Organics and Biological Husbandry at Lincoln

March 2014

Bob Crowder is a teacher at the Biological Husbandry Unit at Lincoln University

Student demand for alternative and organic methods of horticulture led to the setting up of the Biological Husbandry Unit in 1976.  Bob Crowder was the driving force behind it and had numerous battles and many successes in managing it through to the 1990s.  The unit now teaches two one-year organic agriculture courses to around 40 students per year, houses the Future Farming Centre which supports and promotes permanent and whole-system agricultures and horticultures, such as organic agriculture and biological farming, and runs a supporting farm. 

Bob Crowder came to New Zealand from the UK in 1963 with an honours degree in conventional horticulture.  After four years with MAF he went to Lincoln to lecture in vegetable production, and carried out research using conventional herbicides, precision seeding and mechanisation.  During a sabbatical in the UK in the mid-70s he became enthusiastic about incorporating more practice into the horticulture curriculum.

Back in New Zealand in the midst of the first energy crisis students were asking why they were not being taught about sustainability, organic agriculture and horticulture, how to do things with fewer inputs and how to look after the environment.

“I was also disillusioned with the pathway of agriculture at the time – mechanisation, the depopulation of the countryside and the degradation of the environment, so I listened. Lincoln was very conservative in those days but luckily I had some land at my disposal in the horticultural research area and that’s where it all started,” says Bob.  “We tucked ourselves away in a corner and did our thing.”

That was because in the mid-70s the idea of organic agriculture was often treated with much derision, and people all around the world who were interested in organics felt embarrassed to be associated with that word.  In the USA they adopted the terms eco-agriculture and agro-ecology while in the UK they opted for biological husbandry.  Bob went with the latter, and established Lincoln’s Biological Husbandry Unit.  Nevertheless, he was considered eccentric by some colleagues.

That started to change, he says, in the 1980s when Federated Farmers and the MAF got strongly behind organics.   The BHU became better known amongst the Christchurch community who backed it and came to field days in vast numbers.

“The 80s in New Zealand was the golden age for organics, a very exciting time. We realised we had to inspect farms to ensure that they came up to fundamental standards, and certify the land as organic so that consumers knew that they weren’t being defrauded. This was backed by the Ministry of Agriculture, and I was involved with the inspections and the establishment of the Biogro certification process,” he says.

“In 1988 we had a very exciting conference on organic agriculture at Lincoln, and so many people wanted to attend that we thought we were going to have to restrict the numbers. That’s when the then Vice Chancellor decided to extend the domain of the BHU to 10 ha and give us enough money to employ a technician devoted entirely to organics.”

Bob was elected to the board of IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), which led to the holding of their conference at Lincoln in 1994.  More than 800 delegates from around the world attended.

He retired in the late 90s but has continued to be involved with teaching and lectures to students from time to time.  While he is disappointed that some interest in organic farming and certification has waned in the past decade he is heartened by the fact that many principles and ideas from the organic movement are now being incorporated into conventional farming.

“Many farmers are moving away from conventional agriculture and they have taken good lessons from our book in that they are subverting agriculture because many of them look at their techniques and accept that they have been doing it wrong all this time.  They take the best parts of the organic movement without actually ever saying thanks,” says Bob.

“This is one of the crosses we have to bear after years of being ridiculed as “muck and mystery merchants” etc.  They are now starting to accept that pretty much all of the principles and fundamentals that we have been advocating for the last 40 years are in fact based on good science, better than the science that told them to use chemicals and poisons in the environment.”

“Thankfully, most of the chemicals, fertilisers and poisons that conventional agriculture uses do break down into harmless components over time, and if you enhance the biological activity of your environment you actually can hasten that breakdown.  However, the effects of genetic engineering won’t be so easy to reverse. We are already importing feeds for cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs which are derived from genetically modified material and that material is now circulating through our environment.   The general opinion is that we’ve got it for good.”

“And if we keep on with intensive agriculture as we are doing now then I think we are throwing away a golden opportunity to add value to our products by growing them in an environment that is sustainable and self-sufficient.  People don’t seem to think that the world’s environment is in any particular danger, but I’m afraid they are in for a rude awakening.”

Bill Martin is the manager of the BHU’s Organic Training College.  He says they teach the equivalent of 40 full-time students each year.  Many come from the Canterbury area, some from elsewhere in the country and a few from overseas.

The College provides Lincoln University and NZQA based qualifications through Lincoln, and offers three main programmes:

  • Introduction to organics, a year-long course that can be done on site or by correspondence
  • Applied organics, also a year-long course in which students get to use land and facilities at the BHU farm to grow their own crops
  • Stepping stone programme – graduates of the first two courses can gain experience in using their knowledge commercially by leasing land on the BHU farm and paying a small proportion of sales back to the Unit.   They can do that for up to 2 years.

On-site courses can be done part-time or full-time, and the distance programme is part-time over a year and includes a block course where students come to the unit for a week and make compost heaps, plant trees and use the farm as a living laboratory. Fees are subsidized, and none of the courses costs more than $500.

Bill Martin says that organic agriculture is much more than simply replacing conventional inputs with organic ones.

“In terms of the big picture, organics is about designing a system to optimise rather than maximise production and also to reduce your footprint. We teach people here, such as biological farmers, who are not necessarily into organics totally but we view anybody who takes up sustainable farming principles and practices as a success. That’s moving in the direction that we want to move in, reducing the footprint and doing things in an ecological manner that leads to a more sustainable environment,” he says.

“Students come from a variety of backgrounds.  Generally they are older than the average university student and their time is important to them so they are pretty committed and diligent students. Often they have already had careers, some had been keen gardeners while others haven’t had any experience in gardening or grown anything before in their lives. However, they are always interested in sustainable farming and gardening practices.”

A unique feature of the College is that it offers the option for students to use its land and facilities. The courses give them theoretical knowledge and practical experience but don’t necessarily give them the confidence to go into organic production as a business.

“For our demographic of student, that might mean giving up a part-time job or borrowing money to invest in or to lease land, and so on so it’s quite a big commitment.   Two years on the stepping stone programme, where they are essentially self-employed leasing land here, and growing, marketing and selling their own crops around Christchurch, is a real confidence booster,” says Bill.

“We have half a dozen students leasing land and growing and marketing produce. Some of them hadn’t grown anything before they started courses, and after four years they have got their own blocks, they are using tractors and other equipment and running their own operation.”

An example of this is a group of three students their 40’s, Les Paul and Claire, who are working together to grow produce and sell it at their own market at on the Lincoln campus.

Bill sees that interest in organics and biological approaches has increased in recent times as a result of growing environmental awareness.

“For a long time in New Zealand we haven’t had to deal directly with environmental issues, but now we are,” he says.

“I believe that in the next decade the environmental impact of agriculture and its footprint on the environment is going to be embedded in every farmer’s decision making, a bit like health and safety is now.”