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Dramatic growth in the organic foods market has fueled an increased interest in organic farming. CRP land that has not been treated with herbicides for the last three years may be eligible for organic certification. CRP land has both advantages and disadvantages for organic production. After 10 years of continuous grass cover, the soil may have increased tilth, organic matter, and water-holding capacity. However, it may also have extensive weed seed reservoirs and firmly established rhizominous weeds such as quackgrass. (For help in evaluating the condition of your CRP land, see Weeds and Pocket Gophers and Persistence of Planted Forages in this series.) The decision to convert to organic production should be based on your current and desired enterprises, management skills, and the land's productivity.
Organic foods are produced without synthetic inputs. For crops, this means production without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides on land that has been free of synthetic chemicals for at least three years. For animal products, it means that the livestock are fed organic grains and/or forage and raised without hormone implants or many common antibiotics and other drugs. Organic livestock production standards vary by species, life-span, and end use.
Private industry associations and states have defined and regulated organic standards for growers and processors for the past two decades. The State of Minnesota currently enforces organic standards. Federal regulations are expected in 1998. (See Other Resources #5.)
The marketing or organic meat has been delayed by a lack of national standards. Standards are expected in the next several years. Growth in the organic meat market may then begin to catch up with the rest of the organic industry.
Certification verifies that food is grown, transported, processed, packages and sold without synthetic chemicals or contaminants. Certified farms must meet organic production standards and follow a farm plan that includes crop rotations to disrupt pest cycles and the use of compost or manure (green or animal) to provide nutrients. The certification process also includes questionnaires, inspections, audits, and residue tests. (For more information, see Other Resources #1.)
Whole vs. Split OperationsCertification agencies differ in their policies on certifying portions of farms. Some will certify a portion while others require a plan that moves the entire farm toward certification within a set number of years. National organic standards will allow "split operations," in which only part of a farm is certified, as long as organic and non-organic products are not mixed.
Choosing a Certification AgencyChoose a certification agency based on your intended market. One certifier may have better recognition in a local market or a larger network of growers than another. An overseas buyer or processor may prefer a specific certifier. Investigate these issues well in advance of the cropping season. Get information from certifiers in winter or early spring so you'll have time to review the standards, talk to buyers, and determine which program best suits your marketing needs. For a list of certification agencies, organic buyers and processors in Minnesota, see Other Resources #1.
Highly erodible land coming out of CRP is well suited to organic livestock production. Highly erodible land can be improved for grazing without plowing through frost seeding, interplanting native warm season grasses, and other proven techniques. (See Renovating for Forage Production in this series.)
Organic dairy, beef and some hog farmers are getting high returns per acre with minimal input costs using management-intensive controlled grazing systems. These systems require high-tech energizers and fencing to manage both the grass and the animals. (See Controlled Grazing in this series.)
Raising livestock without antibiotics or wormers requires increased, proactive management and observation skills. To learn more, talk with organic livestock producers and vets at field days and conferences. (Also see Other Resources #15, which lists several publications on organic livestock production.)
Soil fertility and weed management are the two major challenges in converting CRP land to organic crops. The soil is likely to be low in nitrogen, with decomposing grasses further reducing its availability. (A soil test is highly recommended.) Phosphorus and potassium may also be depleted. Pressure from both annual broadleaf weeds and grasses is likely to be intense. (See Persistence of Planted Forages in this series.) Designing a crop rotation to handle these challenges may be the most important element of any organic conversion plan.
Bringing a fallow field into organic production usually requires an initial period of weed and fertility management — possibly the whole first year. Experienced organic growers suggest two strategies:
Strategy 1: For spring-plowed fields, frequent and shallow early-summer tillage, followed by a buckwheat planting in mid- to late June that is plowed down in mid-August, can control warm season weeds (through competition). After plowing down the buckwheat, plant fall rye and hairy vetch to provide winter cover. Graze or disk the rye before it heads in the spring to control weeds (through the allelopathic effect of the rye residue).
Strategy 2: Use a heavy disk in May to kill existing vegetation and help it decompose. Cultivate in June and July and then plant a mixture of hairy vetch and a small grain (such as oats or barley) in mid-August. These crops act as sponges during fall and winter, which helps prevent nutrient leaching. The small grain will die naturally in winter, while the hairy vetch can be killed easily in late spring, contributing its nitrogen to the following crop.
With either strategy, the field will be in better shape the following spring to plant a row crop such as soybeans or corn. (For more information on organic production, see Other Resources #1.)
Barbara Weisman, Conservation Program Specialistbarbara.email@example.com or 1-800-967-2474Ag Marketing & Development Division
Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), 625 Robert Street N, St. Paul, MN 55155-2538, firstname.lastname@example.org