Transitioning to Organic Farming


Transitioning to Organic Farming

With low corn, soybean, and milk prices and high input prices for fertilizers and chemicals; some farmers are considering transitioning to organic farming.  It’s a big step and not one easily taken.  Organic farming is not a get rich quick proposition.  Prices for organic corn are around $8/bushel, soybeans $20/bushel, and milk about $23-$25 per hundred pounds.  Organic farming takes a completely different mind-set but there are successful organic farmers. Before you make the jump to organic, do some research.  

To go organic, you have to be efficient at recycling nutrients and controlling pests, especially weeds.  Usually, you’ll need to grow organic forms of nitrogen.  Start your education by visiting some organic farmers to see how they manage their farms.  Look at their entire farming operation and ask questions about farming history.  Ask about soil types, crops, livestock, crop rotation, tillage practices, when do they plant, where do they get their nutrients, and how do they handle pests (weeds, insects, diseases) and equipment. Organic farmers often use rotary hoes and cultivators to mechanically control weeds.  

Some farms are easier to transition than others.  Old dairy farms with hay and pasture fields tend to have excess nutrients and higher higher fertility and less weeds.  The soil may already be biologically primed for the transition.  Hay, pasture fields and even CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land may already be organically eligible for certification.  Organic certification rules require that land be farmed organically without chemicals and pesticides for 36 months.  That 3-year transition can be tough economically for most farmers till they receive premium prices. 

Grain farms may be more difficult to transition.  While they may have less weeds, extensively tilled soils may have poor soil structure and lower soil organic matter (SOM) levels.  Poorly drained, compacted soils, low in fertility and fields with pests (weeds, insect or disease) are the worst soils to try to organically transition.  These fields tend to be a recipe for disaster if trying to convert to organic farming. When farmers go organic, farmers have to use conventional seed or non-GMO (genetically modified seed) without the use of chemicals to control pests.  

If you decide to go organic, get a good soil test and test for all your nutrients, including macro and micro-nutrients.  Test for SOM and bulk density to gauge your soil compaction. Organic fields should be well drained and have good soil tilth (fluffy and friable soil).  Organic fields need good soil health in order to biologically supply adequate nutrients and to have good soils for plants to grow.  Many farmers start out with poor soils and poor soil health and they are setting themselves up for failure.  

Look for alternative fertilizer sources.  Organic farmers tend to use compost, poultry manure (solid manure), hog, and dairy manure.  Solid manure tends to have more nutrient density.  Liquid hog manure is 95% water and dairy manure is 98% water. Manure may be high in weed seed unless composted, so be careful on your source of manure.  

If you are new to organic farming, often it is easier to experiment with 1-2 fields and slowly transition to organic farming.  It’s a lot less risky because farmers can learn from their mistakes.  If possible, start with a hay field, pasture, or even CRP field.  Alfalfa, red clover, or white clover pastures fields have extra nitrogen for good corn production. If high grass or CRP land is used, try soybeans, especially if N is lacking.  A good initial hay/grain crop rotation is three years of hay, followed by corn, then fall planted to cereal rye followed by soybeans, and wheat.  For vegetable farmers, there are many options.  Almost all organic farmers will use cover crops to help control the pests (especially weeds), add nutrients (especially N), to build SOM, and to improve soil tilth. Most organic farmers plant a little later in the growing season to help control the first flush of weeds and also plant earlier maturing crops so they can get a cover crop planted in the fall.    

Many organic farmers utilize livestock to both graze their crops or to feed hay.  Livestock faming helps conserve farm nutrients reducing the need for purchased organic fertilizer.  On tough fields described earlier, you can put those fields to pasture or use them for hay production to get the soil back in shape.  During the three- year transition, many organic farmers will grow their own cover crop seed on transitioning acres.  Oats, cereal rye, wheat, barley red clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, sunflower, and others can be grown for seed or sold to neighbors.  Organic farming is not an easy option, but it can be done successfully.