Growers have many reasons for transitioning from conventional to organic practices, but regardless of why they want to go organic, planning is vital.
MidAtlantic Women in Agriculture offered a recent webinar on the topic presented by Neith Little, an urban agriculture Extension agent with University of Maryland Extension, Baltimore City office.
Little based her presentation on “Organic Production and Certification,” a chapter from the Maryland Beginning Farmer Guidebook, which she co-wrote.
Little said that some approach organic growing with the idea that it’s only about swapping out conventional methods and inputs in favor of organic ones. But she maintains there’s much more to it.
“Organic farming is a system where you try to build a healthy soil and healthy agroecosystem,” she said.
That’s because healthy soil helps fight off pests and disease.
She explained that increased organic matter in the soil helps increase soil structure, the soil’s water-holding capacity, cation exchange capacity and the slow release of nutrients. Reducing tillage, increasing living plant cover and adding organic matter amendments can increase organic matter.
“One of the big factors of soil health is soil organic matter: the living, dead and ‘very dead’ — the remains of living things in your soil,” Little said.
She noted that very dark-colored soil indicates high levels of organic matter, which helps improve soil’s structure and how well it holds together.
“The more you disturb soil, the more organic matter breaks down,” Little said. “But that’s challenging for weed suppression for organic producers.”
Regardless of growing practices, all plants require nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, “the same way we need vitamins and minerals to build our bodies,” Little said.
Little said that in addition to building soil fertility, organic farmers’ goals normally include reducing off-farm inputs. Using soil testing can help them achieve that goal.
“Regardless of what your goals are, it’s important to test soil to monitor soil and predict crop need,” Little said.
Organic farmers can get nutrients from composts, manures, cover crops and approved blended fertilizers. Anything applied by farms hoping to achieve organic certification should be approved by the National Organic Program. Little added that the Organic Materials Review Institute list is at omri.org
She also said that crop rotation represents a common strategy among organic growers for restoring nitrogen to the soil.
“Legumes, like beans and clover, are cover crops to add nitrogen for cash crops,” she said.
Crop rotation can also disrupt pest and disease life cycles, compete with weeds and build soil organic matter.
“It’s important to change plant families because often the diseases and pests are related,” she said.
Staying within the same plant family “invites” the same diseases and pests back.
“A cover crop is something you grow that you don’t sell, like clover,” Little said. “But some grow alfalfa to sell as hay. Tillage radish is another. Several grasses are as well, but you should select ones appropriate for your climate and make sure you have the ability to kill them so they won’t become a weed.”
Certified growers must use organic seed.
“Anecdotally, weeds are the biggest problem for organic growers,” Little said.
She said that all solutions for weed control for organic growers are labor intensive, whether mulch, tillage, cultivation, hand hoeing or weeding. There’s also flame weeding, stale seed beds, cover crops and a limited number of organic herbicides.
“Flaming works only on seedlings,” Little said. “You don’t want to set them on fire.”
Pest management also challenges many organic growers. Little said that some encourage the proliferation of the natural enemies of their plants’ pests. Others adjust planting dates to avoid when the pests emerge. As with plant diseases, crop rotation and scouting can help prevent pest issues.
After successfully growing an organic crop, pricing and marketing are the next steps. Little acknowledged the tight profit margins in farming. That’s another reason for going organic for some growers, since they can potentially receive higher prices for organic crops; however, that premium price takes more work in marketing.
Growers sell directly to the public or wholesale.
“Retail, they tend to purchase for higher prices than wholesale, but you need to do the work to find customers to buy your products and stand at the farmers markets,” Little said. “All of that stuff is on you as the grower when you do direct marketing.”
Farmers can also sell via community supported agriculture subscriptions or directly to chefs.
“Because of the higher price, direct marketing is usually the better choice,” Little said.
Customers who want to buy organic generally like talking with the farmers raising their food to learn more about it. Little said that direct marketing is also best for people who want to sell directly to the public.
“Organic certification offers a third party verification, which is especially valuable if the customer never meets the farmer directly about what production practices they use,” Little said.
Selling wholesale to a large grocery store, institution that prepares food, distributor or processor sounds like a dream come true: no scrambling to find buyers and a guarantee of selling the entire harvest. But Little warned that wholesale is difficult in its own ways.
“Supermarkets have higher food standards and food safety standards,” she said.
Growers receive lower prices, must accommodate a minimum threshold of volume — usually much larger than when selling directly, and must consistently deliver quality at the time required.
A processor may require tomatoes to stay within a certain diameter so it fits within slicing equipment. Excessively large tomatoes may be rejected.
Selling to stores puts a middleman between grower and consumer.
“You don’t get to see the farmer and talk with them if you’re buying at the grocery store,” Little said.
For organic farmers who opt to sell directly, Little said it’s important to identify a specific customer, such as grandparents who want to select only organic foods for their grandchildren.
“If your target audience is everyone, your target customer is no one,” Little said.
She advises growers interested in going organic to visit usda.gov/topics/organic to learn about the process. The USDA also maintains a database of certified organic farms at organic.ams.usda.gov/integrity
Growers selling less than $5,000 annually in organic goods are permitted to call their crops “organic” but may not use the USDA organic label.
“There are also many books to help you understand the whole system of growing organic,” Little said.
In general, the process of becoming certified as organic takes three years if the land was previously under conventional management.