Transitioning from Conventional to Organic Production

transitioning from conventional to organic production farmers market web

This past fall, when George Naylor harvested the first organic soybean crop from his farm in Greene Country, Iowa, he sold it for 19 dollars a bushel. The going price for conventionally raised soybeans? Nine dollars a bushel.

Farmers are businesspeople first, and money played a crucial role in Naylor’s decision to go organic. In his bestselling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published a decade ago, author Michael Pollan spent several pages focusing on Naylor’s dilemma: He was growing corn and soybeans, and spending so much on fertilizer, pesticides, special seed, and machinery to boost yields that he was going broke. Every bumper crop Naylor wrung from his land drove prices down and depleted his soil to the point where he needed to invest even more in chemicals.

Since Naylor first decided more than 40 years ago to farm his family’s 470 acres near the town of Churdan, he’s avoided genetically modified crops. He’d always wanted to grow organically, but in the 1970s there was no market for organic commodity crops. A few years ago, realizing this was rapidly changing – and continues to change, as the number of U.S. organic farms increased by 15 percent from 2016 to 2017 – Naylor decided to take the next step and finally break the cycle of what he described to Pollan as “just riding tractors and spraying.”

Farming the conventional way, Naylor said, had become “just basically a nightmare. You just keep adding more chemicals to the tank. On my regular non-GMO soybeans that I raise with herbicide, I put four herbicides on that ground now, sometimes five. And then I still get weeds. … I thought it was worth a try, to try something different.” Naylor has devoted about half his family’s acres to organic soybean production.


The First Step: Deciding

Naylor and other organic farmers cite many of the same reasons for going organic: premium prices, lower input costs, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes with improving soil and water quality and raising high-quality crops they can be proud of. But they also caution that organic farming isn’t for everyone.

In order to cash in on the premium prices paid by organic consumers, a producer must meet a specific technical definition of “organic,” adhering to standards defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a three-year waiting period, during which the producer must not apply any of the prohibited substances (i.e. fertilizers and pesticides). A farm must then receive certification from one of 80 USDA-accredited agencies in order to use the certification seal of USDA or the certifying agency. Only then can a farmer reap the benefits that come with organic certification, and the farm must be inspected annually by the certifying agency in order to remain certified.

transition to organic soil web

Anna Jones-Crabree, left, and her husband, Doug Crabree, right, discuss soil health with Amy Kaiser, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservationist, on their organic farm near Havre, Montana. The three-year conventional-to-organic transition period is intended, in part, to build soil that is healthy enough to nurture a crop and withstand disease without the use of conventional chemicals. USDA Flickr

As Naylor explains, organic farming comes with increased risk: “The whole idea of all those chemicals was to eliminate risk,” he said, “so you can plant the crop earlier in the spring and hopefully keep the weeds down, and if that doesn’t work you can come in with another chemical. … But in organic, you don’t have that guarantee.” Even after the transition, organic producers are likely to produce lower yields compared to conventional production. Managing and staffing an organic farm are more expensive than with conventional industrial farming, and require meticulous recordkeeping.

The risks of these costs are compounded during the three-year bridging period, when farmers can’t capitalize on organic certification – though USDA and the Organic Trade Association (OTA) announced in early 2017 a National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP) that might allow farmers to recover some of these costs, perhaps earning a premium for their “transitional” status.

If a farmer decides to explore these risks, his or her first step should be to learn as much as possible about organic standards from the website of USDA’s National Organic Program or from nonprofit foundations such as the Rodale Institute, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), or the Organic Materials Review Institute, which provide education, resources, and expertise.


Making and Implementing an Organic System Plan

Organic certification requires that you outline an organic system plan (OSP) on the application form, so it makes sense, before you begin implementing organic farming methods, to select your certifying agency and familiarize yourself with what goes into an OSP. The list of accredited certifying agents is available on the NOP website. It’s a good idea to contact this agency early in the process – even before you’ve made the final decision about going organic – because they are valuable resources in themselves that can provide helpful tips and all the planning materials you’ll need.

Every OSP begins with a decision about which crops will be grown. Farmers will need to know whether soils will have adequate fertility to raise those crops, or whether organic supplements/amendments might be required; whether they have the equipment they need to grow crops organically; what pest, weed, and disease control issues they’re likely to face; and what organic controls are allowed for each. Obviously, farmers will need to identify potential buyers and markets for their crops, including distributors. The three-year waiting period isn’t merely intended as a time to purge chemicals; it’s a time in which transitioning farmers are attempting to build robust, resilient, nutrient-rich soil, without conventional herbicides and pesticides, that can nurture a crop and withstand disease on its own. Over time, crop rotation and cover crops can do the work of building soil and reducing diseases, pests, and weeds.

transition to organic system plan web

Organic certification requires that farmers create and submit an organic system plan, and there are several organizations whose websites are good resources for those looking to transition from conventional to organic production methods.

An OSP isn’t technically required until a farmer fills out an application for certification, but it’s a mistake to look at it as a bureaucratic hurdle to be cleared when the time comes. It’s a plan, and like all good businesspeople, farmers can make use of a good plan to help smooth the transition, anticipating obstacles and getting in front of problems before they develop.

Weeds are a problem nearly universally cited by new organic farmers. “Raising organic soybeans would be an even bigger nightmare,” said Naylor, “except that I’ve hit upon a technique that has worked two years in a row.” Naylor rotates corn and soybeans, and in the fall he hires a pilot to scatter cereal rye among the cornrows. The rye germinates, giving him a green lawn in which to harvest his corn crop, and in the spring, he plants his soybeans in a field of 6-foot-tall rye. “Then,” he said, “I roll a crimper over the field, and it knocks down the rye and it dies. So it becomes a mulch, and the soybeans find their way up through that and just keep growing. And there are hardly any weeds.”


Finding Support

Naylor admits he’s not the sole source of all of his good ideas; he’s had help from his partner/wife, Patty, who grew up on a farm and is a strong supporter of organic production. Numerous organizations, such as the Rodale Institute, exist nationwide for the sole purpose of helping farmers transition to and maintain an organic farm. Several regional or statewide organizations, such as MOSES, help farmers in Naylor’s region, including Iowa State University, which has one of the country’s most robust organic agriculture programs. “You can visit their website and learn a lot,” he said. “And then there’s the Iowa Organic Association, and the Practical Farmers of Iowa – they’re not strictly organic, but they have a lot of organic farmers. All these organizations will offer advice on how to get certified, what the requirements are.”

Increasingly, farmers interested in transitioning to organic production can look to both the public and private sectors for financial and technical support. USDA’s Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs, for example, can reimburse eligible operations up to 75 percent of their certification costs. A growing number of food companies, eager to meet the growing demand for organic produce, have begun implementing their own programs to help underwrite the transition, including General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Ardent Mills. In 2015, Clif Bar helped one of its fig suppliers in California’s Central Valley meet the costs of transitioning 300 acres of figs from conventional to organic, agreeing to buy those figs for a period of no less than seven years after the growers had received certification.

Companies wouldn’t make deals such as these if they weren’t acutely aware of a demand for organic produce that continues to outstrip supply. The organic market is now worth about $47 billion, according to the OTA, and growing at a rate four times the growth of overall food sales. For this, and many other reasons, farmers such as George Naylor are finding the transition worthwhile.

“I think the agricultural system we have now is indefensible,” he said, citing the experts who put together Iowa State University’s Weed Identification Guide. “You can look at it online. It says history has shown that any weed control program that depends on chemicals is bound to fail. Well, we have an agricultural system that selects for farms that are so big that chemicals are the only way to control weeds. So what does that tell you about your agricultural system?”

“To me, organic farming is obviously more satisfying.”

Caption for top photo: Worden Farm fresh-picked organic vegetables are put on display, ready for sale at the Saturday Morning Market, in St. Petersburg, Florida. Though a transition to organic farming can be challenging, organic certification enables agricultural producers to sell their products at a premium. USDA photo by Lance Cheung

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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