Utah Pests News Spring 2009

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Transitioning to Organic Agriculture

By Jennifer Reeve, Assistant Professor of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture in the Plant, Soils, and Climate Department at USU. Jennifer’s focus is soil management, and soil sustainability.

Organic agriculture is a frequent topic of conversation today among both consumers and producers.  With rising costs of inputs and a steady demand for organically grown products, growers are increasingly wondering if “going organic” might be worth it.  The process can no doubt seem daunting and there can be a steep learning curve.  In the past there has been a paucity of reliable information on the farming practices involved in organic agriculture, but that is changing. 

The first thing to consider is the size of your current operation and potential market you wish to access.  We recommend to initially transition a small portion of the farm to organic.  During the three-year transition period, no inputs of conventional fertilizer or pesticides are allowed and no price premiums are available until the field or operation is fully certified.  Problems such as reduced yields and increased pest pressures are often enhanced during the transition period, as the farm adapts to the new management practices.

Organic production relies to a much greater degree than conventional agriculture on the inherent fertility of the soil.  This fertility is based on the organic matter content of the soil, which provides a warehouse of slow-release nutrients.  As such, choose your best land to transition to organic agriculture to minimize the expected yield losses that may occur before organic matter in the soil is replenished.  While fast-release sources of fertilizer, such as fish meal, are available for organic production, they are expensive, so it is unwise to rely too heavily on these products and instead focus on long-term building of soil fertility.  The same is true for weed control.  Organic management relies on minimizing the weed seed bank, so starting out with minimum weeds can help enormously in the long run.

One of the best ways to build long-term soil fertility is through addition of perennial crops in the rotation.  Perennials have much deeper root systems than annuals, and deposit organic matter deep within the soil profile.  Choosing a field that has been in long-term alfalfa production or grass clover hay would be an ideal place to start.

  Reeve and other specialists recently established an organic vegetable farm at USU’s Greenville Research Farm. Students of all majors volunteer to manage the farm and harvest the vegetables. Produce is sold on the USU campus.
Otherwise, if you have the land available, focus on including as many soil-building cover crops in the rotation as possible.  The exact approach to take depends on the crop and cropping system you have in mind.

The Web site of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) is probably the best source of detailed information on organic practices for a large selection of crops and organic production systems.  University Extension Web sites, as well as the centralized eXtension Web site are also increasingly providing information on organic management strategies.  These may or may not be transferable to Utah’s growing conditions, although much can be learned from studying the general approaches taken.

Utah State University also has an emerging research program in organic production practices tailored specifically to local conditions. Experiments with season-extension for organic vegetable production have proven to be very successful. New research plots are currently being established to study organic transition strategies for organic field crops and vegetables, selecting cover crops for weed control, and input reduction and orchard floor management strategies for organic stone fruit production. All these systems need to be optimized to the challenges of Utah’s climate where alkaline soils are low in organic matter, and the short growing season and limited water supply can make the use of cover crops challenging. Conversely, the climate provides important benefits to the organic grower in that the dry sunny growing season usually limits disease pressure.

In the past, many independent certifiers provided varying standards and requirements for organic certification under their own labels. In 2001, the USDA introduced standardized certification requirements under the National Organic Program (NOP). While the NOP does not certify farms directly, individual certifying agencies are accredited by the USDA NOP to issue certifications conforming to the minimum requirements of the NOP rule. These requirements can be found at the NOP Web site and a simplified introduction to the rules can also be found by clicking here, or here. People are free to shop around for a certification agency that best meets their needs, and are not restricted to state agencies.

  Starting out with proper soil fertility is helpful when transitioning to organic. Most organic growers rely on composts, green manure, etc., to improve soil fertility rather than expensive organic fertilizers.
Initially, the organic certification process can be time consuming and arduous as it requires meticulous recording of all management decisions made on the farm. Once management plans have been developed and an efficient record-keeping system established, the time needed is usually relatively minor. For market gardeners grossing less than $5000 per year in sales, certification is not needed in order to market your produce as organic. In instances where a direct customer relationship exists between the grower and consumer, many growers have found it unnecessary to undertake the certification process, and instead market their produce as “local” and/or “naturally grown.”

Larger growers wishing to enter the mass market chain or grow for export must obtain organic certification as it forms the contract between distant consumers and the grower that certain minimum requirements have been met. Detailed records of farm practices for the three years leading up to certification need to be provided as well as detailed management plans for how organic status will be maintained in the future. In addition, a yearly certification fee is required and the process involves an on-farm visit from a certifying agent.

While no one would claim that organic production is an easy approach, it certainly can be very rewarding. In order to be an effective organic farmer, an understanding of the seasonal cycles involved in pest dynamics, crop rotations, and nutrient management is necessary. The learning and understanding involved in developing such a relationship with the land can be a source of increasing satisfaction. In addition, many growers have found that the organic label has enabled them to expand into niche markets and increase the profitability of their farms. Ultimately, a successful organic grower requires a combination of biological-based farming knowledge, and marketing and business expertise.