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Home > Protecting Our Lands & Waters > Conservation > Post-CRP Management Options & Issues > Converting to Organic Production

Converting to Organic Production


Prescott Bergh

The information presented in this fact sheet is not intended to take the place of professional legal advice. In developing any written lease agreement, it is highly recommended that all parties seek professional legal advice.

Summary

  • CRP land that has not been treated with herbicides for the last three years may be eligible for organic certification. Highly erodible land coming out of CRP may be especially well suited to organic livestock production.
  • Soil fertility and weed management are two major challenges in converting CRP land to organic grain production. Designing a crop rotation to handle these challenges is essential.
  • Organic production provides access to expanding markets in organic produce, grains, and meat. Time and planning are needed to establish a successful organic farm. Farmers should target the markets and certification agencies that fit their plans and their farms.

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.

Defining Organic Foods

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.

Organic Certification

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 Operations
Certification 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 Agency
Choose 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.

General Considerations for Organic Conversion

  • Start slowly and plan ahead. It may take 5 to 6 years for the soil to adjust to organic nutrient cycles and begin to develop its full potential.
  • Take time to gain experience with new crops, new techniques, and a more diverse rotation.
  • Experiment on a small scale to reduce risk.
  • Be flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions.

Organic Livestock Production on Highly Erodible CRP

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.)

Organic Crop Production on CRP

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.

Tips for Designing an Organic Rotation

  • Alternate between early cold season crops and late warm season crops. This allows you to use different tillage schedules to reduce various weed species.
  • Include enough nitrogen-fixing forage legumes to plow down as green manure. This will provide nitrogen to crops that follow, such as corn.
  • Consider smother crops such as buckwheat, rye, and sorghum-sudan to out-compete weeds.
  • Include grasses and small grains to hold and improve soil structure.
  • Include some row crops, using cultivation or flaming to control weeds.

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.)

Other Considerations

  • Is there a market for all crops in the rotation, either on-farm as feed or off-farm for cash? Certification agencies can provide information about market demands.
  • Do the crops fit your farm's soils, topography, and temperature and moisture conditions?
  • Do the crops fit your current management skills and available time? Conversion to organic production will be easier if you can get advice from other organic farmers in your area. You might want to consider an apprenticeship. (See Other Resources #3.)
  • Is there an alternative use for your crop if it fails to meet organic food-grade standards? For example, a crop may get stained by dirt during a muddy harvest and become unacceptable as human food to organic buyers. Consider potential on-farm uses and investigate the local organic livestock feed market.
  • Can you produce the crops with equipment you already have? For example, organic edible dry beans may be valuable, but how much equipment must you buy, and from where, to produce them?
  • Are you equipped to store your harvest for 6 to 9 months? The organic grain industry currently lacks the storage capacity to take your crops at harvest time or at your convenience as the local elevator might.

Other Resources

  1. Organic Production and Certification, Organic Buyers and Processors in Minnesota, on-farm demonstrations, and more: Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Sustainable Agriculture Program, 625 Robert Street North, St. Paul, MN 55155-2538. 651-201-6616.
  2. Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota (with more than 10 local chapters), Tim King, Route 2, Maple Hill, Long Prairie, MN 56347. 320-732-6203.
  3. Information, videos, and educational programs on organic production methods, crops, marketing, and apprenticeships: Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), P.O. Box 3657, Fayetteville, AR 72702.
  4. Midwest Organic Alliance, North Plaza Building, Suite 208, 5217 Wayzata Boulevard, St. Louis Park, MN 55416. 612-593-2790.
  5. National Organic Program, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, P.O. Box 96456, Room 4006 South Building, Washington, DC 20090-6456. 202-205-7804. A summary of the 1990 USDA Organic Food Production Act.
  6. The Real Dirt: Farmers Tell About Organic and Low-Input Practices in the Northeast (Northeast Organic Farming Association, 1994), and the Sustainable Agriculture Directory of Expertise (1994). Northeast Region Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), University of Vermont, 10 Hills Building, Burlington, VT 05405. 802-656-0471. E-mail: msimpson@moose.uvm.edu.
  7. Organic Farming (Nic Lampkin, 1990). Diamond Farm Enterprises, Box 537, Alexandria Bay, NY 13607.
  8. What Really Happens When You Cut Chemicals? (ed. Christopher Shirley, 1993). Rodale Institute, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530-9749. 610-683-1421.
  9. Switching to a Sustainable System: Strategies for Converting from Conventional/Chemical to Sustainable/Organic Farming Systems (Fred Kirschenmann, 1988). Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, RR 1 Box 73, Windsor, ND 58424.
  10. Cover Crops Manual (1989), University of California, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Davis, CA. 916-752-7557. Additional cover crop resources can be found on their web site.
  11. Organic Field Crop Handbook. Canadian Organic Growers, Route 2, Lamont, Ontario, K0A 1A0 Canada. 613-256-1848.
  12. The Soul of Soil: A Guide to Ecological Soil Management, 3rd ed. (1995), and Fertile Soil: A Growers Guide to Organic and Inorganic Fertilizers, 2nd ed. (1990). agAccess, 603 Fourth Street, Davis, CA 95616. 916-756-7177.
  13. Pests of the Garden and Small Farm: A Grower's Guide to Using Less Pesticide (Statewide IPM Project, 1990). DANR Communication Services, University of California, 6701 San Pablo Avenue, Oakland, CA 94608-1239. 510-642-2431. E-mail: anrpubs@ucdavis.edu.
  14. The IPM Practitioner: Monitoring the Field of Pest Management and Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly. Bio-Integral Resource Center, P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, CA 94707. 510-524-2567.
  15. Organic Production: Recent Publications and Current Information Sources (1996). Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, National Agriculture Library, Room 304, 10301 Baltimore Avenue, Beltsville, MD 20705-2351. 301-504-6559. E-mail: afsic@nal.sda.gov.
  16. National Organic Directory (annual). Community Alliance with Family Farmers, P.O. Box 464, David, CA 95617. 800-852-3832.
  17. Broad sources of information on the internet: Sustainable Agriculture Network, Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, and agAccess.
MDA Contact

Barbara Weisman, Conservation Program Specialist
barbara.weisman@state.mn.us
651-201-6631 or 1-800-967-2474
Ag Marketing & Development Division