farmers markets, health food outlets and community-supported-agriculture projects represent marketing options for mini-farmers. Increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains also favors this system.
Jeff Rast, Countryside, Nov/Dec 98
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Using a closed system is not necessary when other sources of organic materials are available such as : manure, sawdust, food waste, etc. All the above applies to mini-ranching, as well, with beds producing forages for animals. KH BIMA boasts two advantages which no other production system can claim. First, it is easier on the soil than mechanized methods. Second, it is the least expensive method in terms of capital outlay. For very small farms [mini-farms] this method is not only economically viable but superior to the alternatives.