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Is organic farming the right fit for you?

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 20 March 2017
Julia Barton

It takes at least three years for a farm to transition from conventional practices to organic, but that transition time can be an important period to gain knowledge and build relationships, said Julia Barton, sustainable agriculture educator with Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).

“It’s an important time to build relationships so you get all the resources you need,” she said.

Barton encouraged producers to use the time spent transitioning to organic to build partnerships with certified resource providers, NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), FSA (Farm Service Agency), SWCD (Soil and Water Conservation Districts), your local extension office, seed and fertilizer dealers, local co-ops and buyers and consumers.

Although she is, of course, a huge fan of organic, Barton said, “Organic is not for everyone. Figuring out if it is for your farm is important.” She encouraged producers to take the time early on to see if it is a good fit.

“Organics have the strongest and most transparent environmental standards out there,” she said. “It is a very personal choice. Are you comfortable with keeping clear and auditable records for others to see? Are you comfortable with studying and learning the organic standards and consistently meeting them? Are you comfortable with your farm being inspected? Are you comfortable building a relationship with your certifier?”

Choose your organic certifier early on, so they can help with questions along the way. USDA offers an organic certifier locator on their website. Barton said to talk to current certified organic producers to see whom they recommend.

She also strongly suggested that producers transitioning to organic find a mentor to help them along the way. If you ask someone you know to mentor you, be sure you each have a clear understanding of mutual expectations. Some regional organizations such as the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) offer mentorship programs.

When creating a transition plan, there are many things to consider. Barton said first and foremost on that list is the last date a prohibited substance was used on your farm. Knowing this date gives you a sense of your transition timeline. The transition period is three years, or 36 months, from the last date a prohibited substance (such as treated seed, synthetic fertilizer or an unapproved herbicide or pesticide) was applied.

Other questions to ask include:

  • How is the land that adjoins your farm used?
  • Are your neighbors willing to not use chemicals near your operation, or will you have to set up buffer zones?
  • What will you use to control weeds or insects?
  • What will be the costs and benefits of your farm being organic?
  • Is there a market for your products during the transitional stage?

She stressed the importance of developing a good record-keeping system that will work for your farm. “Set up record keeping as a regular part of your day,” Barton said. Organic producers sometimes hate it at first, but later note that it has improved their business management skills.

You also need to study organic standards, she said. “You need to study them, not just read through them. Luckily, there are several tools to help you do that.” MOSES offers a clear and concise guide to organic certification; the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) has published a transition business planner; and OEFFA offers a transition guide and workbook on its website. All of these resources are free and downloadable online, and print copies are available for a nominal fee.

Barton said the barriers to transitioning to organic can vary greatly from farm to farm, and can include time, money, knowledge, paperwork, need for specialized equipment, crop rotation and crop yield.

Near the end of your transition period, Barton recommended having a “mock” inspection on your operation to see what still needs changing or fine-tuning. Organic certification can be stressful, but practicing before the actual certifier comes to the farm can help reduce that.

“Of course, there are deal breakers, such as using treated seed or using herbicides, but by and large if you are already using sustainable ag practices, you are on the right track. You may have some areas in need of improvement, but it will be okay,” Barton said. She added, “We all want to provide healthy food and want to be good land stewards.”

Barton said to be sure to inquire about cost share programs through the Organic Initiative through EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), which can include assistance for cover crops, pasture and nutrient management, and the establishment of organic production systems. The Conservation Stewardship Program may have financial assistance for such things as filter strips, mulching, pollinator corridors and grazing management to prevent erosion. Contact your local NRCS office for more information on either of these programs.

Online resources to research before and during transition include the Organic Transition Guide and the Organic Transition Workbook, both produced by the USDA; the organic transition business planner from SARE; the MOSES organic guidebook; and the website eOrganic.  end mark

Julia Barton presented “Strategies for Transitioning Farmers” at the MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Organic Farming Conference held annually in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based out of Waterville, Iowa.

PHOTO: Julia Barton, sustainable agriculture educator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), suggested using the time it takes to transition to organic to develop resources and connections. Photo provided by Julia Barton.

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