Time to Transition Your Farm To Organic

By: Woody Woodruff

Sales of organic food and non-food products in the United States broke through another record in 2014, totaling $39.1 billion, up 11.3 percent from the previous year, according to the latest survey on the organic industry from the Organic Trade Association (OTA). “On the heels of organic sales now nearing a milestone 5 percent share of the total food market, organic stakeholders have gathered in Washington to educate lawmakers and policymakers. Our latest industry data show robust demand and great opportunity for the organic sector,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of OTA.  Organic farmers have historically not received many benefits from farm bill programs, but more recent Farm Bills have begun to change that. Now, those organic farmers that want to can apply for federal crop insurance programs and take advantage of grant programs that assist with the costs of organic certification. Organic farmers can also receive technical assistance and funds for implementing organic practices in the Conservation Stewardship Program’s contribution to organic transitioning – The Organic Crosswalk.  All the technical support activities listed in the Organic Crosswalk section of the Conservation Stewardship Program can be viewed at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs141p2_023801.pdf  In addition, USDA research programs are now spending millions of dollars on methods to improve organic farming techniques. However, our federal and state governments are facing across the board reductions in spending, which means these existing programs are at risk to budget cuts. Now, while these programs still exist, seems to be a good opportunity to look into organic farming.

organic cornA lot of the conservation practices placed on my farm over the past years will help me in my transition to organic farming.  The use of cover crops for nutrient sequestration, improving soil health, and reducing weed pressure are all big steps in going organic. The importance of both healthy soil and effective weed control in organic farming cannot be overemphasized. One of the underlying principles of organic farming is the building of healthy soils with good structure, high organic matter, diverse soil micro and macro fauna, and high water-holding capacity. Such soils can in turn support healthy plants that can better resist disease and insect and weed pressure (Organic Farming Research Foundation 2003). Loss of nutrients and organic matter through erosion depletes soil fertility, and is further aggravated by the fact that synthetic fertilizer cannot be used in organic farming. Furthermore, sediment runoff water pollutes water bodies. The building of soil organic matter is a long-term process and cannot be done with intense tillage. I have been using no till practices with grain production, which has helped in building that organic matter. The field borders, windbreaks and filter-strips will help to maintain those organic borders from unwanted pollen and pests.  Putting these practices all together and following the principles of organic farming will make my farm and the food it produces healthier for me and the environment.  Knowing that I will be changing some of my options and exploring new ones does makes me a little nervous.  I will definitely be asking lots of questions of the organic farmers that I have met to date. If you are considering making the transition to organic, the farmers in the Illinois Organic Growers Association, (IGOA) would be a great source of information to answer questions on the transition process. Call the Illinois Stewardship Alliance office to see who from the IGOA lives closest to you.  I have been reading all that I can and found this list of tips from the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension as somewhat helpful.

Tips for Transitioning from Conventional to Organic Farming Practices

  • Select fields that have had adequate fertility and proper pH levels before beginning production.
  • Select fields that have had a history of light weed pressure.
  • Select fields with well-drained soils, adequate water-holding capacity and that have been well rotated so that diseases and nematodes will not be a major concern.
  • Plant cover crops that will grow vigorously prior to the crop but can be killed by rolling with a roller or naturally by frost or maturity prior to planting the organically grown crop
  •  Soybeans or millet can be drilled late in the season and killed by frost, rolled, or killed with organic materials for a thick ground cover that may be planted into for fall crops.
  •  Rye or oats can be planted early in the fall and killed by rolling with a roller after heading in the spring (late March) for a thick ground cover, which will help control weeds and holds moisture for a spring crop.
  •   Choose crops carefully for planting during a season that is relatively free of pests may work well  for a first crop planted in late August or in early March).
  • Perform all operations in a timely manner.
  • If irrigation is not available, choose crops that grow in a seasonal period when rainfall is adequate (the most consistent period for rainfall and moderate climate with few pests usually occurs from January through April).
  • Apply composted chicken manure, mushroom compost, or other types of weed-free organic matter when available to keep soil fertile and increase organic matter.
  • Use as little tillage as possible, since tillage destroys soil structure, causes erosion, reduces soil organic matter, and may result in lower yields. Strip-till rigs that only open a slit for row crops may be used for vegetables as well as other crops while suppressing weeds and conserving moisture. Tillage may be necessary on some perennial grasses but may still have adequate soil cover to slow erosion and maintain 30% or more ground cover while the crop is growing.
  • Use perennial grasses (Kernza) in the rotation if possible, since weeds, disease, and nematodes are reduced and organic matter is increased to a greater extent with grasses rather than legumes. Yields of many crops have been shown to be higher after perennial grasses and are preferred by watermelon growers. Kernza may have to be chisel plowed prior to planting a cash crop to reduce competition.
  • If using legumes as cover crops, remember that they decompose quickly and may not protect the soil from erosion or prevent long-term weed competition.
  • Before planting the crop, find out about organic farming and markets for your products from those who have done it successfully.

Also mark you calendars for these three upcoming Organic Field Days and Events

Janie’s Farm Field Day, hosted by Harold Wilkins on June 26 in Danforth, IL

Northwest Illinois Organic Transition Workshop, hosted by Keith Landis at the Prime Steakhouse in Hillsdale, Illinois on July 14th from 10:00 to 2:30. It is free to the public but an RSVP to Keith Landis at 815-499-4118 would be nice. This workshop will have an Organic Certifier, a soils specialist, a Crop Insurance agent, and an Organic Farmer Round table.  This will go with the list of workshops at the bottom of the Transition beginnings to Organics article.

PrairiEarth Farm Field Day, hosted by Dave Bishop on September 8 in Atlanta, Illinois.


More info will be posted at https://www.ilstewards.org and www.illinoisorganicgrowers.org closer to the dates.