Farming Fact Sheets:
1. Converting CRP Land to Organic Production
2. Educational Opportunities in Sustainable & Organic Agriculture
3. GAPS: Bringing Good Agricultural Practices to Your Farm
4. Organic & Sustainable Pest Control
5. Protecting Your Organic Land from Unwanted Chemical Sprays
6. Season Extension
7. What is Organic Agriculture?
8. Local and Organic: The Benefits and Differences
9. Facts about Organic Agriculture
10. What You Should Be Saying About Organic Farming
Ask an Organic Specialist: Farming Answers
I have the opportunity to rent some pasture from my neighbor who hasn't used it in many years. What do I need to do to get this certified, and what is the best way to start pasturing organically?
Make sure that prohibited substances have not been used for at least three years. It is not uncommon to find that the owner may have spot treated weeds or applied manure. If herbicides have been used, it will take a full three-year transition from the last application date before the land can be certified. Conventional manure is allowed, but be sure that the manure and bedding source does not contain prohibited materials like recycled lumber waste, has not been treated with herbicides or insecticides or had chemical treatments to control odor or nutrient loss. Ask a lot of questions to be sure there are no surprises.
A soil test should be a top priority. Fallow land may or may not be fertile. The soil type and previous land use have a large impact on the quality of the soil. Large fields may even have multiple soil types and can vary in fertility from location to location. It is extremely rare to find a soil that isn’t lacking in some nutrients, and may even have an overabundance of others. The soil test can help you plan for the right fertilizer applications.
In general, fallow land tends to need renovation: fertility amendments and, often, reseeding for improved forage quality. Fallow land tends to revert to lower quality grasses over time. So you should also take an assessment of the plant population and type. You can request an assessment and assistance with a grazing plan from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, (NRCS) which will have a grazing specialist available for consultations. If you look in the blue pages (government pages) of your phone book, you can find your county NRCS office. The grazing specialist can help you assess your pasture quality, help you design a fencing and paddock layout and can determine ideal stocking rates. The NRCS also has programs providing cost share for some of these improvements, if you have a long-term lease on this pastureland.
Pastures, too, can revert to low-quality grasses and plants will need to be renovated. Ideally you want a mixture of cool and warm season grasses and a mix of legumes and other broadleaf plants to provide a resilient mix of forages throughout the growing season and changing climatic conditions. Legumes can sometimes be seeded into existing pastures by broadcasting them at the right time of year, typically late winter. If the thatch (root mass and decaying materials) is very thick, you may need to use a no-till seed drill to open up the soil enough for the new seed to make contact. These drills can sometimes be rented through local grazing groups. Good fertility, the right plant population and a good rotational paddock design are the keys to getting good production on your new pasture. Make sure you follow all requirements for your seed, such as planting organic seed or using seed that does not contain any prohibited treatments or inoculants.
Fencing that is already in place can be used even if the posts had been treated with prohibited materials, although your certifier may require an interior fence to prevent grazing right next to these posts. Any new fencing must comply with organic standards and cannot contain these prohibited materials.
205.206 (f) The producer must not use lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials for new installations or replacement purposes in contact with soil or livestock.
Natural wood, metal posts, and concrete posts are allowed. AC2 copper-treated posts are allowed with restrictions such as having a buffer in place between the posts and organic grazing land.
Check with your certifier for details about fencing.
Buffer zones are required along any pasture that borders conventional fields. A 25-30 foot buffer, which cannot be grazed or harvested for organic use, will help prevent contamination from neighboring conventional fields. In most cases, an interior electric or similar fence will be adequate. The buffer zone can be harvested mechanically, or by grazing non-organic livestock such as horses, it cannot be sold or used as organic.
I think that I am renting out my cropland for too little money. What is the going rental rate for organic cropland?
People often think that because land is certifiable as organic, and because the organic premium is higher than conventional prices, that organic cropland can command higher rental rates. This is definitely not true. Organic farmers are usually not willing to pay any more than the going rate for similar conventional cropland —nor should they, for a number of reasons.
Conventional farmers can focus only on the two most profitable crops: corn and soybeans. The advent of GMO, glyphosate-tolerant crops has allowed the two-crop rotation to become the norm. Spray for weeds, spray for pests, add synthetic fertilizer as needed and, as long as you have insurance to cover disaster and subsidies to cover low pricing, you have a “can’t-fail” system that is driving rental and land prices to historic highs.
Organic farmers cannot, by law, continually plant row crops year after year. They must use farming practices that protect and build soil. So they have more complex crop rotations that include cover crops, small grains and forages. They also cannot use the time- and labor-saving herbicides and pesticides. So they must have a much more long-term approach to build soil and control pests. It is not uncommon to see five- to seven-year rotations in organic row crop systems. Organic small grains and forages do not command the same premiums as corn and soybeans. Knowing that, organic farmers are unwilling to pay more than the going rate for rental land, and they usually want longer rental contracts to reap the results of soil building.
Organic farmers, also by law, have to protect the natural resources of the land they farm. The fence row to fence row, put-everything-under-cultivation approach of conventional row crop farmers may make perverse sense economically, but it has been a disaster for our natural re-sources. An estimated eight million new acres of previously unfarmed land, much of it sensitive wetland or previously conserved acreage, has gone under cultivation, mostly to conventional production, over the past five years due to the insatiable quest for more cropland.
Organic farmers must protect wetlands, streams and natural areas by rule, and because having diversity actually helps protect against disease and pest outbreaks. Landowners need to take into account long-term goals for their land, and not just consider the highest possible rental price when considering with whom to rent their land. If bulldozing down trees, ripping out fencerows, tearing out contour strips and terraces, filling in wetlands, spraying it all with glyphosate, and dousing it with anhydrous ammonia sounds incompatible with your land use vision, you should take that into account when negotiating rental rates with organic farmers.
Cropland rental rates vary considerably from region to region. Soil quality and land quantity are the main factors to consider. Marginal land that needs a lot of inputs to be productive will be on the low end, while larger acreages of high quality soil will command the highest rates. Rental rates may be as low as $125 and up to $250 or more per acre for the most desirable cropland. The best way to determine local rates is to talk with your county’s University Agricultural Extension Agent. They are usually familiar with the going rates in your area. Getting a soil test and understanding the results can help when negotiating rental rates.
It pays to talk with potential renters about their management practices. Ask them about their crop rotation plan, pest and weed control, their soil-building practices, and how they plan to prevent erosion and protect sensitive natural areas. Organic farmers should be able to explain their management practices. Landowners who care about the stewardship of their land should and will make their rental decision on more than maximizing rental rates.
For more information about organic contracts and rental agreements, see the the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) website at www.flaginc.org/publication/farmers-guide-to-organic-contracts.
Dairy farmers who want to ship organic milk and apply for first time organic certification during the winter months may need to have two inspections in one year. The first would be to review livestock activities and growing systems during the winter, and the second to actually view crops and pasture during the growing season in the summer.
Meat producers might need to purchase organic forages and grains this coming winter or spring in order to produce or sell organic animals next year. Brood animals must consume certified organic feed while they are in the last third of gestation in order for the offspring to be sold as organic meat animals. There cannot be retroactive organic certification for a previous year’s hay or grains, since they were not physically inspected while they were growing.
The ability to get certified this year also depends upon the certification agency’s workload and the inspector schedule. Most certification agencies can handle a limited number of “rush” applications. However, if the timeline is too short, or if the agency is already at capacity, it may be too late. In general, even a rush application will take a month to process from the time you submit your application to the date you receive your organic certificate. The initial review, the inspection and the final review are all required, and while they can be prioritized, they still take time and effort to be done correctly. A simple operation with only a few crops stands a better chance of getting a late season rush done than does a complicated farm with several crops, livestock and crops, or farms with processing facilities.
Ultimately, only the certification agency can tell you if you can obtain a late season organic certificate. Call your potential certification agencies immediately, explain your situation, and find out what your options might be.
If you sell bulk products with no retail label, you probably don’t need to go through the expense and time of registering a trademark–this is especially true if your farm name includes your family name, such as Smith Family Dairy or Johnson Farms.
The first step in getting a trademark for your farm name is to register the name with your home state and surrounding states if you plan to do business there. For many farms, this step provides enough protection and a national trademark is not necessary—you’ll need to assess your own risk to determine if state registries are sufficient.
To find a state registry, search the Internet for “trademark registry (state name).” These registry websites have a search feature that lets you enter the name you want to trademark to see if someone else has already registered that name in that state. If the name is available, you can follow the instructions on the website to register your farm name. The cost to do this can range from $15 to $100, depending on the state. Registering your farm name this way gives you legal protection to challenge others who try to use the same name. It does not guarantee that someone would not use your name outside of the registry system.
To obtain broader legal protection for your farm name, you would need to trademark it on the national level. Start by searching for your farm name in the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) at www.uspto.gov/trademarks. In fact, it’s worth your time to conduct a search even if you’re only going to enter your name in state registries. You could run into trouble, as I have, if you use a trademarked name even locally.
I have used my farm’s name for more than 20 years without a trademark or state registry. I recently received a “cease and desist” order from a company in California who had federally trademarked “Sweet Earth” 25 years ago in numerous food categories, including fresh produce. I am now in the midst of changing my farm’s name, a difficult and time-consuming process, but better than a lawsuit that I would lose if I tried to keep my farm’s name.
Obtaining your own national trademark involves a lot of searching, documentation and time. You can go through numerous confusing steps on the national trademark website and do it yourself, but I recommend hiring a lawyer that specializes in trademarks. The cost to hire a trademark lawyer to set up a national trademark will be $1,000 or more.
Once your name is trademarked, you must maintain that trademark by periodically informing the state or federal agency that it is still in use. This might be every three, five or ten years depending on the agency. Typically, there is not a fee for renewal of trademarks, but that might change.
Take time to think about potential future endeavors involving your farm name. If you decide you’ll market products under your farm name, do a thorough trademark search and register that name. Consider getting a trademark for your logo at the same time—it can save you time and money to do both trademark searches and applications together.
At farmers’ markets, where these exempt-from-certification growers often sell products, labeling can become an issue. It is unfair to producers who go through the strict requirements to achieve organic certification to see the label misused. In many cases, misuse is a result of ignorance, not malice. But, it can cause bad feelings between growers at a market, and impact a market’s reputation if patrons see “organic” being used loosely.
To ensure that vendors at a farmers’ market are using “organic” correctly, managers can ask them to sign a statement that they have followed organic rules. This not only makes vendors aware of the standards they must meet, but also satisfies certified organic farmers that their market neighbors are meeting the same strict rules.
The statement below covers many of the requirements that a smaller scale grower or livestock producer must meet in order to sell organically labeled products as a noncertified (“exempt”) organic farmer. It provides information on what practices and inputs are allowed in order to use the organic label, and can be a valuable educational tool.
Farmers’ market managers should feel free to modify this statement and have it reviewed by their own legal counsel. This type of statement should be updated each year to keep current with changes to organic regulations.
NOTE: Anyone may file an anonymous complaint at NOPcompliance@usda.gov to report someone who is making an organic claim who is not certified or exempt from certification requirements.
Statement for exempt-from-organic-certification producers to use the word “organic”
I am a producer that is not certified organic, but I use the word “organic” to describe my products or practices in the marketplace. The list below describes many of the requirements in the organic law that I follow in order to use the word “organic.” I have read and follow the full U.S. organic regulation, which is located at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
I affirm that:
1. I sell less than $5,000 annually in organically labeled products.
2. I have not planted any seeds that had synthetic treatments, such as fungicides or insecticides.
3. I have planted all organic seeds if they were available in the variety and quantity I required.
4. I have either grown transplants myself using only OMRI* or organic certifier organically approved potting mixes and other inputs or I have purchased certified organic transplants.
5. I have only applied fertility, pest, disease and weed management inputs that have either been approved by OMRI or by an organic certification agency. I understand that there are numerous agricultural input products that make organic claims that are untrue and I have gone the extra step to verify what I am using meets the organic law.
6. I have implemented a soil building rotation on my farm, where annual crops of the same type are not grown in succession in the same field. I also use plant and livestock based materials such as cover crops and compost to continually improve my soils.
7. I have not applied manure to my fields growing crops for human consumption any sooner than 90 days before harvest for crops that are not in contact with soil (i.e. sweet corn), or 120 days before harvest for crops that are in contact with soil (root crops, tomatoes, peppers etc.).
8. I have documentation that compost containing livestock originated components used on my farm meets the requirement of having a Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of between 25 to 1 and 40 to 1, has had a temperature maintained of 131 to 170 degrees F for 15 days and has been turned 5 times, or if in a static vessel, had this temperature maintained for 3 days.
9. All mammalian livestock has been managed organically from the last third of gestation of their mother to the day of slaughter. All poultry has been managed organically from the second day of life. Organic management includes 100% certified organic feed.
10. All livestock has had access to the outdoors, with ruminants receiving 30% of their nutrition from pasture during a minimum 120 day grazing season. All animal health products and feed supplements have either been OMRI approved or approved by an organic certification agency.
11. I have maintained documentation that verifies what I have stated above.
*OMRI=Organic Materials Review Institute (www.omri.org)
I read a news story recently that said organic produce isn't pesticide-free. Please explain this so I have information to share with my customers.
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes the maximum allowed levels of pesticides, or EPA tolerances, which may be present on foods. Although most EPA-registered pesticides are prohibited in organic production, there can be inadvertent or indirect contact from neighboring conventional farms or shared handling facilities. As long as the operator hasn’t directly applied prohibited pesticides and has documented efforts to minimize exposure to them, the USDA organic regulations allow residues of prohibited pesticides up to 5 percent of the EPA tolerance.
In 2010, the National Organic Program worked with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Science and Technology Program to evaluate pesticide residues on USDA organic produce. The study involved 571 domestic and foreign fruit and vegetable samples bearing the USDA organic seal, which were obtained from retail establishments across the United States. Using sensitive equipment, an accredited Government laboratory tested each sample for approximately 200 pesticides typically used in conventional crop production.
Of these 571 samples, 96 percent were compliant with USDA organic regulations. This means that the produce either had no detected residues (57 percent) or had residues less than 5 percent of the EPA tolerance (39 percent). Four percent of the tested samples contained residues above 5 percent of the EPA tolerance and were in violation of the USDA organic regulations. The findings suggest that some of the samples in violation were mislabeled conventional products, while others were organic products that hadn’t been adequately protected from prohibited pesticides. The National Organic Program is working with certifying agents to provide additional scrutiny in these areas.”
In short, there are three reasons for contamination: pollution, mishandling, or mislabeling.
We live in a polluted world, where water, rain, soil and the air can contain pesticide residues. Organic farmers do everything they can to minimize this contamination, and largely succeed according to the testing, but it is not possible to completely avoid the ubiquitous contamination of our shared environment. This is why organic does not claim to be “pesticide-free.”
Mishandling in the distribution and retail process can lead to pesticide residues on organic produce. Most stores handle both conventional and organic produce. Warehouses, crates, storage bins, boxes, displays and human hands can all be contaminated with pesticide residue. If organic food is not handled correctly, it can pick up pesticide residue from conventional produce. This is called commingling, which organic farmers and processors take great care to prevent, but once the product is sold and distributed, the handling is beyond their control.
Mislabeling or violation of the rules, either by accident or on purpose, is very rare—only 4 percent of samples tested exceeded EPA tolerance. As with all human endeavors though, it is possible that some organic produce was either mislabeled (conventional mislabeled as organic), or organic produce that was treated with pesticides against the USDA National Organic Standards.
Resources & Research:
- Carbon-Management Tool
The USDA released a new “Carbon Management and Evaluation Tool” known as COMET-FARM. This free, online tool estimates the ‘carbon footprint’ for all or part of your farm/ranch operation and allows you to evaluate different options, which you select, for reducing GHG emissions and sequestering more carbon. General guidance is provided about potential changes to your management practices that are likely to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual
SARE Outreach announces a new planning resource for farmers seeking sound, science-based guidelines for managing crop rotations in organic farming. Download a free copy or order online www.sare.org/WebStore.
- Driftwatch™ registry
Certified organic growers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Delaware and Montana can register their land in the Driftwatch™ registry managed by Purdue University. The mapping tool provides a way for organic and specialty crop farmers to identify fields they want to protect from pesticide spraying. Beekeepers also can mark the locations of beehives. Applicators who register with the site receive email notifications with map updates. It is free to use this service.Farmers in states not served by DriftWatch can register fields/hives through state ag departments in Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
eOrganic website provides scientific, experience, and certification based information on organic farming for farmers, extension agents, agricultural professionals, and the general public. eOrganic provides articles, videos, webinars, and an ask-an-expert service, all which are free, peer reviewed, and checked for compliance with organic certification regulations. Topics include dairy farming, soils, weeds, disease, and pest management, vegetable production, and organic certification and marketing.
- Fact Sheet: Organic Farming Practices
The USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) has published a fact sheet explaining changes to the federal crop insurance program for organic farming practices. These changes include eliminating the 5% organic surcharge and changes to theTransitional yields* (T-Yield) offered to organic producers beginning with crop year 2014. RMA is also working toward having organic prices in crop year 2014 or 2015 for almonds, apples, barley, blueberries, oats, pears, additional stonefruits, table grapes and wheat.A transitional yield, in this instance, does not refer to the yields during the transition to certified organic production. For crop insurance purposes, a T-yield is an average yield for a county, determined by RMA in the collection of producer data, which may be used to substitute for low yields in a producer’s yield history (‘yield substitutions’) or to ensure an overall minimum level of insurance coverage. The purpose of the T-Yield is to minimize the downward impact on insurance coverage that can occur after an unusually bad year, or series of years.
- Farm Employment FAQ Available Online
Practical Farmers of Iowa offers “Farm Employment FAQ,” to help Iowa farmers and farm workers better understand their rights and responsibilities as employers and employees. The resource functions as a starting point for farmers and workers to find answers to common questions and links to other resources. The goal of the FAQ is to help farmers gain more insight into how to comply with state and federal labor laws.
- Get ready for the upcoming vegetable growing season! Cornell recently published a Second Edition of the Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management. It’s free to download the PDF.
- GMO Contamination Prevention: What Does it Take?
The University of Minnesota has created an 8-page guide to preventing GMO contamination in organic crops. This 8 MB PDF covers best practices for both GMO and non-GMO growers regarding planting, harvesting, storage, transport, buyers, recordkeeping and risks.
- Guide to Organic and Organic-Related USDA Programs
An online PDF, provides information about all USDA programs and services related to organic agriculture.
- How To Go Organic
A web-based collection of resources from around the country. Useful for farmers or processors interested in understanding organic production, processing and marketing. Sponsored by the Organic Trade Association.
- Manuals on Organic Plant Breeding
Organic Seed Alliance just published four organic plant breeding manuals to encourage organic farmers to participate in developing varieties suited to organic systems. The manuals include an introduction to plant breeding and three crop-specific manuals that provide step-by-step instruction for identifying good breeding material and maintaining a new variety for quality and uniformity.
- New Proceedings of the 2011 USDA Organic Farming Systems Research Conference
Research and perspectives from researchers on the positivity of organic agriculture and a synopsis from the 2011 conference.
- USDA Organic 101 Blog
A series of Organic 101 pieces that will explore the different rules within the USDA organic regulations.
From the Organic Broadcaster:
2014 has been a banner year for pollinators in the media and public policy. Almost daily, we look around amazed at the flood of news articles about bees…. Read more.
The 2014 Farm Bill has opened the door for the creation of an Organic Research and Promotion Program, a.k.a. an organic check-off. Read more.
In 2010, I came across a fascinating map called the Carbon Ranch that detailed every possible activity for sequestering carbon in the landscape. Read more.
Let’s be honest—even with all the challenges of farming, few of us are likely to yearn for a cubicle somewhere, working on a presentation about…. Read more.
Dow AgriScience is pushing for deregulation of its Enlist Duo™ program—herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans genetically engineered…. Read more.
“Seeds are a sacred thing. Everything we have now is built on farmers selecting seeds for millennia. All of that genetic diversity is a great gift….” Read more.
There can be many innovative ways to move our farms towards greater energy self-sufficiency. As Bill McKibben has said, rather than looking for a single silver bullet, we should look for silver buckshot…. Read more.
With the changing climate delivering hotter, drier summers, many farmers are seeking solutions by irrigating crops. Read more.
The USDA Risk Management Agency introduced new procedures and government subsidized insurance options for all crop and livestock farmers. Read more here.
A 5-year farm bill was signed into law on Feb. 7, 2014. Read more here.
There are some simple equations you can run to tease out the financial implications of any purchase. Read more here.
Converting Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land to organic production looks attractive: the land is already certifiable…. Read more here.
More frequent droughts and changing climate patterns are creating interest in permaculture concepts, especially water management systems such as keyline design. Read more here.
Keyline Design 101: Farmers learn water management in field from Mark Shepard
January | February 2014
On a hillside of stubble from recently harvested oats, 40 people crowded around a 1960s Oliver diesel tractor…. Read more here.
A new effort is underway in Wisconsin to document the history of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement in the U.S. Read more here.
Many of us dream of doing something powerful with our lives, but may never realize those dreams. Read more here.
Many organic producers in the Upper Midwest once again had weather challenges in 2013…. Read more here.
“With your eyes to the west, You keep watching the sky, While the leaves start to curl, ‘Cause the crops are so dry. It’s like everyone says’…. Read more here.
Mark Shepard is a unique farmer. In fact “farmer” might not really be the right term. Part ecologist, part forester, part farmer, part pioneer, part experimenter…. Read more here.
Amid reports of an “explosion” of glyphosate-resistant weeds, such as kochia, waterhemp and ragweed…. Read more here.
The defeat of California’s ballot initiative in 2012 to label genetically engineered foods, known as Prop 37, has strengthened the resolve…. Read more here.
The whole organic community agrees that we need to promote organic agriculture and fund research…. Read more here.