There’s a lot of interest in organic agriculture these days, as the
market for organic products continues to grow. According to the Organic
Trade Association in 2005 consumer sales of organic products in the U.S.
increased to $14.6 billion, up more than 17% from the year before. Sales
of organic fruits and vegetables grew by 11% in 2005, to $5.4 billion.
In addition to increasing sales, the number of organic farms has
grown, to well over 8,000 nationwide. These farms have pretty much dispelled
the perception that organic farming is too difficult, too risky, or too
expensive to be practical. Of course, some crops are easier than others
to grow organically.
If you’re considering a switch to organic farming, the 32-page booklet
“Transitioning to Organic Production,” published by the Sustainable Agriculture
Network, can help you sort out the issues. It’s available for free at: www.sare.org/publications/organic.htm or by calling (301) 504-5411. Below are some highlights from that publication.
Before you transition. Think it through carefully. Converting
to organic production is not a decision to take lightly. Examine your motivations
as well as the things you will have to do differently.
Farmers who convert to organic production only for economic reasons
often fail. It may be harder to improve profits than you think, even with
higher prices for your products, because of the production changes that
must occur. The transition period can be particularly difficult because
of the need to develop and implement new management skills. You should
be prepared to deal with short-term financial setbacks if some yields drop
and some costs increase during the transition period.
Does organic fit your philosophy? Successful organic
farmers want to learn how to work with natural systems to solve problems.
This includes implementing relatively complex crop rotations, creating
beneficial insect habitats, and using cultural practices to improve soil
fertility, manage weeds and control pests rather than simply substituting
organically accepted fertilizers and pesticides for conventional materials.
Farmers considering a transition to organic farming should think
about the following questions, drafted by the Ohio Ecological Food and
Farming Association: Do you enjoy walking your fields on a regular basis?
Can you distinguish pests from beneficial insects? Are you curious about
why things happen on your farm? Can you tolerate a field that is not weed
free? Do you have the patience to trade short-term economic returns
for longer-term "ecological" credits while building soil health?
It’s also important to take stock of what resources are available
to help you with the transition. Are there local organic growers you can
work with? How about Extension agents? To whom will you market your organic
products? Is your family supportive of the change?
Getting started. Identify the organic certification
organization that you would likely work with – it’s probably one based
in your state, and get in touch with them to find out about the application
process for certification. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourself
with what practices and materials are allowed and which ones are not under
the national organic standards. (See the National Organic Program web site
for more information: www.ams.usda.gov/nop/).
One of the best ways to prepare to implement organic production techniques,
and avoid reinventing the wheel, is to find out what successful farmers
are doing. One way to do that is to attend organic farming workshops and
conferences. There’s a wealth of these taking place this winter (see below
for organic farming organization contact information).
Soil fertility. Promoting soil health and fertile soil
is a key to organic farming. Organic farms try to avoid reliance on bagged
fertilizer inputs, instead seeking fertility from cover crops, animal manures
and/or compost to enhance the long term capacity of the soil to support
crop growth. Building soil organic matter and improving soil quality is
often cited as the most critical step for a successful conversion to organic
farming. It may take several years for the soil to improve, depending on
its current condition, so start adding organic amendments sooner rather
than later. You can do this well in advance of becoming certified as an
Pest control. Biological pest control is complex, involving
complicated interactions among crop rotations, intercropping combinations,
planting schedules and beneficial habitats. What strategies or systems
are already in place on your farm? What new ones can be implemented?
If these strategies are not enough to minimize pest pressure, there are
organically-allowed pesticides available. Get familiar with what they are,
which pests they are labeled for, and what they cost. The goal of course
is to avoid organic pesticide use as much as possible.
Just like building up your soil fertility, getting to effective pest
control with little or no pesticide use takes time. Existing pest cycles
need to be disrupted, and pest populations reduced. It helps to have a
good understanding of the life cycles of the insects, weeds and diseases
that are present on your farm and what can be done to interrupt these cycles.
IPM practices, such as scouting fields for pests and monitoring insect
populations with pheromone traps where appropriate have an important place
on organic farms. It’s also good to get some experience spotting natural
predators and parasites in the field.
Crop rotation. Rotation is perhaps the most important
management tool in the organic farming toolbox, because it helps address
soil fertility as well as pest management issues. Often the biggest challenges
during transition are maintaining an adequate supply of nitrogen for adequate
crop growth, and keeping weeds under control. Think carefully about how
to accomplish these goals using crops and green manures in a rotation.
With long-term perennial crops, such as tree fruits, rotation is
not an option and that helps explain why these are some of the more challenging
crops to grow organically. In this case, cultural practices such as sanitation
and variety selection become even more important to organic producers.
How best to transition? Some growers experiment with
organic production on a small scale, perhaps a single field or greenhouse,
before deciding whether to pursue certification. That’s probably a good
idea. Other growers take on a few organic practices at a time, such as
use of compost and cover crops, or cultivation and flaming for weed control,
and implement them on all or most of the farm to gain familiarity with
how to best use them. That’s a good idea too. Growers can also go whole
hog and transition the entire farm to organic all at once. That can work
if you’re already familiar with organic practices and markets, and your
systems are most of the way there, but it can be risky if you are changing
many parts of your production system at once.
Some Organic Certification Organizations in the Northeast:
Connecticut NOFA*: (203) 888-5146, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ctnofa.org
MOFGA* (207) 568-4142, email@example.com, www.mofga.org
NOFA Massachusetts: (978) 355-2853, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.nofamass.org
NOFA New Hampshire (603) 224-5022, email@example.com, www.nofanh.org
NOFA New Jersey: (609) 737-6848, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.nofanj.org
NOFA New York: (607) 652-NOFA,email@example.com, www.nofany.org
NOFA Rhode Island: (401) 364-0050, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.nofari.org
NOFA Vermont: (802) 434-4122, email@example.com, www.nofavt.org
PCO* (814) 364-1344, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.paorganic.org
*Northeast Organic Farming Assn.
*Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assn.
*Pennsylvania Certified Organic