Practice makes perfect for produce farm in switch to organic

 

Certified organic production is increasing in the United States.

Part of that trend is coming from landowners that want to use their asset to support certified organic and regenerative organic agriculture. Some landowners live on the farms they rent and want to see lush cover crops growing in the field. Others live halfway across the country but understand the environmental impacts that conventional farming can have on the environment and human health, and they do not want to be a part of it any longer.

Rodale Institute’s Organic Crop Consulting service not only works with farmers, but also with landowners who share the same mission, vision and core values. The conversations we have with landowners are very similar to those we have with farmers. We always start with the same set of questions: “What are your goals?” “How do you envision getting there?” and “How much risk can you reasonably take on?”

However, the way we reach those goals is different. Instead of developing a crop rotation plan and making suggestions for fertility inputs as we would for farmers, we act as a support system and a regional partner to make sure that both the landowner and the tenant farmer have the knowledge to implement an environmentally and financially sustainable organic system plan together.

Mother-Daughter Landowners Encourage Organic Farming on Their Land

Carol and Stefanie (mother and daughter) are landowners right on the Susquehanna River in Perry County, Pennsylvania. Their farm is approximately 140 acres.

It has been in the family since the 1870s. The barn is that old and the farmhouse is even older, built in the early 1800s. The land has been inherited through five generations beginning with John A. Hilbish, an ancestor of the family.

Over the years, Stefanie, along with some business partners, cultivated 10 of those acres to produce non-certified organic vegetables, flowers, and herbs for local families through a CSA, farm stand, and at farmers markets. The remainder of the acreage was rented to tenant farmers for conventional hay and grain production.

Stefanie recently moved back to the farm full time and has a dream to honor her ancestors and transition the entire 140 acres to certified organic production.

When I visited Carol and Stefanie in the spring of 2020, Carol’s mother brought out a box of original “Organic Gardening” issues, published in the 1960s by Rodale Inc.

The women said farming organically allows them to “be in conversation with their ancestors.”

Carol, a chemist, also appreciates the human health aspect of organic farming and cares deeply about the well-being of the farm operators and “the eaters, including the animals.”

Stefanie learned the CSA model and started understanding a growing season from cover crop to cash crop through her time at Rutgers University, not from spending time on her family’s farm.

“A challenge has been being a woman in this space,” she said. “(I’ve) been easily dismissed. It is hard to be taken seriously and to be taken as competent. As someone who is learning, it can be very discouraging.”

In addition, she has difficulty finding a tenant farmer who is willing to assist her during the transition to certified organic.

Resources Available to Connect Landowners With Organic Farmers

Working with landowners is a balancing act. We strive to support both the tenant farmer and the landowner simultaneously. We don’t want farmers to have to find new land or lose income, and we want landowners to feel supported in their decision. For landowners, it can be difficult when farmers aren’t at all interested in attempting to change their production system.

Stefanie asked both tenant farmers if they would consider an organic system, but unfortunately neither were interested and cited concerns of weed pressure.

When this is the situation, we’re forced to take a different route and find a farmer whose vision and goals match that of the landowner. Luckily, Pennsylvania has resources for connecting with both organic farmers looking for land and landowners looking for organic farmers.

The Organic INTEGRITY Database offers an online and transparent resource — listing all organic farmers by address, making it easy for Stefanie to find organic farmers in Perry County. She has started cold-calling some of them and has had some success making connections with her local organic community. Sometimes it’s a long chain of communication; one farmer will pass along the name and number of another and so on. She hopes this process will lead her to an ideal tenant farmer soon.

In addition, PA Farm Link is a nonprofit whose mission is to “link farmers to the future” by having an online land-linking database. Pennsylvania Certified Organic and Pasa Sustainable Agriculture also have classifieds for landowners and farmers looking to advertise available land.

Stefanie remains positive that she will find a farmer to assist her family with the transition to certified organic production.

“At the end of these three years (of transition) I’m not entirely sure who the farmer will be,” she said. “It could be me, or it may be a leasing farmer we have yet to identify but will through networking and resource sharing.”

Emily Newman is the program manager for organic consulting at Rodale Institute.

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