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  A Publication of UVM Extension's Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program

Transitioning to Organic Crop Production

by Vern Grubinger
Vegetable and Berry Specialist
University of Vermont Extension

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 organic farm.

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, ctnofa@ctnofa.org, www.ctnofa.org
MOFGA* (207) 568-4142, mofga@mofga.org, www.mofga.org
NOFA Massachusetts: (978) 355-2853, nofa@nofamass.org, www.nofamass.org
NOFA New Hampshire (603) 224-5022, nofanh@innevi.com, www.nofanh.org
NOFA New Jersey: (609) 737-6848, nofanj@aol.com, www.nofanj.org
NOFA New York: (607) 652-NOFA,office@nofany.org, www.nofany.org
NOFA Rhode Island: (401) 364-0050, nofari@nofari.org, www.nofari.org
NOFA Vermont: (802) 434-4122, info@nofavt.org, www.nofavt.org
PCO* (814) 364-1344, pco@paorganic.org, www.paorganic.org

*Northeast Organic Farming Assn.
*Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assn.
*Pennsylvania Certified Organic

Published: December 2006
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