I feed the soil, says Mihai. Moldovan farmer adopts principles of organic agriculture to care for the futurePublished: Jul 25, 2017 Reading time: 4 minutes
We are standing on top of the gorge of the Reut river, in a spot which could easily qualify as the most beautiful agricultural field in Moldova. Mihai Gaspar, the lucky owner of this special farming location, says that he smelled and felt this land long before he got the chance to become a farmer here. Indeed, he seems to know very well why he chose this place. “Do you see the hill over there?” he says while pointing at a little hump behind his field. “The Turks buried their treasure there when they were running away.”
So far, Mihai keeps the golden coins in the ground. He realizes that his real treasure is chernozem - the naturally humus-rich soil that allows him to grow almost any type of crops. In a world in which up to one third of fertile arable land has been lost to severe degradation, his fields are of a great value.
Peak soil in Moldova?
Unfortunately, Moldova’s superb soils are no exception to the global trend of soil degradation: “No-one knows exactly the state of our soils,” says the soil scientist and godfather of agro-ecology in Moldova Boris Boincean. “It might be that we are approaching a critical point in Moldova already. Unless we start investing in our chernozem now, food production for the next generations might be at risk,” he adds.
Under the industrial farming system based on the production of annual crops such as wheat, sunflower and corn, current yields are maintained through synthetic fertilizer applications. Minimum efforts are made to increase soil organic matter and to improve soil structure – the basic pre-conditions for a healthy soil eco-system.
“In terms of sustainability of Moldovan agriculture, the major obstacle is that animal farms got separated from plant production and their volume decreased dramatically under the pressure of milk and meat imports from other countries. You can barely see a cow in Moldova nowadays,” says Boris Boincean. His deep concern refers to the fact that plants that are used to feed animals (so called forage crops) - many of which actually nurture soils - are not part of the conventional crop rotation anymore because they lost their commercial value. In addition, there is lack of animal manure to be returned to soil as organic matter. This situation could stand as a typical example of how global food market defines what grows on a farmer’s field and how. Unfortunately, market forces do not always play along with cycles in nature.
Making a difference
After years of experience in conventional farming, Mihai is testing an alternative. Like several other farmers, he has been collaborating with Czech-based INGO People in Need and the Czech company PROBIO on converting his farming system to organic production.
Organic agriculture, promoted by People in Need through several projects funded by USAID and Czech Development Agency, adopts a more holistic approach to the production of arable crops. Instead of external nitrogen fertilizers which are not permitted under the certification scheme, it includes plants in the crop rotation, which can fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. These crops, such as alfalfa, are no novelty for a Moldovan farmer, yet its cultivation has decreased in the last two decades due to reasons outlined earlier.
Mihai also does not own any livestock but he did include alfalfa in the crop rotation this year to “feed the soil”, as he says. Clearly, he sees the production of this crop primarily as an investment into his soil but he also tries to sell the harvest to small cow-owners in the region.
His motivation to convert to organic production is simple. Mihai believes that the transition of his farm to organic production is a good investment for the future of his grandsons. “It’s good for health and I think that the EU will invest in organic agriculture so it presents a future for the next generation,” he says.
Today, we meet the grandsons running around the farm playing hide and seek behind the tractors. They live in Kishinev with their parents and come to their grandfather’s farm for the weekends. Yet, if you ask the older one, what he wants become he says resolutely: ‘director of a farm’.
The future will show whether the grandson will prefer farming to comfortable life in the capital. Yet already today, in the name of wellbeing of the next generation, Mihai Gaspar is taking small steps to prevent further degradation of what feeds the mankind. People in Need together with PROBIO, Czech Development Agency and USAID will keep supporting farmers like Mihai Gaspar to convert their farms to organic production.