Transitioning to Organic Farming


organic farming

Several farmers have requested information on how to transition to organic farming. Organic farms vary from a few vegetable acres to several thousand acres with or without livestock. Klass Marten is a New York organic farmer specializing in grains for milling, farming 1700 acres. Rick Clark is an Illinois/Indiana no-till, cover crop, organic farmer with 7,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay. Organic farming like conventional farms come in all sizes and configurations.

USA organic food production is around 52 billion dollars (2021), up from 27 billion in 2010. Organic production makes up about 6% of overall USA food sales but is produced on about 1% of USA farmland. Farms transitioning to organic production increased about 17% from 2016 to 2019. USA organic food demand has increased about 8% per year with a slight decrease recently due to COVID, inflation, and economic conditions. Australia leads the world in organic production with 8.8% of its land farmed organically, accounting for 54% of all world organic food production. Overall, consumer demand for organic food has been fairly steadily increasing, so premium market prices for organic produce remains high.

If a farmer want s to convert to organic production, there are a number of things to consider. First, it takes 3 years to transition to organic production. During those three years, yields may decrease and generally produce can not be sold as organic until the farm has been fully transitioned and is certified organic. Farmers need to budget for this transitional time period. Sometimes farmers may find alternative regenerative markets for their commodities until they fully transition. Finding new markets for your commodities is a big undertaking. Having a good marketing plan should be one of your first steps.

Second, look at your resources. How much land do you have to devote to organic production? What type of crops or even livestock are you going to grow? Consider things like crop rotation, soil fertility, pests (weeds, insects, diseases), what type of fertilizer do you access to (manure, compost), etc. A big part of organic production is having the right equipment for planting, cultivating, weed control, and harvesting. Also, do not forget organic storage options like grain bins or long-term vegetable storage. Treated lumber is one issue, often overlooked, which is prohibited on organic farms.

Third, good records are required to get certified. Line up an organic certifying agent to help you start the transitioning process. It’s better to get help up front than to make costly mistakes. Always remember that organic produce can not be co-mingled with conventional produce. If you are only transitioning a part of your farm acreage; equipment will need to be cleaned, sanitized, and produced stored separately.

Fourth, pick your land. The best land to transition to organic is often long-term hay fields, long- term pasture, even CRP land if chemicals and fertilizer have not been applied. Weeds are generally a major problem. Some farmers will plow the land the first year, burying the weed seed. Then they no-till and use cover crops to resist weed infestations. Cereal rye, radish, buckwheat, and sorghum cover crop species tend to mulch and suppress weed seed from germinating. Plus, cover crops outcompete weeds for sunlight, nutrients, and water. Cover crops also offer biodiversity for beneficial insects which can help lower pests populations (eat weeds seed, terminate insect predators or disease organisms).

Soil fertility plays a major role in weed species that will grow on your farm. Soil test your farmland and correct nutrient deficiencies before the transition to organic. Each weed is a colonizer of the soil, trying to heal the soil. If you start off with a good pH, generally 6.7-7.0 pH and good fertility especially adequate calcium, your weed problems should be less troublesome. Starting off with fertile soils will lessen insect and disease issues which are attracted to unhealthy plants. When fighting weeds, use new organic herbicides (HARPE) which can burn down weeds along with electric weed zappers, propane weed burners, crimper crop rollers and cultivators to control weeds. While manure is a good organic source of nutrients, it often contains weeds seed. Composting manure helps reduce the manure and weed seed volume.

Farmers often learn from other farmers the best. Before making a transition to organic farming, visit with other beginning organic farmers and learn from their mistakes. There are a number of organic tours and organic organizations which can help. USDA-SARE and USDA-NRCS have numerous governmental fact sheets and publications which have good educational materials. Penn State University, Michigan State University, Cornell University, and other local universities have numerous educational resources and websites that help farmers during the transitioning phase.