Ask an Organic Specialist

MOSES Organic Specialists are experienced organic farmers/organic inspectors who can answer your questions about organic farming practices and organic certification.

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Speak to an organic specialist.

Organic Answer Line
888-90-MOSES    (888-906-6737 ext. 1)

Our Specialists

Chuck Anderas, MOSES
ext. 700
Before joining our team, Chuck was an organic inspector and certification agent with MOSA, and has worked on small-scale fruit, vegetable, and livestock farms. He has a degree in agricultural education from the University of Minnesota. He and his family live on a small farm near MOSES.

Rodrigo Cala—Vegetables
ext. 717
Rodrigo Cala owns and operates Cala Farm Origenes with his brother. They sell certified organic produce in the Twin Cities. Rodrigo Cala grew up farming near Mexico City and moved to Minnesota in 1996. In 2005, Rodrigo began farming at Big River Farms before purchasing his own farm in western Wisconsin in 2008. Rodrigo is a farmer-owner of Shared Ground Farmers’ Co-op and an agricultural trainer with the Latino Economic Development Center. Rodrigo advises farmers on organic certification, food safety, land access, loan applications, farm finances, farm machinery, and greenhouse production.

Naima Dhore—Vegetables 
ext. 711
Naima hails from Somalia. She is a farmer and the founder of the Somali American Farmers Association. Naima has completed beginning farmers programs in Minnesota like Minnesota Farmers Association. She also had the opportunity to go to Cuba for a scholarship to study Cuban agroecology. Naima wants to strengthen the foundations of Somali and Horn of Africa farmers to contribute to the future of agriculture in Minnesota and the Midwest.

Carmen Fernholz—Grains & Row Crops
ext. 715
Carmen has been growing certified organic grain and forage crops at A-Frame Farm in western Minnesota since 1975 and has a wealth of knowledge on production, cover crops, and weed and fertility management. Carmen is involved with research at the University of Minnesota. He and his wife, Sally, were the 2005 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year.


Rachel Henderson—Fruit & Pigs
ext. 708
Rachel and her husband, Anton, own and operate Mary Dirty Face Farm near Menomonie, Wis. They grow 9 acres of certified organic berries, apples, pears, and plums. They’ve recently added livestock as an additional enterprise for the farm. Rachel is past coordinator of the Organic Fruit Growers Association.


Beatrice Kamau—Beekeeping, Vegetables, & Urban Farming
ext. 718
Beatrice was born in Kenya and has lived in Chicago, IL for over 20 years. For the last 4 years, Beatrice has being growing vegetables that are popular among African immigrant communities. She is also beekeeping through Farmers For Chicago, (FFC), a farmer training program offered by Urban Growers Collective, and presented on beekeeping at the 2020 MOSES Conference. Beatrice is the co-founder of an international network of beekeepers called African Women in Beekeeping. In addition to beekeeping, Beatrice is knowledgeable in business management and accounting, composting, growing mushrooms, food safety, vegetables, and microgreens. She is also a licensed practical nurse.


Mhonpaj Lee—Vegetables & Land Access
ext. 716
Mhonpaj has a lifetime of experience growing vegetables. Her family’s farm, Mhonpaj’s Garden, was the first Hmong certified organic farm in Minnesota back in 2005. She worked with Big River Farms for over 10 years, supporting immigrant and refugee farmers.

Mhonpaj muaj lub neej dhau los ntawm kev ua zaub. Nws tsev neeg daim liaj teb,(organic)tsis rau civ, Mhonpaj’s Garden, yog thawj qhov Hmoob lees paub ua liaj ua teb hauv Minnesota rov qab rau xyoo 2005. Nws tau ua haujlwm nrog Big River Farms ntau tshaj 10 xyoo, txhawb nqa cov neeg tsiv teb tsaws chaw thiab cov neeg tawg rog.


Kevin Mahalko—Dairy & Livestock Grazing
ext. 714
Kevin Mahalko has an organic dairy herd in Gilman, Wis., producing milk for the Organic Valley Grassmilk program. Kevin is president of Grassworks, a grazing educator for River Country RC&D and an educator for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program.


Jennifer Nelson—Land Access
ext. 709
Jennifer and her husband co-own Humble Pie Farm in Plum City, Wis., where they grow wholesale flowers and vegetables. Jennifer’s work with MOSES is as a Land Access Navigator to help farmers secure land to grow.




Answers to Farmers’ Questions



Where can I get practical information about organic farming?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson: From MOSES, of course! When I began working as an Organic Specialist for MOSES in early July 2015, I spent some time perusing our website. I was amazed by the breadth of quality resources available! I’m a farmer and understand the value of our time during the busy growing season. Often though, that’s also the time that we need production help or policy answers. If you find yourself finishing some late night or early morning bookwork or record-keeping, and have a moment to look for an answer to that day’s burning question, hop on over to our website where you’ll very likely find the answer you seek.

A great place to start is the Farming dropdown on the main menu bar across the top of the page. Go on down to By Topic, where you can choose from Farming (in general), Field Crops, Livestock, Market Farming, Orchard, Season Extension, Soils & Systems. If your question fits in any one of these categories specifically, it’s a nice way to narrow down your search. Within each of these specific categories are links to a wide range of resources from a variety of sources, including MOSES Fact Sheets, an archive of MOSES Ask a Specialist answers to previously asked questions, latest research and articles from other sources like the USDA and SARE, and archived Organic Broadcaster articles.

For example, season extension is something we all think about as we ease into fall. It’s on my mind, so I wanted to see what I could learn from our website—I found a plethora of information! I started at the Farming dropdown on the main page, then clicked “By Topic” and chose the Season Extension link. From there I had the options of Resources, Research, Books, Funding, Suppliers and From the Organic Broadcaster. I also had the option of clicking on the Community Calendar button to look at various field days and events to see if any were focused on Season Extension information. I decided to begin with ordering a book that I could put on my winter reading list. I clicked on The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman, and the MOSES Online Store popped open, making it easy for me to purchase the book I wanted. I also saw that this book was in the “Season Extension” category. When I clicked on the category link,

I found more books plus several audio recordings from MOSES Conference workshops that covered growing in high tunnels.

Even if season extension might not be your burning issue, you can see what I mean about drilling down to find great resources on our website. If you don’t find answers for your specific topic, go over to the right side of the screen and click on the big question mark in the box that says “Questions about Organic Farming? Ask a Specialist.” This will direct you to the MOSES Organic Answer Line to call during business hours. If you’re on late night/early morning farmer hours, send a message by clicking the Ask an Organic Specialist button on that page. We’ll email or call you back with a response to your issue just as soon as we can.

At MOSES we strive to educate, inspire, and empower farmers to thrive in a sustainable, organic system of agriculture. We want to answer your questions, and support you in implementing those answers. Please take advantage of our website to ensure your organic farming success!

Is it possible to find out how many certified organic operations are in my state?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti:

The place to start your search is the MOSES website: Here are a few of the resources listed there:

The USDA maintains a national list of certified organic operations under “List of Certified Operations” at You can search by state, products, and many other parameters. This is the only list that has certified farms all in one place. Every certification agency also has a list of their certified operations on their website, but since multiple certifiers operate in many areas of the country, it is difficult to determine the total number of certified operations in a state by searching these lists.

The USDA ERS also maintains a useful webpage with links to national and state organic production information. See
You can find a lot of information about organic production, including state and county data, from the last Farm Census (2012). See

The University of Wisconsin did a report in 2012 that has specific data for the state, including a map with the locations of organic farms and processors. It’s online at

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture also has a good webpage dedicated to organic agriculture in that state. See

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.

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: The USDA study entitled “Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce- 2010-11 Pilot Study,” explains how organic produce might test positive for pesticide residues.

“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.

How can I get involved in farm policy

Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy:

Policy plays an important role in our agricultural communities. Whether you’re discussing federal farm policy building conservation grants or more local policy governing infrastructure, the policies created have a huge impact on our food and farming systems.

Depending on your interests, there are many different ways and places to get involved in the creation of policy that can be impactful for your farm and community. My first recommendation would be to start with the organizations that you may already have membership in. For example, Wisconsin Farmers Union, Land Stewardship Project, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Practical Farmers of Iowa – and too many others to possibly list here – all include policy advocacy in their work. Consider looking through their websites, calling their offices, and finding out how you might be able to get involved. Member-based organizations that focus on policy appreciate hearing from their members. They may have meetings, listening sessions, or committees that you could participate in as you learn more about policy and share your insights. If you’re already a member (or would consider becoming one), you can develop deeper relationships with the staff and fellow members both in the realm of policy and beyond. These groups will want to know what policies and programs are helping their members and how less-helpful regulations or programs might be improved to offer better support.

Often, groups like these will be involved in larger policy collaborations. They will collect ideas and input from their community and share them in a larger regional or national dialogue. Along with many other organizations, MOSES is a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC). These coalitions are made up of many smaller organizations that pool resources and information to work toward building sturdy and intelligent policy platforms that support farmers, consumers, the environment, and rural communities across the country.

If you don’t have the interest or energy to participate in local or regional conversations, you can consider donating to policy advocacy coalitions that your favorite local groups are involved in. You can also visit their websites and consider signing up for newsletters or “action alerts” that will help you know when something important to you is being discussed and which representatives you could call to express your stance on the issue.

Beyond participating in these organizations, there are lots of ways to be involved in the policy that supports farms, the food system, and rural life. If you are just starting to learn and engage, you can stop by the Policy Place at the MOSES Conference to chat with organizations that impact policy and learn more about the programs that come from it. You can even sit in on specific Roundtable discussions about how to leverage Farm Bill programs for your own farm business.

Federal farm policy has brought many amazing programs to the farming community. You can also contact your local FSA and NRCS offices to learn about programs that might help your farm – whether they are NRCS-CSP grants that offer financial incentives for conservation work, FSA loans to help you capitalize and operate your farm, or NRCS-EQIP reimbursements that can help you put in needed infrastructure for your operations— it’s good to know how the policy behind them can help you.

For those who have more of a drive to get involved, there are plenty of opportunities to engage in local government or community groups that drive policy. Perhaps you want to consider becoming a county commissioner. What about joining that farmer-led watershed initiative in your area?

There are many ways to be watching, learning, and engaging as we head into the next Farm Bill cycle. It’s important that we all pay attention and contact our representatives when needed to make sure that the policies our local, state, and national bodies create positively impacts our farms and the environment and communities that we share.

As I review my 2016 farm finances and prepare to file taxes, what resources can help me plan for next year and beyond?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson:

Knowing where you’ve come from in your farm business can help you know where to go. Keeping good, clear financial records is key to your future farm business success. Applying those well-kept records using helpful financial planning tools can ensure that you make sound financial decisions going forward, and avoid pitfalls from the past.

MOSES has been working on updating Fearless Farm Finances, a one-of-a-kind resource packed with instructions, tips and tools for setting up and managing a farm’s financial system. First published in 2012, the latest version will be available next month. While I recommend reading the whole book, and attending upcoming workshops in 2017, here are a few tips that really capture how to use your records to move forward with your farm business.

Chapter 19 offers an invaluable tool for your financial planning: an annual cash flow projection, also referred to as a “pro forma” cash flow. Using a cash flow projection tool, you can plot out on a month-by-month basis when cash income will be received and when cash expenses will need to be paid. You will also be able to predict which months your cash flow will not meet your needs and how to plan ahead to cover those cash shortfalls.

You’ll start with the good financial records from the last year of any enterprise in your farm business, and include pay stubs from off-farm employment, tax returns, and bank records to help build your cash flow projection. You can create your own cash flow projection using Excel spreadsheets, available templates from universities and financial institutions, or the budgeting function on your bookkeeping software.

You can even create a simple cash flow projection in a notebook.
Using the financial records outlined above, you can then create your income and expense categories and fill them in. This can be as simple or as complicated as your farm operation, or as you choose. From there you’ll create your cash flow projection for each month. Farming has many variables, and farmers understand the need to be flexible and creative.

You can keep track of the variables in your cash flow projection and resulting budget through good monitoring, outlined in chapter 20. Monitoring is regular assessment of where you are headed so you know if, on that trajectory, you can expect to achieve the goals you’ve set. While assessing, you can decide if you’re on or off track, and if your circumstances have changed, and finally what you need to do to accommodate the changes.

The newly updated Fearless Farm Finances recommends: “Ideally, every month you will compare your actual cash flow to your plan (your budgeted cash flow) to assess your financial status relative to your annual goals. This requires a budget that lays out expectations for monthly progress. It also requires that you regularly enter data in your bookkeeping system. Recognizing the value of, and having a commitment to periodically assessing your performance relative to your plan provides an incentive to keep up with the weekly work of financial data entry.

Monitoring progress should lead directly to actions that control negative deviations and adjust for positive developments, and a recognition of when things are working right.

Regular monitoring can help guide your decisions as you continue through the farm season. While it can be challenging to keep up with bookkeeping in the heart of the busy farm season, it is time you can’t afford not to set aside. Knowing where you’re at with cash flow in August can save you from difficulties in October, not to mention the end of the year.

Invest in your financial future with more knowledge and tools to guide your farm business planning. Fearless Farm Finances is a great place to start. The book will be available in the MOSES Conference Bookstore and our online bookstore ( at the end of February.



Should I hire a pest management service for my on-farm crop storage?

Answer by Chuck Anderas:

You would have to crunch the numbers to determine the financial impact of the pests and how much it will cost to pay for a company to take care of them for you. If you have had major pest issues that you haven’t been able to control on your own, then going with a pest control company might be the best bet—but you will still be responsible for the organic integrity of your operation. It will be important to clearly communicate to the company what the organic regulations are and how they will work in your context.

Whether you decide to go with a company or do the work yourself, you’ll need to have your certifier approve your pest management plan before you implement it.

The plan has to start with the “least toxic, most effective” means of controlling the pest. The first practical step, as it says in the facility pest management practice standard (§205.271), is to remove pest habitat, food sources, and breeding areas, try your best to prevent pests from entering the facility, and manage environmental factors. Pests can also be controlled using mechanical/physical means, like snapping mouse traps for example. When I worked in certification, I often saw cats and dogs listed in the facility pest management section of Organic System Plans.

If none of that works, you can use natural lures or repellents (or synthetic ones that are on the National List of approved synthetics). Vitamin D3 baits are one example of products that fit into that category. The OMRI certificates of vitamin D3 products include this restriction: “For use as a pesticide only in conjunction with the facility pest management practices provided for in paragraphs 205.271(a) and (b) and only if those practices are not effective to prevent or control pests alone.” So basically, if you can’t keep pests out and mechanical means of taking care of them are ineffective, you can use this product with approval from your certifier.

If restricted products like that don’t work, then you can go to synthetic products that are not on the National List as long as your plan is approved by your certifier. A synthetic substance may be used provided that “the handler and certifying agent agree on the substance, method of application, and measures to be taken to prevent contact of the organically produced products or ingredients with the substance used.” After you’ve shown that your previous steps weren’t effective, your plan and the specific product must be approved by your certifier. No matter what, you have to keep the pest control product away from your stored organic crops, organic land, and organic animals.

I'm applying for certification for the first time in 2020. What should I do now to prepare?

Answer by Organic Specialist Chuck Anderas:  Organic certification has four big steps each year: application, initial review, inspection, and final review. Now is the time to start on the first step. It is the most work in the first year—from the second year on, most of the information will carry over from the year before. The learning curve in the first year may be intimidating, but it levels out pretty quickly after that.
Start by selecting a certification agency. The MOSES fact sheet “Organic Certification & Tips for Choosing a Certifier” suggests questions you can ask to help you find a certifier that’s suited to your operation. The fact sheet is #19 at Browse the Midwest Organic Resource Directory for information about certification agencies in this region. It’s online at or available in print by calling the MOSES Organic Answer Line, 888-90-MOSES.

Contact your certifier early.
This will help you make sure you are on the right path. If you’ve ever asked a certification question at a field day or conference workshop, you heard “ask your certifier.” While this may seem like a cop-out, it is actually the best answer for context-specific questions about certification. If you are wondering if you are allowed to do a specific practice within your system, the certifier has the ultimate say on whether it is allowed or not. Even if you’re pretty sure an input is allowed, check with your certifier first. They are only a phone call away.
Make sure that you get your application in with enough time to spare before you need to sell organic crops. This should be a minimum of 90 days before harvest (or you may have to pay a fee to expedite your inspection).
Have the certifier send you an application in the mail, or sign up on their online application system early.

Document your transition date.
When was the last prohibited material applied to the fields you want to certify? What are you planting in the fields that will be certified this year? Your field must pass 36 months since the last application of a prohibited material, such as herbicide or synthetic fertilizer, before you harvest any organic crop. That means if you or the previous manager applied herbicide on 6/14/2017, then your field would be eligible for organic production on or after 6/14/2020. If you have a later transition date, make sure to plant a crop with a harvest date after the transition date. You can plant crops intended to be sold as organic before your transition date—the only thing that matters with the transition date is the harvest.
If you have managed the land for the past 36 months, you can document your own management of the land. If someone else managed the land for some or all of the last 36 months, the previous manager needs to sign a document with some information about how they managed the land. Note that land ownership is irrelevant in organic certification—certification is of both the land and how it is managed. Certifiers have forms that will help you gather the information you need to document your transition date.

Collect and organize your records.
As a certified organic farmer you will have to keep good records, but don’t worry if you haven’t kept perfect records during your transition. Get together what you can from the past three years. Your inspector will look it over and report to the certifier what you have and what is missing. There are some records that you need to have that your certifier will ask you to send in after your inspection. For example, you will need receipts for all seed purchases for the entire transition period. If you have missing seed records from 2017 until now, you can probably get these records from your seed supplier. Your certifier will let you know if other kinds of records are missing, like if you forgot to record a cultivation. Your certification letter at final review will help you learn what is missing for next year.

Transition your animals.
The 36-month transition period for land doesn’t apply to livestock. Different kinds of animals and animal products have specific requirements to be eligible to be certified. Dairy animals have to be managed organically for one year before you sell organic milk. They can be transitioned on third year transitional feed from your farm during this transition. Any purchased feed must be certified organic.
Animals meant for organic slaughter cannot be transitioned. They have to be managed organically from the last third of gestation all the way through their slaughter and packaging. Brood animals can come in and out of organic management. Poultry must be managed organically from their second day
of life whether they are for meat or eggs.
For a more thorough explanation of certification rules for livestock, see the 32-page Guidebook for Organic Certification. It’s online at

Talk to a MOSES Organic Specialist.
MOSES has a team of Organic Specialists to help answer your questions about organic production and certification. We can help you answer questions that your certifier can’t—certifiers are not allowed to help you overcome barriers to certification. They can tell you what the rules are and they can tell you if what you want to do is allowed or not, but they can’t give you advice on what to do. If you are a dairy farmer, your certifier can tell you that your cows need at least 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season. They can tell you whether or not you are currently meeting that requirement, but they can’t help you to improve your grazing plan. You can call us through the Organic Answer Line, 888-90-MOSES, or email us at with your questions.

What are my options for hands-on farmer training programs in the U.S.?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson: Whenever anyone asks, “What’s your advice for an aspiring farmer-to-be?” my consistent answer is always: “Work for a few seasons on different farms!” The experience—good and bad—gained while working for different farmers, in different situations, with different farming styles and markets, is always invaluable.

One way to do this is to work for a producing farm as a hired farm worker. Many farms will offer informal education opportunities as a part of employment. You can look for farm job openings on the MOSES Job Postings page (, or the Land Stewardship Project’s page,, which lists ads from farms looking for help. Click on “Seeking Internship or Employment” on that page to post your own ad.

If you’re looking for a more formalized hands-on internship or farm training, there are a few programs that will offer not only good experience, but also classroom instruction in farming production and business. These include the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, EarthDance Organic Farming Apprenticeship Program, FARRMS, Michigan State University’s Organic Farmer Training Program, and the Organic Farm School in Washington state. More training programs are listed on Scroll down the page to the heading “Learn to Farm.”

I have land that has been managed organically for more than three years. Do I still need to wait 36 months to transition it to organic?

Answer by Lauren Langworthy

Farmers who have been utilizing organic practices for years, but have not been certified, might not have to wait a full 36 months between when they decide to transition to organic and when they can harvest their first organic crop. This is commonly referred to as “fast tracking” land.


It is important to understand that land being fast tracked must comply with all the same rules as any other transitioning land. The land must have been free of prohibited substances and managed in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP) for 36 months or more.


Farmers who think their land is immediately eligible will need to prove the land’s eligibility to a certifier. The operator (or previous operator) can sign a declaration explaining the land’s use during the previous 36 months, showing that no prohibited substances have been used. The most important fact to include in this declaration is the date when the last prohibited substance was used. Often, this will be the date that a field was last sprayed with an herbicide, pesticide, or synthetic fertilizer.


A common example of “fast tracked” land is grassland expiring from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to transition into organic pasture land. Because the landowner can provide documentation of how long that land has been under a CRP contract and any waivers for managing undesirable species (through mowing or spot spraying), they can clearly demonstrate

how long the land has been free of prohibited substances. The landowner can write a short explanation of the land’s previous use, include support documentation (such as an NRCS contract, waivers, or a receipt from a custom applicator), and submit this all to the organic certifier. Many organic certifiers have forms that can be used to complete this process.


The certifier will then do the necessary due diligence to verify that the land has been free of prohibited substances. The certifier may contact farmers or landowners for additional information. Once the certifier is satisfied, the certification agency can help the farmer move forward through the certification process. Often, farmers have fallow land, hay ground, pasture, small-scale vegetables, or other low-maintenance fields that they manage without the use of prohibited substances. These are all likely candidates for fast tracking. However, it is important to make sure that the land’s history does, indeed, qualify for organic transition. Some farmers believe that they are following the National Organic Program (NOP) rules, but without inspections and a certifier checking in, it is possible they’ve been applying a prohibited substance to their land without knowing it’s prohibited.


If you have questions about whether or not your land might be eligible for certification, you can start by reading MOSES’ Guidebook for Organic Certification to better understand organic production rules. You can also contact the MOSES Organic Specialists at 715-778-5775 with your questions, or contact a certifier about a particular substance that has been applied to your field.

I am applying for organic certification for the first time. How do I choose a certification agency?

Answer by Jennifer Nelson:

The standards used by all organic certification agencies are the same USDA organic regulations. Agencies compete for your business based on service and price. The research you do now to choose“I have land that has been managed organically for more than three years. Do I still need to wait 36 months to transition it to organic?” a certification agency that is a good match for your farm will hold you in good stead for years to come.

You can switch agencies if you are unhappy with the service. However, certifiers usually have an extra fee for a first time application. If you move from agency to agency, you will pay this fee more than once. It is easier and less expensive to stay with one certification agency that gets to know your operation.

To help you find the best agency to handle your certification, start by talking to other organic farmers about their experience with their agencies. The organic farmer community is an invaluable resource in many ways, but especially as you work to establish and develop the very important relationship with your organic certifier.
Ask how long the farmers had to wait for the inspection to occur, their application to be reviewed, and their yearly certificate to be issued. This certification timeline tells you when you can expect to be able to sell your products for the organic price.

Are the agency’s policies, sample forms and templates easy to understand and use? Good record-keeping is an important piece of responsible farming and organic certification. It’s essential that the agency’s policies and templates are accessible and easy for the farmer to use.

Does the agency offer educational activities or field days, and a newsletter? After you talk with the organic farmers in your community, talk to the potential buyers of your organic products. If your buyer has a certification agency preference, you could consider being certified by that agency. If the buyer wants your organic product to be approved for sale to foreign countries, you should verify that your chosen certification agency is knowledgeable of these special certification requirements.

Finally, call a few agencies to compare their fees and timelines for processing your certification. Our online Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory lists contact information for certification agencies—choose “Certification Agencies” in the dropdown beside Category Name. The directory also is available in a spiral-bound book; call 715-778-5775 to request a print copy.

Some agencies charge a flat fee plus a surcharge based on the dollar value of your yearly organic sales. Others have a sliding scale dependent on your anticipated organic sales, or on the amount of acreage of various commodities. In addition, some charge a fee to review each purchased crop or animal production input (fertilizers, animal health materials, feed supplements, pest control products, etc.). There may be an extra “membership” fee or “administrative” fee. Make sure you have a clear understanding of all the potential costs so you can make an informed decision. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you want a responsive and helpful certifier, you may need to pay more since it costs money to have trained people on staff to take your call.

Find out if the agency certifies other farms in your region. The cost of certification typically is shared between many producers in a region. It makes sense to share expenses for the inspector’s mileage, food, and lodging with other area farmers, rather than having to carry the financial burden of these costs on your own. Also ask if the agency certifies other operations similar in scope to yours. The agency you choose should be familiar with your type of production—dairy, vegetables, sheep, grapes, nut trees, maple syrup, food processing—so your certification goes smoothly.

What type of farm maps do I need for my organic system plan application?

Answer by Harriet Behar:

Your organic system plan (OSP) organic certification application includes the locations that various practices and inputs are used on your farm. Your organic certification agency uses your written plan as well as your yearly on-site annual inspection to verify your farming operation meets the requirements of the organic regulation. Field maps, as well as maps that illustrate the location of all livestock housing, feed storage, crop storage, greenhouse or high tunnel production, input storage, other buildings and production facilities which are integral to your farming operation should be provided as part of your OSP.

For field maps, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), can provide easy-to-read aerial maps for each of the farm fields that you own or lease for agricultural production. FSA offices are in every county or region. You can find the one nearest you by going online to All fields under your management should be present, even if you do not sell organic crops or pasture organic animals on some of those fields.

You could also use internet websites such as Google Earth (, or to get aerial photographs of your homestead, fields and pastures. Hand-drawn maps are acceptable, as long as they are drawn to scale. Many times it is easier to use a wider aerial view photograph as a map of your fields, and a hand-drawn map of your homestead to illustrate livestock housing and crop storage.

While it is not a mandate, it is useful to note items such as thick stands of trees in the fencerows, streams or roads that act as buffer zones between your land and adjoining land where prohibited materials are used. Describing the features of the buffer zones on the maps helps both you and the certifying agent determine if a buffer zone where no organic crops can be harvested is necessary, or if it is of sufficient size and type to prevent drift or runoff of materials that are prohibited in organic production.

You can also note which land adjoining your organic fields are managed by non-organic farmers. If you have an adjoining land-use affidavit from a neighbor stating they do not use any prohibited materials on their pastures (for instance), you could note that neighbor’s name on the map. This would help the certification agency understand which field borders are covered by which adjoining land-use affidavit.

Note all locations of grain and forage storage, and if you have both organic and non-organic (includes transitional) storage on the farm, note which types of storage they are on the map using a number, letter or other designation. If you are renting cropland or storage away from your home farm, note the street address or nearby road junctions on the map, as a way to aid the certification agency in understanding where these parcels are located.

If you are rotationally grazing using permanent paddocks, you could note each paddock on the map, or at least note which larger pasture field contains which paddocks. If you are using moveable fencing, you do not need to draw in these temporary fence lines on the map. Even if you are not selling your livestock as organic, if you have pasture on your farm, it should be noted. Locations where livestock have access to surface waters and other watering areas could also be noted.

Each farm field, pasture, and storage location should have a designation, such as a number, letter or name, with a corresponding field history or storage record. These designations should be present on both the map and your other documentation. Vegetable growers should note locations and names of permanent structures such as unheated high tunnels or heated greenhouses, cold frames and packing sheds or outdoor produce post-harvest areas. For those with great diversity in their fields, tracking which crops are grown by row or bed from year to year on a map can double as both an illustration of where the crops are grown as well as a field history of your crop rotation and the corresponding input or manure applications used on each crop. Areas where irrigation may be drawing from surface waters should on the map.

Making sure that all necessary areas are noted on clear maps, along with the corresponding descriptive information in your OSP, will help your certifier’s initial review of your application and your annual organic inspection go quicker, with less questions and confusion.

I am considering organic certification, but I am concerned that the recordkeeping will be too difficult. Any suggestions?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

In my many years of organic inspection, the most profitable and productive organic farmers were those who also kept good records. The documentation you keep need not be burdensome, and should be considered part of running your operation. The historical reference these records provide is one of the most valuable management tools on your farm, helping you repeat successes and avoid repeating costly errors.

Your records will give you answers to questions such as: Which crop rotation results in lowered weed or plant disease pressure? Can you see a production increase where you purchased and applied an expensive fertility input? Which seed varieties did best in your soils and climate? Did you over produce a specific crop and not have enough of another?

For vegetable growers, keeping track of the timing of succession plantings and their harvest dates is very useful. By keeping track of your activities, inputs, harvests and sales, you will be able to have this information at your fingertips when making decisions year to year.

You are not required to keep records in a specific way. You can use a calendar by the door, a spiral book in your pickup truck, or your smart phone. The documentation must be easily understood by your organic inspector, though. So if you use code words, tell the inspector what they mean.

The records need not be excessively detailed. Every time you feed a bale of hay, you do not need to write that down. You should document how much hay you make and have on hand in the fall, and periodically take an inventory so you can track how much you are feeding. This way, if you need to buy more organic hay, you can plan ahead and probably get a better price now rather than waiting until early spring when the availability and market is tighter. This will also help the organic inspector track that you have sufficient organic forage for your organic livestock.

For items you purchase, make sure they are approved by your organic certification agency before you buy and apply them. Keep labels and invoices for all inputs and seeds as a useful reference for the future. They also happen to be part of the organic audit trail.

There are numerous computer programs you can search for on the internet to help you with your recordkeeping. ATTRA ( has recordkeeping forms on their website and many organic certification agencies also provide templates to help you with maintaining your activities and inputs from year to year.

How can I reduce the costs associated with my organic certification?

Answer by Lauren Langworthy:

There are a couple different cost share options for organic farmers across the country to help reduce the burden of certification fees. The most widely available is the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP). It’s available to all certified organic producers and handlers in the United States, as well as several territories and commonwealths. Certain states also have access to Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) Organic Certification Cost Share Program funds for producers. Only certified organic operations are eligible for these programs. To access them, contact your certification agency or state Department of Agriculture for the application.

These programs use a reimbursement model. Your organic operation will need to cover the costs up front and get a paid invoice from the certifying agency. Then, complete and submit all the required application components including a copy of your current organic certificate and the invoice(s) of certification costs paid during the federal fiscal year (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30). Organic operations can receive support for up to 75% of certification costs, but are capped at $750 per year by certification scope (livestock, crops, wild harvest, and handling).

Beyond those programs, some regions offer other opportunities. For example, Minnesota has a “Transition to Organic Cost Share Program” that supports state residents who are not currently certified, but are actively transitioning into certification. These funds will pay for up to 75% of eligible costs with a total annual cap of $750. ‘Eligible costs’ consist of charges for on-farm inspector visits, soil tests, and registration fees for up to two people to attend certain educational conferences, including the MOSES Organic Farming Conference and other organic conferences in the Midwest. It’s important to note that pre-certification inspections are not required in order to attain certification and are not offered by all certifying agencies, but can be a valuable learning tool.

There are also many broader avenues to gaining financial support for your organic endeavors. Local food co-ops or non-profits may have funds to assist farmers or processors – often managed through grants. Widening your scope may reveal opportunities through your county or Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) grants, Fish & Wildlife partnerships, and other programs that support conservation, natural resources, and wildlife habitat. While they usually won’t cover certification costs, they may help you implement practices that are valuable to your farm operation and help you meet the requirements of certification. For example, they may help you purchase cover crop seed or mobile fencing or offer incentives for conservation practices. For those transitioning into organic, NRCS Practice Standard 138: “Conservation Activity Plan for the Transition to Organic Production” may offer professional help to identify conservation concerns and organic requirements to address on your land. Look for more opportunities on the “Funds for Farmers” page of the MOSES website.

Contact your state’s Department of Agriculture for more information about the NOCCSP and AMA Organic Certification Cost Share programs or other regional initiatives. Your certifier is also a valuable asset and may be aware of additional prospects. For insight into local opportunities, ask around your farming neighborhood, your buyers, and any farm or food organizations you may know.

For more about these programs and how to apply, see

Is it possible to still get my farm certified for the first time this year (October)?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Whether or not you can get certified now depends on the crop or livestock products you want to sell as organic. All certification agencies are required to see at least some of the requested crops growing in the field or greenhouse/hoophouse. If the crops you wish to sell as organic are already harvested and in storage, there is no way to get retroactive certification. If, however, your corn is still in the field, or if you are actively growing crops in a greenhouse or hoophouse, then it may be possible still to certify.

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.

My neighbor sprayed some sort of pesticide today. I could smell it, and got a little dizzy and had a dry mouth. My crops in the adjoining field were just coming up, so I am not sure if they were damaged. The neighbor is not willing to tell me what he sprayed. What can I do, and will this affect my organic certification?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

If you can smell the pesticide, it has drifted to your farm. If you are not feeling well, immediately see your family doctor or go to the emergency room. Pesticide exposure should not be taken lightly.

The second thing you should do is contact your state’s pesticide enforcement agency—it’s usually within your state’s department of agriculture. Call the agency as soon as possible, ideally within 48 hours of the incident. The agency will send out an investigator to verify the drift incident, usually by the next day unless it is a weekend. Because it is difficult to find pesticide residue on soil or crops after a few days, you can help the investigator verify drift if you can locate a hard surface (such as a vehicle) where droplets of drift are collecting. Then protect that surface from rain until the investigator arrives.

All licensed applicators are supposed to keep written records of what and when they spray. When you contact your state’s pesticide enforcement agency, staff will contact your neighbor to find out what was sprayed, and they can then let you know what it was. They will also review if the pesticide was applied correctly, such as when wind speed was not excessive. To my knowledge, all states have some rules governing drift, and most states consider it a violation of the law if pesticides cross a property line without the permission of that landowner.

If the agency finds that the product drifted, and/or that the applicator sprayed when conditions weren’t right, and/or he did not document his activities, and/or he were supposed to be licensed to apply the product and he wasn’t, there is a pretty good chance the applicator will be fined. The amount of fines varies widely. These fines go to the state. If you want monetary compensation, you will need to discuss this with the farm operator, their insurance agency or, depending on the circumstances, other responsible parties including the custom applicator or landowner. If these negotiations are not acceptable, you may need to take legal action.

If you became sick or your crops were damaged, and you hope to get monetary compensation for crop loss or medical bills, it is very important to have an objective third party verify the drift incident. Doctors don’t usually attribute illnesses to pesticide exposure. However, if you have proof that you had a negative health incident right after exposure, it is easier to claim you have a problem than if you did not go to the doctor at the time of your exposure.

Certification agencies vary in how they deal with pesticide drift. Some may only decertify that year’s crop within the drifted area, requiring a 25-30 foot buffer zone from the end of the drift to the crop you can continue to sell as organic. The drift investigator may help you establish where the edge of the drift incident is in your field. If the drift was highly concentrated, the organic certifier may decertify that land for two or three years.

Many producers do not want the incident to create hard feelings with their neighbors. To avoid drift incidents, talk to your neighbors early in the season to explain the organic status of your land and the economic loss you will incur if prohibited substances drift over the property line. Most farmers will respect another farmer’s farming system. Drift is especially problematic on vegetable and fruit crops, which often grow on just a few acres. Even if you only farm 5 acres, you are still a farmer and have a right to farm as you wish.

Many landowners have leased out their land to a farmer and that farmer may hire someone else to spray. Figuring out who is responsible for that activity early in the season can save you valuable time if and when you wish to discuss a drift incident with the person who did the application. The landowner may not know who is doing the spraying, nor what is being sprayed. The farmer renting the land might not even know exactly what the applicator is using until presented with the bill.

When drift occurs, it is important to report the incident to the state so their statistics on pesticide drift incidents and possible negative human health effects reflect what is happening in the real world. When incidents are not reported, it appears that there are no problems, and unfortunately, we all know that is not true.

Your organic documentation is invaluable if you are requesting monetary compensation for your loss of organic premium or if you could not sell your crop for a variety of reasons. Most insurance companies do not seem to know that there is a rigorous third-party review within the organic certification process. The fact that your yield and sales records are verified yearly by an objective third party, who is approved by the USDA to perform this work, adds credibility to the dollar amount you may be requesting. Since some organic crops have very large differences between the organic and non-organic price, you will probably get some pushback from the responsible party or the insurance agency when you first present your request for compensation.

For example, some specialty organic potatoes could be sold for $2 per pound, and conventional potatoes at times sell for 10 cents per pound. Be prepared to have many conversations and letters with the responsible party or insurance company. You will probably need to compromise on your requested compensation, but do not give up! Other organic farmers before you have received compensation. You can get a reasonable settlement if you stick to the facts and remain steadfast even when they do not seem to accept the credibility of your request.

The Pesticide Action Network of North America, PANNA, has an excellent website with links to each state’s pesticide enforcement bureau and the state’s pesticide-use rules. See PANNA’s Midwest office is located in Minneapolis. The phone number is 510-788-9020.


Field Crops:

What are some strategies for fertility and weed management?

Answer by Carmen Fernholz:

An interesting part of my position with MOSES as a crop specialist is the variety of questions that come my way. The questions range widely from specific crop rotations to determining what to plant where, given the wide variations in climate and soil across the Midwest. It is these two facts, climate and soil types that are the first pieces of information I usually seek out when answering the inquiries that come in.

However, a majority of questions most often deal with fertility and weed management in organic field crops. So, let me try to give some general suggested management practices that can go a long way in dealing with these two concerns. 

In organic field crop management, soil types are an important consideration. However, ambient soil temperatures and soil moisture are the two factors that dictate when to do seedbed preparation and when to actually begin planting or seeding. They are the two telltale signs of when to be in the field. Soil temperatures early in the growing season directly impact soil fertility availability because of the relationship of soil microbial activity to temperatures. And most of us understand that it is microbial activity that provides the nutrients for plants.

What does this have to do with weed management? Weather factors including air temperatures, wind conditions, and precipitation events impact weed management very directly, as moisture and soil and air temperatures determine the time and amount of weed seed germination.

From mid-April on, a good indicator of soil temperatures in the seed zone is to take note of the air temperatures. Soil temperatures will lag behind air temperatures by several hours with 8 a.m. usually being the coolest part of the day for soils. 5 p.m. is when soil temps will be at their maximum. You can use an ordinary meat thermometer as a reliable tool as well. 

These soil temperatures directly impact seed germination because they determine growing degree units and days which, in turn, determine the rate of maturity for the growing plants. This applies to the planted crop as well as the weed seed banks in the soil.  

For small grains like wheat, oats, or barley, seed these crops as soon as the fields are dry enough. This means soil temperatures are in the 38- to 45-degree range. Most small grains will germinate at colder soil temperatures than foxtail grasses and most other broad leaf weeds, except for lambsquarters.

Consider small grains very much like you would consider planting lawn seed. They love cool, wet conditions and a much firmer seed bed than row crops like corn or soybeans. And, like lawn seed, they can germinate at cooler temperatures. By planting these crops early there is a better chance to get the grain mature and harvested before the grasses and broadleaf weeds that do grow set seed.

One additional reason for seeding these small grains earlier is the desire to have them in the pollinating and seed-setting stages of growth ahead of the hotter midsummer temperatures that can significantly negatively impact this process and cut yield potential. Dried field peas are especially sensitive to temperatures at pollination. So, get them planted as early as possible, even above frost if field conditions allow.

Best weed management in row crops like corn and soybeans is nearly opposite to that of small grain. Plant later to allow the seed bed to warm so, when the crop is planted, it will germinate and emerge quickly to compete with the existing weed seed bank, which also likes warmer soils. Here again, pay close attention to soil temperatures. These temperatures should stay above 50 degrees 24-7 for at least three to four days; something that rarely occurs in western Minnesota before May 15. A great indicator that this is happening is that you will begin to see foxtail grasses and some broad leaf weeds emerging when it is time to prepare the seed bed.

This also means being able to tine weed, rotary hoe, and then cultivate after planting as quickly as possible. It is important to remember that any weed that is green and above the ground can only really be eliminated with a shovel on a shank. Rotary hoeing and tine weeding decrease in effectiveness with each passing day post planting.

Several other things about row crop weed management: An initial pass through the intended corn and soybean fields on a hot breezy afternoon in late April to create a stale seed bed is an excellent way to manage weeds. This creates ideal conditions for weeds to germinate that can then be tilled out just ahead of planting the corn and soybeans later in May. And, finally, higher seeding rates for row crops can help suppress weeds as well as lessen the impact of plant stand loss from any of the mechanical weeding equipment.

Feel free to call me with questions, especially now that field work is starting up again. If I do not have the answers, I know we can find someone to help. 

Should I hire a pest management service for my on-farm crop storage?

Answer by Chuck Anderas:

You would have to crunch the numbers to determine the financial impact of the pests and how much it will cost to pay for a company to take care of them for you. If you have had major pest issues that you haven’t been able to control on your own, then going with a pest control company might be the best bet—but you will still be responsible for the organic integrity of your operation. It will be important to clearly communicate to the company what the organic regulations are and how they will work in your context.

Whether you decide to go with a company or do the work yourself, you’ll need to have your certifier approve your pest management plan before you implement it.

The plan has to start with the “least toxic, most effective” means of controlling the pest. The first practical step, as it says in the facility pest management practice standard (§205.271), is to remove pest habitat, food sources, and breeding areas, try your best to prevent pests from entering the facility, and manage environmental factors. Pests can also be controlled using mechanical/physical means, like snapping mouse traps for example. When I worked in certification, I often saw cats and dogs listed in the facility pest management section of Organic System Plans.

If none of that works, you can use natural lures or repellents (or synthetic ones that are on the National List of approved synthetics). Vitamin D3 baits are one example of products that fit into that category. The OMRI certificates of vitamin D3 products include this restriction: “For use as a pesticide only in conjunction with the facility pest management practices provided for in paragraphs 205.271(a) and (b) and only if those practices are not effective to prevent or control pests alone.” So basically, if you can’t keep pests out and mechanical means of taking care of them are ineffective, you can use this product with approval from your certifier.

If restricted products like that don’t work, then you can go to synthetic products that are not on the National List as long as your plan is approved by your certifier. A synthetic substance may be used provided that “the handler and certifying agent agree on the substance, method of application, and measures to be taken to prevent contact of the organically produced products or ingredients with the substance used.” After you’ve shown that your previous steps weren’t effective, your plan and the specific product must be approved by your certifier. No matter what, you have to keep the pest control product away from your stored organic crops, organic land, and organic animals.

I am having my organic corn (or soybeans or small grains or hay) custom harvested. What should I do to protect the organic integrity of my crop?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: Harvesting of many organic crops is routinely done by custom operators who are not organic. These operators will need to follow specific protocols to prevent commingling of the organic crop with any non-organic crops or prohibited substances still present in the equipment.

When using a combine to harvest grains, soybeans or corn, the machine must be cleaned thoroughly between any non-organic crop and the organic crop. If the combine operator is working with another organic operator before harvesting your crop, you may not need to have the combine cleaned. You will need documentation that the last crop run through the combine was organic, and not a buffer strip, a transitional crop, or non-organic crop the other organic producer may have grown.

Cleaning a combine is labor-intensive and still may not remove all traces of a non-organic crop. Running the combine with all of the doors open is one way to shake out kernels and dust. Blowing out with compressed air and/or a shop vac is also an option. After either of these is done, you also must run the combine through a swath of your organic field, separating the first 30-60 feet or more of the crop that has been harvested. This harvest must be stored, used and/or sold as conventional. Keep a receipt or other documentation to show your organic inspector that this combine “purge” was either fed to your own non-organic livestock or sold as conventional. The distance you harvest for this combine “purge” depends on the size of the combine and the density of the crop. You should be able to justify to your inspector the amount of your purge. Typically it is 10-20 bushels.

Combine cleaning is done routinely by farmers who grow crops to sell as seed in order to maintain seed purity. Many custom operators know how many bushels they need to run through their combine to remove traces of the previous crop, especially if they combine small grains in mid-summer and then beans and corn. You must document who cleaned the combine, what they did and when. Some manufacturers may have information on how many bushels must be run through the combine to clean it out.

If the previous non-organic crop was Genetically Modified (GMO), even a trace of non-organic crop dust in your organic crop could result in a positive GMO test and rejection of your organic load if and when it is tested by the buyer. An ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure in this case.

If someone is custom harvesting your hay or swathing your small grains, make sure the equipment arrives at your organic field clean. The cutting and windrowing equipment is easy to inspect. If it is traveling any distance over the road it has most likely been shaken enough to remove any non-organic hay or straw. This is true for large round balers, as they are mostly self-cleaning. However, it is still your responsibility as the organic producer to verify and document that there is no residue of non-organic crop in or on the equipment before it is used to harvest your organic hay or straw. If a custom operator first harvests your own conventional hay, a buffer zone, or transitional hay, you will need to clean the equipment before using it on your organic crop.

Small- and large-square balers are more problematic since they typically retain a partial bale or two. You will need to run at least three small-square bales or one large bale of your own crop through the machine as a “purge,” and document that these were stored and sold or used as non-organic. Many large square balers have some sort of preservative that is injected into the large bale. The preservative container should be emptied of any prohibited substances before the baler is used to harvest your organic crop; note this in your records. If the product is a bacteria or other naturally occurring substance you should verify with your certification agency that it would be allowed on your organic bales. Ask your custom operator what type of preservatives might be used in the equipment, and check it with your certifier at least a week before the operator shows up to bale your hay.

Rented storage areas as well as any transportation vehicles also must be verified clean and free of previous crop residues or prohibited substances before being used for organic crops. Document that you verified they were clean before you used them. This documentation can be part of your field activity log or calendar, or you can use the various forms your certification agency may provide.

I shipped one load of organic corn, and it was rejected by my buyer as having GMO contamination and was then sold to a conventional buyer. What should I do for my next load?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: Under our organic regulation, the GMO contaminated organic corn is still certified organic, although your buyer may have stricter purchasing preferences that include a specific tolerance level for GMOs, such as less than 1%. It would have been a good idea to send a sample to your buyer before you shipped the entire load to make sure it would not be rejected. Once it has been loaded and shipped off the farm, it is difficult and expensive to bring it back to your farm.

Before signing a contract for purchase of your crop, or selling a crop on the spot market, it would be a good idea to find out what, if any, GMO testing is done and what level of GMO contamination would cause the load to be rejected by the buyer you are considering. You can also find out what level of GMO contamination your previous load had, and try to take some precautions next year when planting corn to lower your risk and level of contamination. You might try planting later than your neighbor to avoid cross pollination, increasing the size of your buffer strip, or choosing to grow corn where it is more isolated from neighboring GMO corn. Even though corn pollen will travel great distances, higher levels of contamination will occur when the non-GMO and GMO corns are grown in close proximity.

Typically, all organic crops sold for direct human consumption are tested for GMOs, sometimes numerous times in the process of cleaning and readying for sale. However, most livestock feeds are not tested for GMOs. In 2011, a report by the Office of Inspector General noted this lack of GMO testing of organic livestock feed, and encouraged the National Organic Program to require more testing of livestock feeds, especially those sold to organic dairy farmers. At this time, there is no specific direction from the NOP on GMO testing of organic livestock feeds.

It is unfortunate that the organic farmer bears the brunt of the weakness of GMO technology; that it is promiscuous and does not stay on the user’s side of the fence. Depending on the amount of GMO contamination, you may have the option of selling your crop as organic to another buyer with lower requirements, telling that buyer about the GMO contamination.

I have some organic corn and hay to sell, but see the prices have dropped from last year. Why the change?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti:

Prices for both organic and non-organic corn and hay are lower than in recent years because the supply is greater now, and the demand is lower. Weather was one factor behind the unusually high grain and forage prices in 2012 and 2013. Drought during the summer of 2012 caused a lot of crop failures and substantially reduced yields everywhere. Forage production suffered, too, causing many livestock farmers to dip into their stored feed supplies much earlier than normal. The unusually long and cold spring of 2013 only increased the shortage problem.

Demand rose for purchased feed because of these shortages, but also due to increased demand for organic dairy products. Most of the organic milk companies were expanding their new farm base during this same time period to meet consumer demand. These two factors created strong demand for a very limited supply of feed and drove prices up to historic highs late in 2012 and through the first half of 2013.

2013 saw a reversal in fortunes for both supply and demand. Despite the slow, cold start, organic grain and forage production was good to excellent in most areas of the country. Pasture was ample, so farmers were able to restock their hay and silage stores. 2013 also saw a softening of the organic dairy market. The downturn was not as bad as 2008-09, which saw quotas and flat sales, but sales did not meet budgeted increases and efforts were, and are still being made to reduce organic dairy production.

A year ago organic feed corn was $14.14; now it’s $10.25 to $12. The recent USDA forecast put non-organic corn at $3.90 per bushel in the coming crop year.

I will be putting organic grain in an on-farm bin and then shipping it later this fall to a broker. Is there anything I should do to ensure a smooth shipment and sale?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

You should check the quality of your grain. It should be clean of chaff and weed seeds when you put it in the bin. Many farmers run their grain through a rotary screen cleaner to reduce extraneous matter that could encourage insect problems. The cleaner your grain is when you ship it, the less “dockage” your buyer will take off your payment.

If you have your own livestock, you can feed them undersized, splits or lower quality grain on-farm. If you do some pre-cleaning, you are able to retain these culls for your own use.
Always thoroughly clean the bin each year before using it. If it has a perforated floor, pull that up and clean out any old grain or chaff to prevent infestations from starting in the new grain you put in the bin. The best method of pest control is prevention.

If pests have been an issue in your bin, consider putting some diatomaceous earth on the bin floor, adding a little more as you are loading the grain to prevent insect problems. See the Insecto website for recommended amounts and usage directions ( If you use D.E., tell your buyer, since sometimes it can be hard on their equipment. They would like to know it was used in your bin. D.E. use is approved for organic production in post-harvest handling.

If your grain could have vomitoxin, aflatoxin or other mycotoxins due to wet weather or harvesting when not completely dry, have it tested so you know what you are shipping. Depending on the buyer and how they’ll use your grain, you might be able to ship it with some mycotoxin in it. Knowing levels ahead of time will prevent you from shipping grain that could be rejected at the buyer’s loading dock.

It is also a very good idea to retain samples from each bin you ship from, in case there are any questions about the quality of your grain.

If you question the testing or quality opinion of your buyer, and you shipped all if it without retaining a sample, you don’t have any evidence to rebut their test or quality rating. Many local feed mills can do some basic testing for you, including test weights, so you know ahead of time what you are shipping and don’t rely solely on the buyer’s tests.

Lastly, always verify the truck that comes to the farm to pick up your grain is clean. Even if it comes from an organic buyer, the trucker may have transported GMO grain before coming for your load. GMO testing is very sensitive—GMO DNA can be found even in a speck of dust. It is to your best advantage to have that truck cleaned before you load that valuable crop of organic grain you worked so hard to grow. If the load tests positive for GMO due to a dirty truck, the trucker will still get paid for hauling the grain, but you will lose your organic price. Don’t be shy to request cleaning the truck before loading your grain.

Remember to complete a clean truck affidavit, and document all other crop and equipment cleaning activities on the farm to show your organic certifier you are doing your due diligence to protect the organic integrity of your crop.

I am harvesting organic grain and want to make sure it retains quality in storage. What can I do to prevent insect infestations?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

Many organic producers use diatomaceous earth, commonly called DE, to control insect infes­tations in organic grain storage. This fossilized remains of an ancient hard shell algae is used in many food-grade products, including as a filtra­tion aid for liquids and in toothpaste. The fine powder kills a wide variety of insects or larvae by absorbing lipids from their exoskeletons’ waxy outer layer, causing them to dehydrate. Due to these characteristics, anyone handling this prod­uct should use a tight-fitting filter or respirator over their nose and mouth and goggles over their eyes to prevent health problems. Long sleeves, pants and gloves would be a good idea, too.

Typically, DE is scattered on the floor of the grain bin and periodically added to the grain as it is being loaded into the bin. Add 1 cup of DE to every couple of bush­els or so of grain for good coverage. If you have a perforated floor in your bin with a fan, you can have the fan running on low as you load the bin to incorporate the DE into the first few feet. It is also a good idea to lift up the floor and clean underneath before loading it with this year’s crop.

If you can, run the grain through a spiral screen air cleaner before storage (pictured below). This will lessen the chaff, screenings, and insect load in your stored grain. It also dries grain bet­ter for higher quality long-term storage. Running your grain through the same cleaner before load­ing to your buyer would also be appreciated, since DE can be abrasive to their cleaning equipment. Shipping clean grain also means there will be less dockage from your payment due to screen­ings and foreign matter.

Make sure you leave head space at the top of the bin to allow for moisture to escape. If you are concerned about vomitoxin or other issues, test before you put it in the bin. The grain will not improve in quality when in storage, so knowing what you have at the start will help you make decisions on where to sell your crop and how long to store it.

Another resource with recommendations on managing grain after harvest is available from Iowa State University.

Is burning land or crop residues allowed in certified organic production?

Answer by Senior Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

The National Organic Standards allow burning to suppress the spread of disease or to stimulate seed germination, such as in prairie burns or in pastures to remove thatch and allow for thicker grass and forbs for foraging livestock. The rule is explained in Section 205.203 (e) (3).

Note that burning of crop residues, such as burning off residues either before planting or after harvest—a typical non-organic practice in some crops such as wheat, cotton, sugar cane, and rice—is not approved under organic regulations and may be subject to further restrictions under state or local laws that deal with impaired visibility and air quality.

Burning branches from pruning your fruit trees or brambles would also be allowed, since disposal of these items would prevent the possible spread of disease.

If you plan to use the ash from your burning as a soil amendment or in potting soil to provide potash or for pest control on vegetable crops, the ash cannot come from a material that was treated or combined with a prohibited substance. This means that synthetics not listed as “allowed” on the National List or a natural product listed as “prohibited” cannot be part of the vegetative matter being burned or mixed with it.

Section 205.203 (d) covers the use of ash. Pay attention to the specific annotations for limited use, such as copper.

Do not burn treated lumber, since toxic chemicals can be produced in the smoke and the ashes.

How can I maintain the purity of my organic corn?

Answer by Organic Specialist Matt Leavitt:

NOP regulations do not currently dictate the level of GMO purity present in harvested organic crops. Organic production is a process-based verification (vs. an end-product verification) so crops can have GMO contamination but still be considered certified organic. However, given tighter competition in the consumer marketplace with a slew of labels making various claims (natural, non-GMO, sustainable, etc.), end-markets for organic corn have developed more stringent purity requirements than ever before.

In general, organic corn going into the livestock feed market has a GMO contamination tolerance of anywhere from 2-5% while corn going into the human food market is often <1%. Organic corn is one of the most lucrative crops in an organic grain rotation, but raising a crop that meets marketer and consumer demand can be challenging. The vast majority of corn planted in the United States is genetically modified. Additionally, corn is a promiscuous crop, shedding viable pollen that can travel for miles to cross-contaminate organic fields separated by buffers, windbreaks, and other physical barriers.

What is an organic producer to do?

Fortunately, there are things within your control to minimize the potential of GMO contamination to your organic corn and harvest as pure a crop as possible.

First, always start with seed from a reputable source that clearly tests and labels seed for GMO contamination. If GMO testing isn’t clearly noted from your seed company, ask them for test information. While purchasing purity-guaranteed seed is not the only way to limit contamination of your harvested grain, it is a wise insurance policy. There are, additionally, corn hybrids that limit pollination from foreign pollen through traditional breeding techniques. These may also be an option, depending on your region.

Second, vary the timing of your corn’s maturity from surrounding farms. Organic corn is often planted later than conventional to take advantage of warmer soil conditions and optimum growing degree days. Planting slightly earlier hybrids for your region will stagger your crop’s pollination time from neighboring fields, limiting the potential of cross-contamination. Choosing fields with the most physical isolation is also a good option to maintain optimum purity.

If your corn fields are in close proximity to genetically modified corn, it may be wise to harvest and store the outside 16-24 rows separately even if you have appropriate buffers in place. This could potentially prevent high concentrations of cross-contaminated corn.

Third, ensure the cleanliness of all planting, harvest, and storage equipment, especially if you’re running a split operation, sharing equipment or hiring a custom operator. Depending on the test that your end market may take, it doesn’t take many contaminated kernels to result in a positive test. Run combines clean with doors open and blow out thoroughly with compressed air; especially cutting platforms, corn head, separators, grain tanks and unloading augers.

Purging equipment after a thorough cleaning with small grains or another medium can also help. Ensure all gravity wagons and trucks are swept and blown clean and store your harvested corn only in cleaned-out bins. Pay special attention to nooks and crannies like false floors, slots, slides, and doors. Careful recordkeeping of all of these processes like clean truck affidavits, field logs, etc. can help should problems arise at the time of delivery.

Finally, when it comes time to market your crop, if possible send in a representative sample first before sending a whole load. Bringing back or rerouting a contaminated load is expensive. If you do have corn that is contaminated, it may be an option to direct market it to a livestock farmer or livestock feed buyer, which often have lower standards than food-grade markets.



I am working with two USDA agencies, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) for the first time. I have some land going into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and I will be signing a contract with NRCS to do some practices on my farm under EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). Can you give me any pointers before I enter these programs?

Answer by Senior Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: Congratulations on knowing all of the acronyms! These government programs can provide funds to help you manage your land with conservation in mind. The payments may not be sufficient to cover all of the costs for the items you are agreeing to implement, but they should be between 60-95 percent of the dollars you will spend.

You will get fairly detailed contracts to sign with these two agencies. It is very important you read these closely and discuss any questions you may have with the FSA and NRCS personnel. You should make sure that you know exactly what you are expected to do. For instance, the type of seeds you are expected to plant for your CRP, and depending on your EQIP practice, there may be shrubs, trees or seeds you may need to plant. If you wish to keep this land as certified organic, make sure you do not sign a contract that mandates use of herbicide or synthetic fertilizers either before or after your planting. These contracts can be modified to your needs and desires, and if you wish to plant something different than what is usually required, you can should ask for a variance before the contract is written.

There will be requirements, sometimes yearly, for reporting what you have done and where. For instance, if you are doing a cover crop, you might need to document the date, rate and type of seed planted. The method and date of termination might also be required as well as photographs of the cover crop(s) growing. Make sure you know what is expected of you. If they have a specific form they want you to use, obtain that when you sign the contract. This way, you are prepared to provide them the information they will request before they direct deposit your payment.

If you are required to do a “prescribed burn,” make sure you are working with your local fire department or a company that is approved for doing these type of burns. You will need to provide a very detailed plan before you do the burn, which explains how you would prevent a wide variety of issues that could result in a runaway fire. Obtain this information when you sign your contract, since it can take a month or more to get everything organized. If you know what you need to do, you can get ready with plenty of time to accomplish the activity.

Lastly, if there are issues at the end of the contract year concerning the completion of your activities, make sure what you are being asked to do is actually written in your contract. The agencies cannot change what you are required to do in the middle of a contract. Items you need to review are the contract and any descriptions of practices and job sheets that provide details of your activities. These practice and job sheets are a wealth of knowledge and can be useful in obtaining the “best bang for your buck.”

Can I get more for my land if I rent it for organic production versus conventional corn production?

Answer by Jennifer Nelson:

Organic farming is more than a season of putting seeds in the ground and harvesting the plants. It is a farming system that integrates cultural, biological, and mechanical practices to foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. As such, renting land to an organic farmer has advantages that come from improvements to your land. It requires more than just a lease. It’s a conversation between landowner and farmer, and an agreement based on a few shared understandings. Below are a few things to think about while coming to an agreement.

The price of leasing organic land, like any other farmland, depends first on the quality of the land. Is it rich bottom land, or rocky or sandy terrain? Whether or not it is managed using organic production methods, land has inherent qualities that make it easier to farm, and more valuable as such. This year, even with commodity prices dropping, land prices have remained relatively stable. However, there are other variables that factor into acreage cost. For example, if your land has been fallow for years, it’s likely the organic farmer would need to add soil nutrients and tillage to get the soil ready for planting crops. Organic pastures can be a good option for previously fallow land, but only with good and diverse forage, fencing and water in place to give the land value as pasture. Additionally, it’s very important to test the soil and have it evaluated by a professional consultant so you both know what it holds to begin with.

Organic farmers will want to rent the land for a longer term because they will need to plant a five-to seven-year rotation to build up the soil and grow a cash crop. The farmer and landowner should discuss if the price will fluctuate between when they are growing higher value crops like corn and beans and years they are soil-building by growing small grains and hay. The rental fee could be an average of these numbers and have the same fee each year, or the lease could reflect the crop rotation plan and be less during the lower crop value years.

Ultimately, the price you’ll receive comes down to a shared agreement between you and farmer, taking into account the benefits to your land from the conservation and soil-building practices of organic land use, lease term, and value of farmland. If you have good farmland that is ready to be certified as organic you might get 5-10% more than the average per acre fee in the county, but only if the above outlined variables are in your favor. Local extension agents are a great resource to use in finding out the price of cropland rental in their counties, and would be able to give an approximate dollar range for each county. Once all of these factors are determined, a lease can be drawn and upheld that meets the needs of the farmer and the organic landowner.

For more information about writing this type of lease, see the MOSES fact sheet “How to Write a Conservation-Focused Land Rental Agreement.”

I think that I am renting out my cropland for too little money. What is the going rental rate for organic cropland?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Rental rates for all cropland have increased rapidly over the past five years. Ethanol mandates, strong export markets and the increased demand for meat and dairy products have resulted in high conventional grain prices. The demand for more conventional cropland is driving the rate increase.

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



Do you have any tips to extend the grazing season?

Answer by Organic Specialist Kevin Mahalko:

The growth phase of the pasture season is coming to a rapid end as we advance through the fall. However, we still have plenty of options to optimize fall grazing in the transition to winter. One of the keys to extending the grazing season is to stockpile pasture forage.

If you manage pastures well throughout the grazing season, your pasture species are healthy and able to get a late summer/early fall growth spurt as summer temperatures cool and fall rains come. The pasture growth curve shows a late-summer/early-fall increase in pasture growth potential. If you maintain healthy roots and residual leaf volume post-grazing through the season, you will get a nice boost in fall pasture growth.

As we lose daylight and growing degree days, we need to take special care of our grazing feed inventory. Stockpiled pasture can take us long into fall, but we need to balance grazing potential with weather conditions. Rains and early snow can diminish the amount of growth and substantially increase the potential trampling damage in terms of available forage volume and physical damage to sward species. This is a balancing act most seasons as the water infiltration rates slow due to cool or frozen soils.

As we graze at the end of October, we have dealt with an incredibly wet season. A neighbor who does crop reports has recorded 53.5 inches of rain since April 15, this coming after record-high late winter snowfall. Pastures have been challenged every step of the way; rapid cattle movement and reseeding some damaged spots has really paid off and helped limit the trampling damage. We have grazed when no equipment could possibly travel through crop fields. This sward and root mass density helps support the physical weight and movement of the cattle.

The slowing growth rate in fall requires that we stockpile forage to extend the grazing season. Planning involves setting aside paddocks 60 or so days before grazing and picking paddocks that have plants that have better palatability when frozen. Some graziers select an array of annual or late-season crops to give a boost to fall forage production. Oats, winter wheat, rye, and triticale are becoming more popular. Millet, brassicas, and turnips are also grown for forage. One caution is that if treacherous winter weather or rain is in the forecast, we need to consider mechanically harvesting the forage if it is likely to get damaged or made unavailable for harvest due to wet conditions. We had to make that decision on one of the few days baling could take place.

When we need to start feeding hay on our farm, we move several bale feeder wagons and poly bale rings from paddock to paddock. This helps spread out the animal impact while providing manure distribution benefits. Paddocks that need renovation and fertility can be good places to feed bales in the transition times and during winter. We find that flexibility in moving feeding equipment on lanes and through fencing is very key to helping cattle spread the nutrients evenly. Some graziers pre-place bales in various strategies. This helps eliminate the compaction and rut damage from equipment during wet times.

Water availability is also key to extending the grazing season. Waterline systems can be used for an extended period if we have some means to prevent freezing. Above-ground waterlines can be blown out with an air compressor to prevent damage. Some graziers utilize waterlines daily after it warms to above freezing. Buried and insulated water systems are higher investments up front but are very useful. Water wagons and stock tanks are very commonly used after freezing temperatures set in.

If you’d like advice specific to your situation, you can reach me through the MOSES Organic Answer Line, 888-90-MOSES, or by email at

What’s your advice for managing the current forage crisis?

Answer by Organic Specialist Kevin Mahalko:

As a full-forage Grassfed dairy and beef grazier, I find it paramount to grow as much quality forage as our farm can every year. Conditions in Wisconsin this year have made that especially challenging.

The winter and spring here and in many parts of the country set up conditions for winter-kill in alfalfa hayfields; even stands of typically winter-hardy grasses and pastures suffered losses. We experienced significant ice sheeting and cold for an extended time followed by record February and March snowfall. This led to an extended feeding season with high forage demands because of cold, wet weather. The incredibly wet spring left many acres unplanted in our region and acres planted early suffered flooding.

We also faced a slow start to the growth of pasture. We had to calculate which paddocks to sacrifice to avoid making a mud mess in feeding and outwintering paddocks. This meant selecting certain resilient paddocks that would require some reseeding. Once we had pasture growth it was important to monitor field conditions and avoid putting livestock on the wettest paddocks to avoid soil compaction and damage.

The major problems with livestock on pasture are leaving them too long in one place and grazing too early in the season before the pasture species can handle livestock pressure. An entire seasons’ production is typically restricted by starting too early and stressing the plants and soil. Feeding hay an extra week in the spring can allow pastures to produce enough forage all season to more than offset the extra spring feeding. The trainwreck happens when farmers run out of feed and go out to pasture too early.

On our farm, we utilized an array of methods to reseed in late May when conditions allowed. In a field where winter wheat cover crop failed to overwinter properly, we disced in the cover crop and did a full replant with a grain drill and followed with a crop roller to terminate the winter wheat and promote seed to soil contact. This worked very well and the diverse new seeding looks great now in mid-August.

The seed mix was a diverse mix from one of the major organic seed suppliers; we mixed bags containing several varieties together and added in a higher legume component to achieve at least a 50% stand of legumes. We used an oats-and-peas cover to nurse the seeding and then harvested it as baleage.

On outwintering and feeding areas where cattle plowed fields with hoof action, we disced and dragged the field to prepare the seedbed and did shallow incorporation of residue. We’ve found that light surface tillage works far better to spread residue on the surface and breaks down rapidly rather than trying to plow under residue. We used the same seed mix. Cattle grazed the oats prior to seed maturity and the initial growth was weed-free. The cattle are now grazing the second regrowth in mid-August.

We utilized a no-till drill to reseed into existing hayfields after second crop where legumes disappeared over winter. The no-till drill is heavy enough to slice into the sod and has a tight 5-1/2 inch spacing. The seed mix was a diverse mix with 5 pounds of red clover.

Native Forages

On the majority of our grazing acres, we have utilized a graze-what-grows concept with some variety of surface seeding where needed. Without these hardy old volunteer species in our mix, we would be in major trouble this year. Kentucky bluegrass, quackgrass, bromegrasses, Timothy, canarygrass, white clover, plantain, and dandelions may be considered weeds to some, but they are workhorses for us. They survived the winter and were our first spring feed.

Each year we manage one long grazing interval (40-60 days) on most paddocks to allow a seedbank deposit. In many places that were bare the amount of new volunteer seeding was tremendous. In the no-till pastures, we graze very tightly prior to seeding to give the new seedlings a chance to compete with the existing sod.

In all cases, we manage to keep a high legume component for free nitrogen contribution as well as a high-quality protein component in the feed. Where we have clover we see far less of any grass diseases like rust or molds. The legumes also seem to make the whole mix palatable even when we graze at a taller height of more mature forage. Root health is very critical to stand resilience all around.

Forage Supply, Demand

Make sure you track, measure, and estimate forage production throughout the growing season. Planning and monitoring will help you manage better and will give a realistic assessment of the need to purchase forage. Matching livestock numbers to forage inventory is critical. A grazing plan can help determine the farm’s carrying capacity and prevent overstocking.

If you are running short of feed or have acres that can be planted late season consider forage oats, millets, brassicas, or even full renovations in August. As the season gets later, the winter wheat, rye, and triticale options are worth considering.


To grow anything we need fertility, so fall soil testing is a great tool to assess those needs. Manure and legumes can provide good fertility. Harvest by grazing animal or machine is a symphony of timing to optimize quality. Invest in good storage—feed losses are unacceptable. Maximize your plant leaf area solar panel and control weeds. Buy any needed forage early and search out neighbors who might have acres to rent. We have found some insurance fields from neighbors who want to see hay and forages grown on their land and are happy to see the farms managed organically!

Are there any alternative markets for Organic Dairy right now?

Answer by Organic Specialist Matt Leavitt:

There is no question that dairy producers, both
conventional and organic, are feeling the pain of
a prolonged down market. Organic milk buyers
and cooperatives are not actively taking on new
producers and have been on a production quota
while existing producers are struggling with lowered
prices, stable or climbing feed costs and even
resorting to selling their milk on the conventional
Producers aren’t the only ones feeling the sting.
At the Organic Valley annual meeting this April,
they reported a $10 million loss; their first in
20 years as a cooperative. This is despite robust
consumer demand and sales topping $1.1 billion
dollars; 4% growth in 2017 alone. However, when
considered in context, the organic dairy market
has slackened in sales and volume from its height
in 2013, as food companies and producers rushed
in record numbers to increase production to meet
demand just as the market began to slow and
reach the saturation point.
Organic milk continues to offer one of the
higher price premiums over conventional production;
second only to eggs, which encouraged many
new producers to consider or actively transition
their herds and land to organic production. This
added to an already abundant supply and will
likely continue through 2018.
Organic milk is still a strong pillar of the
besieged American dairy industry, accounting for
over 5% of total fluid milk sales, but consumers
and retailers have a growing preference towards
plant-based alternative ‘milk’ like almond milk,
coconut milk, etc. Though retailers and industry
analysts expect the organic dairy market to
rebound to some degree by 2019, producers have
some difficult short-term decisions to make.
With oversupply still a real issue and price
premiums shrinking to $1.32/half gallon (down
from $1.57/half gallon in 2017) through 2018,
what can organic dairy producers do to help ease
their families and their farms through the slump?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any easy answers
or quick solutions. Some producers are responding
by cutting their production or even culling their
herds to control costs. That may have to be an
option to keep the farm on sound financial footing.
There are price premiums available for organic
beef and organic markets for dairy cull cattle are
limited but they do exist.
Additionally, there may be alternative marketing
outlets for organic milk with smaller-scale
creameries, cheese-makers or other specialty
dairy product manufacturers. These outlets are
limited, but it would certainly be worthwhile to
contact them; these specialty products often end
up in co-op’s and grocery stores in large urban
centers. The dairy buyer at these retail locations
may have suggestions of who to contact.
Something for dairy producers to be aware
of is Dairy Revenue Protection, an insurance
program under development by the American
Farm Bureau Federation and the American Farm
Bureau Insurance Services. It would allow dairy
producers to purchase risk management protection
against falling milk prices and/or production.
For each quarterly policy, the farmer would choose
milk-based pricing, which is based on average
milk pricing from Chicago Mercantile Exchange
milk class futures, or a component-based pricing
model. The program has been approved by the
USDA and details are being finalized by the RMA
with slated availability for purchase mid to late
summer at the earliest. It is unclear at this point
if organic milk will be considered as a separate
track from conventional.
Finally, for those producers with available land
and equipment, you could consider diversifying
your rotation or raising more crops to fill some of
the financial gap. It may be worthwhile to have a
trusted financial advisor or banker look over the
farm finances and suggest the most feasible ways
to control costs. MOSES is happy to connect you
with folks that can help.
It bears mentioning that if you, your family,
neighbors or friends are needing crisis support
through this difficult farm market, please see
the Farm Crisis Center: or call
the Farm Aid hotline (during business hours) at

I'm hoping to convert some of my land into pasture. What should I consider in the process?

Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy:

As you plan your new pasture, remember that fallow land is not necessarily going to be good pasture land. Just because it’s covered in grass doesn’t mean it’s a productive pasture capable of meeting your livestock’s nutritional needs. Just as you would with any other field, you’ll need to work on your soil and forage crops. The pasture you plant will need enough nutritional density to support livestock health.

Start with a soil test. Many producers don’t think to test pasture soil. However, these test results can inform your decisions and drastically improve your pasture’s success. To unlock the soil’s wealth of resources, you need a balanced pH. If the soil is too acidic or basic, many minerals and nutrients will become unavailable to grazing livestock. After the soil’s pH has been addressed, you can begin to work on the other parts of soil health.

If your land has been fallow for some time, it may be suffering from many different issues: soil deficiencies, too much thatch, invasive or persistent species that need management, or a lack of palatable and nutritionally dense species. Invite expertise from other graziers and experts. You might just need to do some clipping and inter-seeding to gain a production pasture. However, fields in really bad shape might require that you turn the soil to incorporate organic matter and get a fresh start with a new planting. It might even be worthwhile to plan a year of cover cropping to manage deficiencies or problem species (like continually clipping a sorghum sudangrass crop to manage a thistle problem).

Land previously used for production may have been tested and managed better for crops. Focus on making sure that the soil is ready and work with someone to select the best pasture species for your soil, climate, management, and livestock. With the “clean slate” of a productive field, your pasture planting could be just about anything. Having a second (or third) opinion about which species might best suit your situation can be very valuable. Mixing grasses, legumes, and forbes can add resilience and create palatable options for different livestock species.

When it comes to selecting and purchasing seed, connect with local pasture-based organizations. Groups like Pheasants Forever and US Fish & Wildlife regularly work with private landowners to connect them with local resources supporting grassland development. Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and even local seed houses can help you connect with experts to select the right plants for your needs. It’s important to consider your soil type, what varieties are best suited to the local climate, management plans, livestock species, and grazing density.

There may also be programs available to cost-share seed used to convert land into permanent pasture. Many of these programs will require a signed contract, but they can be valuable resources if you’re already planning to graze.

In creating a new pasture, you’ll have some big decisions to make about infrastructure. There are many different options available for fencing and setting up watering systems. Your plan will depend on your livestock species, management plans, and budget.

Irrigations systems can be as simple as plastic tubing, a few fittings, and a float valve if the field has proximity to a well, and the system’s pressure won’t be overtaxed. However, if water sources are distant or the demands will be higher, the design might take more creativity. Year-round management in a cold climate also requires careful planning. Look at several different systems to develop one suited to your operation.

Consider how your fencing will affect your management of the livestock and the land. You might want to have one large pasture or several smaller paddocks. Make sure that permanent fences and gate placements don’t become problematic over time. Think about your water sources, the number of management groups you’ll have, what fence materials are best, and how your fencing might affect your options in years of drought or heavy rainfall.
You might want to start with mobile fencing or semi-permanent options while you gain a better understanding of what your grazing enterprise will look like. As with planting, financial support may be available for fencing infrastructure. Reimbursements and grazing plans may be available to you through NRCS and County Conservation offices with a grazing contract.
There are a lot of organizations that want to see graziers succeed. Grants, equipment loans, operating loans, cost shares, and expert support are available to help you create your new pasture. Contact your local FSA office about operating loans, NRCS about their EQIP and CSP programs, County Conservation, and local grazing organizations like RC&D about species selection and management plans.

What type of feed supplements can I give to my organic livestock?

Answer by Harriet Behar:

All agricultural feed, such as corn, beans, small grains or forages, must be certified organic in order to be fed to organic livestock. Organic crops grown by small-scale producers who are exempt from organic certification can’t be used. Feed supplements or additives that might contain agricultural products (e.g. soy oil as a dust suppressant), carriers such as wheat middlings, binders or ingredients to improve palatability (e.g. molasses) also must be certified organic.

While no rule says you must purchase feed supplements from certified organic feed mills, this does make it easier to ensure you’re meeting organic rules since they will have acceptable feeds, feed additives (a nutrient, such as an amino acid, vitamin and/or mineral) and feed supplements (nutrient blends added to feed or fed free choice).

As with all inputs, all natural (non-agricultural) items are allowed in organic production—salt, diatomaceous earth, kaolin clay, or enzymes
—as long as there are no synthetic additives, such as anti-caking agents, flavorings or colorings. You will need to get information from the supplier verifying this. Be aware that yellow prussiate of soda (sodium ferrocyanide), an anticaking agent common in bagged livestock salt, is not allowed. You can typically find this product listed as an ingredient on the salt bag. Also note that kelp is considered an agricultural product and must be certified organic to be used in livestock feed.

Organic regulations have some allowances for synthetic materials when a product is used to promote health, such as a homeopathic remedy. Items you give to your livestock on a regular basis, or seasonally as part of their feed, are considered feed additives or supplements and not healthcare products. For example, if you feed eggs to your calves to help them avoid diarrhea for a week, the eggs are a healthcare product and do not need to be organic. But, if you feed eggs regularly until the calves are a certain age, the eggs would be considered a feed and would need to be certified organic.

Yeast and bacteria cultures do not need to be certified organic, even though some may be available in an organic form. However, you must have documentation that they are not from a genetically modified source.

Fish and crab meal, usually seen as a “natural” form of the amino acid methionine, may be allowed by your certifier as a feed additive. Fish and crab meal that are not organic, would not be allowed as a significant ingredient in organic livestock feed. DL methionine is the only synthetic amino acid allowed in organic livestock, and only for poultry in specific amounts. Fish or crab meal is not considered agricultural at this time, but some might contain a prohibited preservative: ethoxyquin. Make sure you and your certifier have complete information on any ocean-sourced product to determine if it is acceptable.

The organic regulations also clearly prohibit some ingredients and uses. For example, you cannot feed supplements or additives above the amount needed to supply the nutritional needs of the animal. Plastic pellets, urea or recycled manure cannot be fed to organic livestock. Drugs, hormones, antibiotics or ionophores (ion carriers) cannot be fed to organic livestock. No poultry or mammalian slaughter byproducts can be fed to organic mammals or poultry. This includes blood meal, bone charcoal, bone meal, or gelatin. Any minerals that have been proteinated or derived from slaughter byproducts or GMOs are not allowed. Some of this information will be in the ingredients statement and some will not.

Since the label might not provide all the information you need to judge a product’s acceptability for organic production, you should work with your organic certification agency to verify acceptability of feed supplements for your organic livestock or those you’re transitioning to organic.

If you are working with an animal nutritionist who is willing to help you verify products are allowed in organic production, you can recommend finding acceptable sources of vitamins and minerals by checking these sources: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, (in the 500s) or, the current edition of the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Official Publication. If a nutrient is listed in either of those publications and meets the parameters outlined previously, it would be acceptable. Minor ingredients used in vitamins, such as any type of carriers or diluent that are part of the formulation, are allowed.

There is a fee to view the AAFCO Official Publication that is based on how often you want access. See The Code of Federal Regulations is searchable here.

Can I raise livestock on forage if I don't have a perennial pasture?

Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy:

The National Organic Program states that ruminants must receive a significant portion of their daily nutrition (30%) from pasture. This means that they must harvest (eat) living plants that have roots in the soil. However, the rule does not state that the pasture must be perennial.

There are a few different reasons a farmer might not choose to establish perennial pasture. These include economic considerations, land tenure, or the desire to utilize livestock as part of a soil-building rotation with crops or between alfalfa establishments. Other farmers have perennial pastures, but wish to extend the grazing season in either spring or fall outside their perennial pasture fields. In these scenarios, it may make sense for a farmer to consider annual forage rotations.

Depending on the species you are raising, different species of forages may be a better fit. For example, there are some wonderful forage varieties of sorghum-sudangrass that provide high yields and good feed value. They can also be grazed multiple times if managed properly. However, they grow best in midsummer and should not be grazed below 18-20 inches due to concerns for prussic acid poisoning that is more likely to occur when younger plants are grazed. Sorghum-sudangrasses can also provide benefits within a crop rotation by suppressing weeds and offering a large amount of biomass to be grazed or trampled into the soil.

Annual forages can also be used to extend the grazing season for your livestock as your pastures slow down for the season. An example of this might be planting turnips in July or August to be grazed late into the fall and early winter. Some farmers will plant into standing oat or wheat stubble; some fly-over seed into standing corn; and, others prepare a rough bed with tillage.

Depending on your field, early weed control may be necessary to make certain that you have adequate yields for your livestock. Livestock will graze the greens and pull up the root masses late into the season, sometimes even digging into the snow to retrieve these high-protein treats.

You can also use annual forages for early spring grazing. Clovers or annual cold-hardy grains like winter rye, triticale, or spring oats can be used for early spring forages. Depending on your location, soil, and forage needs, some spring forages can be planted in the fall to emerge in spring. Others may be best frost-seeded early in the season and grazed from mid-spring to early summer.

With some research and experience, many farmers are learning how to leverage the nutritional support of these annual forage crops to extend their grazing season, build soil, and manage field rotations for their livestock. If this appeals to you, reach out to other graziers in your area and see what has worked on their farms.

What should I know before getting an indoor fodder system for my organic livestock?

Answer by Harriet Behar:

I know farmers who are growing short grass fodder through the winter in an indoor fodder system for rabbits, pigs, sheep and dairy animals. From talking with them, I can see both benefits and challenges with this system.

The first challenge would be making sure you are meeting the nutritional needs of the livestock that will be fed the fodder. You will need to know the crude protein, fiber, calories and other nutrients needed by your animals during the time of year you will be feeding fodder, and what your short grass fodder will contribute toward those needs. Typically barley is grown for fodder, but any grain could be used. Obtain information on the feed values of the various types of grain fodder and compare that to the nutritional needs of your livestock by age and stage of production. That will help you understand what further feed supplementation you would need, and how much of the ration will be provided by the fodder on a daily basis.

You should also consider a nutritional analysis of what your animals would be receiving in an unsprouted grain, dry hay and feed supplement system. You could then compare the costs between the usual winter feeding system using stored feedstocks versus the cost and maintenance of setting up and managing the intensive fodder growing system. There are numerous resources on the internet that could help you with this important comparison. Search first for the nutritional needs of your specific livestock and then search for the nutrients present in the fodders. The fodder system manufacturers could also provide some basic information on the nutritional content of what is grown. Remember to compare the nutrients in various feedstocks by dry matter, since this fodder is 90 percent water, while dry grain is only 5 percent, which is much more concentrated on a pound-for-pound basis.

While it is very attractive to think of feeding your ruminant and non-ruminant animals green and growing forage when the ground is frozen in winter, you should put pencil to paper to make sure that it makes economic sense for you as well. Sprouted fodder systems grow either in a heated greenhouse or under lights in an insulated building. They require automatic watering systems—and these systems do use a lot of water. Lights and fans for cooling may also be needed. The upfront cost of the building, continual water and electrical needs, not to mention the actual growing containers and forage transfer equipment, all need to be part of your economic analysis.

Find other farmers who are doing this forage system, and see if they would be willing to have you visit and ask some questions. There is nothing like seeing a system functioning in a farm situation to help you imagine a similar production system on your operation. The fodder system suppliers could help you find others who have already purchased their systems.

Depending on your current farm infrastructure (buildings, water availability and energy costs or alternative energy production) and the number of animals you wish to feed, the obstacles above might not be a barrier. Growing this highly palatable feed could make for healthy and very happy livestock on your farm.

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?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: You can add rented land, or new fields of your own, by adding them to your current year field plan and providing your organic certifier with the previous three years of field histories. If the land has been truly fallow, you can substitute a letter from the land owner stating that no inputs have been used. This letter is usually called “Prior Land Use Declaration” or something similar and is available from your certifier.

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 read your article on sprouted barley fodder, and I would like to know if I have to use certified organic barley seed to do this?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti:

Yes, you must use 100% certified organic seed to grow any sprouted fodder used to feed organic animals. Sprouted fodder falls under the 100% certified organic feed requirement and not the crop seed exemption for commercial availability. The USDA National Organic Program recently clarified to all the certifiers that any seed used to produce sprouted fodder must be certified organic.

Can you help me find an organic meat processing plant near my farm?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti:

The scarcity of certified organic meat proces­sors in the Midwest is one of the biggest issues facing the organic industry. The recent loss of the organic processor Premier Meats in southwest Wisconsin has brought this issue to the forefront. There are very few certified meat processors left in Wisconsin and only two of them handle poultry. The lack of certified plants places organic farmers at an economic disadvantage. Either we are unable to label our products as organic, or are forced to raise prices due to the greater distance and time to haul and process our animals.

I encourage you to ask meat processors near you to consider adding organic certification to their services. The rapid growth in consumer demand represents real opportunity to expand clientele and services. Processors can learn more from MOSES or the Organic Processing Institute (

I’ve compiled a list of certified organic meat processing plants in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Many of these are included in our Organic Resource Directory. Farm­ers in other states can find a certified organic processor by searching the USDA website (, select “handling” and your state for a list).


Black Earth Meat Market
1345 Mills St., Black Earth, WI 53515
608-767-3940 |

Weber Processing Plant (beef, hogs)
725 N. Jackson St., Cuba City, WI 53807
608-744-2159 |

Sonday Produce, LLC (poultry)
E870 Highway 54, Waupaca, WI 54981
715-572-1477 |

Pete’s Meat Service, LLC (beef, pork, sheep)
1665 Main St., Rudolph, WI 54475

Springbrook Meats, LLC (beef)
N3485 810th St., Elk Mound, WI 54739

Twin Cities Pack (poultry)
5607 East County Hwy J, Clinton, WI 53525
608-676-4428 |


Halal Food Processors
900 66th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52404
319-366-8327 |

Amend Packing Co (beef)
410 S.E. 18th St., Des Moines, Iowa 50317
515-265-1618 |

Lpb, Inc.
220 W. 1st St., Earlham, Iowa 50072
515-758-9545 |

Premium Iowa Pork, LLC (pork)
108 First Ave. S., Hospers, Iowa 51238
712-752-8666 |


Northern Pride Inc. (turkeys)
401 S. Conley Ave., Thief River Falls, MN 56701
218-681-1201 |

Kb Poultry Processing LLC (poultry)
15024 Sandstone Drive, Utica, MN 55979
507-932-9901 |

Ledebuhr Meat Processing, Inc. (beef, pork, lamb)
5645 6th St., Winona, MN 55987
507-452-7440 |

Swanson Meats, Inc. (beef)
2700 26th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55406
612-721-4411 |

Lorentz Meats (beef, poultry, hogs)
705 Cannon Industrial Blvd., Cannon Falls, MN 55009
507-263-3618 |

TFC Poultry (poultry)
103 Melby Ave., Ashby, MN 56309
218-747-2749 |

I am thinking about transitioning to organic dairy production. How does the market look these days?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Starting in 2012 and lasting through much of 2013, the organic dairy market experienced flattened sales. Some companies stopped recruiting new producers, and even considered quotas and other supply management strategies to reduce supply and to support organic dairy prices. Fortunately, the organic dairy market has rebounded. Sales are strong, and supply is not meeting demand. Many companies again are actively recruiting new organic dairy producers for 2014 and beyond.

Organic feed prices also have moderated in the Midwest and East (but not in the West, due to the California drought). These factors, combined with strong conventional prices, make this is an ideal time to transition to organic dairy—but, you do need to do some homework first.

Before beginning your transition, you should make sure there is a market for your milk. Start by contacting one or all of the organic milk buyers in your area. (Search the online Organic Resource Directory for “milk” to find a buyer near you.) Most of these companies manage their supply closely and commit to transitioning farmers far in advance of the date they can start shipping organic milk. This commitment is key, as it makes no sense to undergo the expense of certification, or of buying organic feed, until you know when and if you can start selling organic milk.

Most companies like to bring on new producers in the fall or winter rather than the spring and summer when their milk supply is naturally at the highest peak. The milk buyers will deter¬mine if they need your milk (supply), if you are on or near one of their milk truck routes (location), and determine when you can be ready to ship organic milk (timing).

If they need your milk, and the logistics and timing works out, they will put you in their milk plan and, as you approach your one-year herd transition, make a commitment to pick up your milk once your organic certification has been completed. This commitment is very help¬ful if you need to secure bank loans during the transition. The timing also will determine how you manage your transition—specifically, when you begin your one-year herd transition.

To transition a dairy, the land needs to be managed without prohibited inputs for three years and the herd needs to be managed organically for one year. The National Organic Standards allow a dairy to transition the herd along with the land during the third year of transition. This is a critical point, and one that can greatly reduce feed costs. During that third year, you must manage the herd without antibiotics or prohibited herd inputs, and feed them exclusively your own third-year transitional feed, or purchased certified organic feed.

If you have been managing your land without prohibited inputs already, you may only need to complete the one-year herd transition. Contact MOSES or a certification agency to determine your transition timetable. MOSES also can assist with finding an organic milk buyer in your area.

The rain we've had has made my pasture too wet to graze my herd. How can I meet the livestock grazing requirement of 120 days?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: Actually, the organic regulation requires that if grazing will cause damage to soil or water quality, the farmer should not be grazing that land. So, if it is very wet, and the cattle or other grazing livestock will turn the pasture into a muddy mess, please do not put your cattle out to graze until conditions improve. Also, if it is very dry and putting the cows out on pasture will result in serious overgrazing and bare ground on your pastures, you should not put your animals out to graze.

In addition, the National Organic Program regulations are very clear that the grazing sea¬son for your organic ruminant animals need not be continuous, just must total a minimum of 120 days when they are grazing. Your organic system plan must provide for acceptable grazing opportunities for the full grazing season, when weather cooperates. If there is a dry spell for two weeks at the end of August, you can feed hay to your cattle. Once the pastures improve in September, the animals should be allowed to graze.

You should have enough pasture acreage to provide a minimum of 30% dry matter intake from grazing for all of your ruminants for the full grazing season during a “normal” year. The minimum 120-day requirement is only for areas where the typical grazing season is that short, or there is a significant weather event that causes you to have a shortened grazing season. The typical grazing season in the Upper Midwest is 160-180 days. Use of intensive or rotational grazing management systems can greatly improve the quantity and quality of pasture for your animals.

The percent of dry matter taken in can be averaged over the whole season to meet the rule. For instance, your cattle may receive 60% dry matter intake from grazing in May, June and July and 10% dry matter intake from grazing in August, September and October (due to drought). You would average 35% with this scenario and that would be acceptable. The National Organic Program also has allowed a special exemption for less than the 30% dry matter intake from grazing when the USDA Secretary declares a region a disaster due to drought. However, there is no provision in the regulation to allow non-organic hay, forage or other feeds to be fed to organic livestock, even when a disaster has been declared.

How do I control buttercup weed in my pastures organically?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Creeping buttercup is not a problem weed for us in the Midwest, so I am not that familiar with how to control it. From what I have read, it is perennial, and is tough to kill because of its root system. There are no organically approved sprays that do a good job of killing perennial weeds. About the only spray available is vinegar, branded and sold as Burnout:

This product is OMRI listed, but only kills by direct contact, so it works best on annual weeds, and will kill anything it comes in contact with. Vinegar burns all of the above ground growth, which is why it is less effective on perennial plants with a strong root system. It might work with multiple applications on buttercup, but it will also kill your grass and clover.

A better approach is probably to change the conditions that promote buttercup growth. It likes wet, compacted and acidic soils, so liming the soil to increase the pH, adding needed nutrients to enhance grass growth and improving drainage will work better in the long run. A soil test will help sort out how best to improve the soils in that pasture.

I suggest contacting the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. They are an excellent organization of farmers that are committed to sustainable and organic production and are much more familiar with conditions in your region, and have likely dealt with this weed before:

Southern SAWG
200 West Center St.
Fayetteville, AR 72701
P.O. Box 1552
Fayetteville, AR 72702
Ph: 479-251-8310

Can I bale graze non-certified livestock in a certified organic hay field this winter?

Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy:

Livestock that are certified organic must only be fed certified organic feed. Sometimes, though, producers find themselves in a situation where they’re feeding uncertified animals on certified organic ground. For example, you may custom graze someone else’s herd on your own certified organic pastures, or you may rotate livestock onto hay or crop fields during your off-season so that you can use their manure and soil-building abilities to support the coming year’s production.

In a short answer, yes, you can graze non-certified livestock on land where you grow a certified organic crop. These uncertified animals do not need to be fed certified organic feed simply because they are on your certified organic ground.

However, if you are planning to manage uncertified animals on certified ground, there are a few considerations you will want to think about. It is likely that your certifier will consider the waste hay, dropped feed, and manure in terms of applied manure with bedding. However, different certifiers could take different viewpoints on how to categorize the application. It is important to check with your certifier before taking any action that could endanger the certification of that land.

You will want to be certain that the feedstuffs you are using won’t be leeching prohibited substances into your pasture. Using the example of hay—you may want to make sure the hay you are purchasing doesn’t have strings or netting that has been treated with a prohibited substance like a fungicide. I would recommend asking your supplier about the netting, wrapping, or strings that were used on the crop before making a purchase, then checking with your certifier if the binding was treated before purchasing. If the hay does have treated binding and your certifier allows you to use it, you’ll want to remove the wrapping and take it off pasture to prevent the substance from leeching into your soil.

While you’re speaking with the supplier, you will also want to know if the feed was treated with any fungicides, preservatives, or inoculants that are not approved in organic production. Again, if any of these substances have been applied, you should talk to your certifier before proceeding.

By asking good questions and thinking ahead, you can help your land benefit from some helpful animal pressure in your off-season, even if the livestock isn’t certified. Please just proceed with caution and in good communication with your certifier to make sure that your productive crop season ahead is in good standing with the NOP.

How do I control lice on my cattle organically?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Check out this fact sheet I wrote while working for Organic Valley, a large cooperative of organic dairy farmers. In it, there are a number of options for lice control, but I have found that the best option right now is the enzymatic lice spray available from a company called Crystal Creek.

This product combines soap with enzymes to destroy the exoskeleton of the lice. It is very effective and non-toxic.

As always, you must call your certification agency to get approval on the use of any new product. Never apply any new product without prior approval.

What can I do now to ensure my herd will have enough pasture this summer to meet the 120-day grazing requirement for organic production?

Answer by Jean Stramel:

Even if you feel that you have plenty of land to pasture animals on, mid-season dry spells and the need to let pastures rest means that you may need to consider particular management alternatives in order to have enough forage this summer. Beyond finding more pasture land, some options to consider include grazing your hayfields, growing summer annual forages, frost seeding, and stockpiling pasture.

There are many resources and guides available to help you choose the forage option that’s best for your operation. Wisconsin Extension offers grazing resources at; so does GrassWorks: A resource that directly addresses your question is “Extend the Grazing Season with a Forage Chain,” a workshop presented by Laura Paine at the 2014 MOSES Organic Farming Conference. The audio recording of that workshop is sold through the MOSES Bookstore under Conference Audio Recordings at

Many producers bring hayfields into the grazing rotation after one or two cuttings. These can be dedicated hayfields, or different fields cut each year. Rotating hayfields with pasture use may increase species diversity and control certain weeds.

We’ve recently seen an increase in the practice of grazing summer annuals, such as sorghum sudan, as a supplement to cool-season forages. Graze only after plants have reached 18-24 inches. It works well to strip-graze a bit of the field each day in addition to the perennial pastures. Care must be taken to avoid prussic acid poisoning, but if you graze this crop during summer slump that is not an issue. Also, avoid grazing during or after frost.

Fall grazing of broadleaf crops such as turnips, radish, or mixtures of several species can be utilized in some cases. Introduce these slowly and do your homework as to the health effects of grazing these species. You cannot rely exclusively on these for grazing, and they should not be more than 75% of the animal’s diet while being fed. Supplement with dry hay, and allow access to grass pastures while grazing brassicas. In some cases, it might work to no-till the broadleaf seed into existing sod, creating a grass/broadleaf mixture.

Frost seeding of red clover at 2-3 pounds per acre and white clover at 1-2 pounds per acre separately or in a mixture in early spring is common in the Upper Midwest. Some graziers frost seed a third of their acres each year to try to keep the 30-50% recommended legume in swards, which is essential for providing nitrogen in an organic system.

Stockpiling forages for late season grazing can work to feed non-lactating animals with lower nutritional requirements. Rest these acres after mid-August, and graze when dormancy sets in due to freezing temperatures. You might be able to graze animals with lower nutritional requirements on CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) fields, if there is access to water. You will need to notify your organic certification agency to include these in your annual inspection and add them to your Organic System Plan. Before doing this, make sure there has been no chemical spraying of invasive weeds, which landowners are required to control under CRP rules. In addition, approval to graze must be granted by the FSA and NRCS (Farm Service Agency and National Resources Conservation Service).

My farm has some older copper-arsenate treated fenceposts in place and I recently started to install some posts with the newer chromated copper arsenate (CAC) treatment. Are these allowed, or is there another type of treated wood I can use instead? If these are not acceptable, do I need to remove them?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

There are no synthetic wood treatments currently listed as approved for organic production. Any new fencing must comply with organic standards and cannot contain these prohibited synthetic materials. However, fencing that is already in place before your first organic inspection can remain even if the posts were treated with prohibited materials. Your certifier may require a specific distance between the treated posts and soil where organic crops are grown. For your grazing animals, an interior poly fence might be required to prevent grazing right next to these posts.

Natural wood, metal, fiberglass and concrete posts are allowed. CAC-treated posts contain many synthetic compounds that are not allowed under organic regulations, including copper, ethanolamine, ammonia, and possibly formaldehyde. Copper is allowed on the National List of synthetic substances, but not specifically for wood preservation.

If you have purchased, but not yet set in place your treated posts by the day of your first organic inspection for organic certification, it is pretty likely that you will not be able to use them where they are in contact with soil growing crops that animals or humans may consume, nor where animals may touch them in any way, such as a corral or fence. Technically, you cannot set in place posts treated with synthetic materials once you are certified, which would mean the date of issuance of your first organic certificate. However, many certifiers ask that these posts not be used after your first inspection, since they will not be back to verify that you’re not using treated posts until your second inspection the following year. There is some slight variability between certifiers on how they handle this issue, but none of them allow the installation of posts treated with prohibited substances once you are certified as organic. The size of the buffer area they may require between existing or newly installed treated posts also can be different between certifiers.

Many times, the treated wood posts are preferred by some for fence corners, and I have seen certifying agencies allow this use, as long as there is a wire strung across the hypotenuse of the right triangle formed by this corner, that way, the animals stay back from the corner where the wooden posts are located and cannot consume grass near the wood.

All of these treatments do leach into the soil, and plants have been known to accumulate the synthetics in their vegetative matter. This is especially an issue in organic orchards. Stabilizing posts placed next to new trees should not have any synthetic treatments. Perimeter fencing around an orchard usually would be far enough away from your trees that treated wood may be used, but the distance required can vary between certification agencies. Many times, the dripline of the outer branches of a mature tree would be sufficient distance to the treated post. To be sure, check with your certifier about the required distance to maintain between treated wood fenceposts and your trees before you install perimeter fencing. Also ask what date they will allow the installation of treated posts in close proximity to your organic plants or grazing area before you are officially considered a certified organic operation.

What should I be doing to prepare my animals for breeding season on my farm?

 Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy

While it may seem early to be thinking about breeding season, it’s actually a good time to start getting your plan in order to so that you and your ruminant livestock can be fully ready when the time comes.

The most important factor to consider when thinking ahead to breeding season is nutrition. You’ll want to make sure that the ladies are in good body condition as breeding approaches (body condition scoring is also known as BCS). Underweight or obese livestock may have trouble conceiving, carrying a fetus to term, or giving birth. To get off to a good start, you’ll want to make sure that everyone is healthy, even a little plump, but not obese. This might mean that you have to separate your herd into multiple management groups to reduce competition for feed, or supplement or restrict the diets of certain groups.

Achieving an optimal weight is also important for your breeding males. If they are underweight, they will not have the stamina they need to do their job and stay healthy. If overweight, they might not be successful or could cause injury when mounting females.

A quick check-up for the whole herd is generally a good idea before breeding season arrives. You may want to trim and inspect hooves, do a little clean-up shearing, or sort out young stock that won’t be bred this year. This can be a good time to make sure that small issues with your livestock don’t turn into larger problems when their body has high demands from the pregnancy. It is of particular importance to check hooves and leg joints before turning everyone out for breeding. Males can be hampered by injury or infection. Females will be responsible to carry additional weight during breeding and pregnancy. Small issues with joints, legs, and hooves can be aggravated and become much larger issues at a more critical time for your animals if they are not treated now. Make sure to plan this management early enough that your herd has time to recover from the stress of handling before you’re turning them out for breeding.

Another important consideration is breeding soundness. You can have a veterinarian out to check your males about 30 days before they’ve been turned out with your females. A few tests can help make sure that your leading man will be able to play his part effectively. Farmers and ranchers might consider having a back-up male available in the event there are last-minute issues. You can also put this male out just after your lead male should have completed his job. This “clean up” male can be good insurance, but may complicate your recordkeeping. Make sure that you record the dates that each male entered and exited the herd so that you can manage your breeding lines effectively.

Depending on the species you’re working with and your particular breed and management style, there may be some things that you can do with nutrition or management that will help promote a good and tight breeding window for your flock or herd. For example, a fence line exposure with a male can help induce estrus in your females. You’ll want to be sure you have strong fences if you employ this tactic. Also, “flushing” is a term that refers to feeding your females high quality feeds prior to breeding to improve their performance. While you want to make sure that you don’t induce obesity, this high-quality feed can increase ovulations and promote multiple births in many species.

No matter what your protocol for heading into breeding season, you want to make sure that your animals are in good condition and good health. Breeding and pregnancy can be taxing on animals that are in poor condition, obese, or dealing with other health issues. To ensure all of your animals have a successful year, plan time for observation, management, and treatment of little issues that could expound later when animals have more demands on their bodies. The work that you do to prepare your stock for breeding will pay dividends later in your season.


Market Farming & Orchard:

How can I transition my existing orchard to organic?

Answer by Organic Specialist Rachel Henderson:

For people considering organic certification, it’s commonly understood that you’ll have to change some of your management practices. When the crops you grow are annuals, it seems fairly straightforward that once you begin your three-year transition, you will grow those crops under organic management. But if you are thinking about certifying crops from perennials—tree fruit, small fruits or berries, or nuts—it can be more complicated.

People focus a lot on inputs when talking about organic. While that’s only one of many factors, you will need to look closely at what you use for managing pests and disease as well as fertility. If you’ve been using Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, you may find that some control methods you’re currently using will still be allowed while others will not. Having an early conversation with a certification agency call help bring clarity to the changes you’ll need to make. It’s also a good idea to ask some questions from the places you buy your inputs. Good vendors have a very thorough knowledge of OMRI-listed products and will have some suggestions for replacements.

If you’re thinking about making changes to a perennial planting, inputs are only a small piece of the puzzle. Other questions come into play, and many seem more difficult to understand.

The National Organic Program (NOP) requires growers to use organic seeds and planting stock. This confuses a lot of people when it comes to perennials. Perennial planting stock can be certified after a minimum of one year in organic management. Newly planted trees would be subject to the organic requirement. Growers who have purchased perennial plants are likely aware that there are very few certified organic nurseries. Many organic orchardists are unable to find the selection, quantity, and quality that meets their needs from certified nurseries. Just as with planting annuals from non-organic stock, you will need to provide evidence during your organic inspection that you searched for organic stock and couldn’t find it.

Your existing orchard will need to be managed organically through a three-year transition when you can’t use any prohibited materials. After that, crops from those trees/bushes can be certified organic. You will be asked to provide information about the origin of the trees, including the source nursery and dates planted in addition to yearly treatment.

As you certify an existing orchard, another area of concern is groundcover. For conventional growers, herbicides are often the easiest way to deal with weed and grass competition. The quest for effective and inexpensive organic herbicides is unending, but at this point, there are not very good options for this.

Many organic growers use some kind of mulch under trees. Organic mulch sources are more common than organic herbicides, with woodchips being preferred by many growers. There is often confusion about woodchips, and some growers have spent a lot of time and money attempting to source certified organic woodchips. This is not necessary. Woodchips must be free of treated or painted lumber, and you’ll need to have a verification form from the source. This means that woodchips from, for example, your local dump won’t be allowed. But tree trimmers, utility companies, or wood processors are generally able to provide that verification.

You can use landscape fabric in perennial plantings, but you will need to source higher quality—more expensive—fabric than you would for annual plantings. It should be rated to 20 years or more. You’ll be asked to look for signs of deterioration and replace it before it starts to fall apart (likely way before those 20 years).

If you commonly seed groundcover or cover crops in your orchard, you will need to make sure that your seed is allowed. If you have a standing groundcover that’s managed organically through your transition, obviously you don’t need to worry about the source of that seed. But as you replace trees or find areas of groundcover that need rehabilitating, make sure that you are purchasing seed that’s allowed, whether it’s grass, clover, or another understory species. Generally, that means certified organic seed, but if organic seed is unavailable, you will need to get verification that the seed is untreated.

To learn more about organic fruit production, MOSES has several relevant fact sheets on our website. The Organic Fruit Growers Association also maintains a website ( with great resources as well as a free network listserv that is helpful for answering specific questions.

When should I prune my fruit trees?

Answer by Organic Specialist Rachel Henderson:

For most fruit growers, pruning for tree health happens in winter. There are some pruning activities done during the growing season, but heavy pruning carries a significant risk of spreading diseases via open cuts. Pruning while trees are dormant avoids those risks. It also increases the vigor of a tree, so that, come spring, it will start to grow much more. With young trees, that’s what you want, but with established trees, you might take care to limit the number of cuts, to avoid too much vigor.

Pruned cuts can be susceptible to damage from extreme cold and dry condition. It’s a good idea to wait as late in the winter as possible. But growers with hundreds of trees need to start early in the season and hope for the best. On our orchard, with about 10 acres of semi-dwarf trees, we start pruning in January or February.

There are several reasons for pruning fruit trees, and in most cases, trees should be pruned every year. For optimal tree health and fruit production, pruning is important for removing old or dead wood, as well as establishing and maintaining an appropriate tree shape. Young trees will need more attention, and more established trees might need just a little bit of work.

Growers who have older trees that have been neglected will need to take a careful approach to pruning. It is safe to remove up to one third of the wood from a tree each year. With a really out-of-control tree, it may be tempting to do more, but it’s better to think of it as a multi-year project. Think about how much you can take off at once, and then consider what next year’s cuts will include.

When setting out, it’s important to keep pruning goals in mind:

  • In nearly all cases, a strong vertical trunk, or “central leader” is important to identify in the first years, and maintain that through pruning.
  • For young trees (1-3 years), you will be establishing the form the tree will take, including selecting scaffold limbs. These are the main fruiting branches of your tree, and you want to make sure that they are well-spaced and growing in distinct directions. For a semi-dwarf tree, that probably means four or five limbs, each pointing a different way.
  • As trees grow, winter pruning is the time to make sure continued growth conforms to that shape.
  • Once trees are 5 or more years old, start thinking about renewal, and look for new branches you can encourage to grow.
  • Sunlight is essential for fruit production. Remove branches that are shading or crowding one another.
  • Some trees (especially pears) have a strong tendency to grow vertically with their branches pointing straight up to the sun. This reduces fruiting. The ideal angle for fruiting branches is 45 degrees from the trunk, so select those that are inclined to grow the way you want.

Sharp, high quality tools are essential to good pruning. While some old trees might require occasional chainsaw work, most pruning is done with three tools:

  • Hand-held pruners. You’ll be making many cuts with these, often in quick succession, so it’s important to have one that’s sized correctly and is comfortable to use. A rotating handle can help ease repetitive stress for some people. A bypass-style blade makes cleaner cuts than an anvil-type blade.
  • Like pruners with long handles, these are available in various lengths. The long handles allow greater leverage, while the two-handed grip allows a wider opening, so you can use loppers for much larger and tougher branches.
  • Pruning saw, sometimes called a limb saw. Look for one with a short to medium-length blade, as you may need to use it for cuts in tight spaces. A straight blade is also generally more effective for tree pruning than a curved one.

There are many online, print, and video resources for learning to prune trees. One favorite of mine is Cornell’s Cooperative Extension five-page PDF, because it is easy to follow and thorough. It’s at But there are many others and most contain similar, useful tips and information. When using any guide or demonstration, be sure to consider if the source is in similar growing conditions. Particulars of plant care can vary greatly based on the expected cold temperatures in the winter, amount of rainfall, and soil type. So, if your trees are in Wisconsin, don’t follow a pruning video from California. When in doubt, your local extension office will likely have some resources—even if they are just geared for gardens or homeowners, the principles are the same!

I would like to diversify my farm by planting superfoods fruits. Do you have tips on growing elderberries and aronia?

Answer by Organic Specialist Rachel Henderson:

Adding a plant like elderberry or aronia to your farm can seem like a great idea. For organic growers, these crops have many advantages: They are inexpensive to establish and well-suited to cold climates, as well as resilient in hot and dry summers; they experience very little disease, and have few problem pests; and of course, they are famed for their high nutritional value, which research supports.
There are also some downsides to growing these crops. Mechanized harvest is not easily available, and extremely expensive. For most growers, the only real option is hand harvesting. This can be very time consuming, expensive, or both. Be sure to consider the dates of harvest, and how the labor of picking berries will fit into your season.
While these fruits are rarely bothered by insect pests, deer and birds can be problem predators. Elderberries, in particular, will require protection. For deer, that can be a simple fence, which you may already have on your property. Bird protection usually involves netting that must be removed each season. Netting for very large areas will be expensive. Some growers have luck with auditory devices for scaring away birds, or visual deterrents, but these are less dependable than netting.
While elderberry and aronia may be more reliable in production than other fruits, markets may be considerably less reliable. There seems to be a growing industry in processing and using them, as well as some exciting examples of “Super Fruit” products. In our region, there are a few groups, like aggregators and cooperatives, who buy directly from farmers to either create products or sell to someone who does.
Questions to ask an aggregator or cooperative include: How much can you accept? Is there a product minimum? When will I get paid? What kind of preparation is required?
When getting into a growing industry, there can be a lot of uncertainty. Elderberries and aronia can be difficult to sell fresh or direct to consumer. It’s important when you start a relationship with a buyer that you both set clear expectations. It can be difficult to accurately forecast a perennial crop. While many growers value these berries for their adaptability, the amount of care you give them will impact when you see a full harvest. Aronia, for example, can grow well without mulch and irrigation but will set more fruit faster when mulched and irrigated. When working with a potential buyer, make sure you understand the amount they’re looking for—both the minimum and the maximum—and that they understand your expected crop load.
Some aggregators do not pay growers until they have collected enough berries to sell or process a set amount—usually a very large set amount. This means a delay in getting a payment, which you need to factor into your cash flow for the year. You still have to get those berries picked, whether the labor is your own or hired.
Growers are often required by processors or third parties to completely prepare the berries. In the case of elderberries, this means separating the berries, which are quite small, from their clusters and stems. (The stems and leaves of elderberries contain a mild toxin.) This also may mean freezing the berries, holding them in the freezer, and even transporting them frozen. All of this preparation requires time and equipment that must be factored in when planting; so it’s important to be clear about these requirements.
As a specialty crop farmer, I appreciate seeing people all over the country start to recognize the health benefits of nutrient-rich food. It’s easy to get excited about the growth of this sector, and the possibilities for us growers. As with any type of farming, it’s essential to go into unusual fruit production with a solid plan and realistic expectations.

What should I be doing to prepare my vegetable fields for winter?

Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy:

There always seems to be a “race to the finish line” when it comes to preparing your farm for winter. If you’re involved in fall production, it can be even more difficult to fit it all in before the snow flies. However, there are a few tasks that are very important for the success of your next season.

First, make sure to walk your property and look for misplaced or forgotten tools. That screwdriver you used to fix the irrigation line will be much easier to see now in the fall grass. Later, after it’s been buried in snow, it can be ruined by the elements, or worse, it could cause much larger problems to your tractor tires. Carefully collecting, cleaning, organizing, and storing your tools now—while they’re still on your mind—will make the spring rush more streamlined.

Make certain to store sensitive items (like an electronic scale or irrigation timer) where they will be protected from extreme temperatures, changes in humidity, and dust. Also, consider what items (floating row cover, packaging, etc.) need to be protected from rodents through the winter and find appropriate containers now before there is damage.

Next, thoroughly drain and store irrigation supplies. Depending on your irrigation system, you may do this by “blowing out” the lines. You might also consider removing fixtures, valves, and hose bibs to replace them with solid end caps to prevent damage from freezing and discourage critters from setting up shop for the winter in your irrigation lines.

Finally, and most importantly, clear and compost potentially hazardous litter from your field and, if possible, secure your soil and fertility with a winter cover crop. It might seem counter-intuitive to remove vegetable matter from the field and then plant a cover crop. However, those squash vines on the field might be offering shelter to cucumber beetles that will return with a vengeance for next year’s crop. Many pests and diseases can be harbored through the winter in crop residue. Remove it and manage the compost well to make sure your problems have been disposed of.

After all that residue has been removed, the soil has less protection from winter winds, snow melt, and spring rains. You can help protect your soil from erosion, hold on to its nutrition, and add organic matter to your soil by planting a winter cover crop of your choice. Depending on your bed layout and harvest patterns, you may be harvesting some crops beyond the planting window. Consider managing your rotation so that those areas get a rest at a different time of year.

Can I sell organic fruits and vegetables from plants and planting stock I buy at my local garden center?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

You probably will not be able to buy plants at your local garden store. When using annual transplants (tomatoes, peppers, onion plants etc.), the plants must be certified organic in order to sell organic produce from them in any given crop year.

The land you raise them on must be free of prohibited materials for 36 months prior to your first organic harvest. If you have planted nonorganic annual transplants in the same fields in the past, your certification agency may consider the land to be nonorganic, and require you to wait three years after that planting to have your first organic harvest. This decision may depend on whether the plants were bare root or were transplanted with their nonorganic potting mix. There is some difference between certifiers.Some allow one year to pass and others require three years. The interpretation of this regulation is something you want to discuss with your certification agency if you are requesting organic certification for the first time.

Your transplants cannot be purchased from an “exempt from certification” (under the $5,000 limit) operation. They must be certified organic, grown by you or someone else who has a valid organic certificate. Some natural food stores may be able to provide you with an organic certificate for the plants they sell, but most garden centers do not sell certified organic transplants.

You can grow the transplants yourself, using approved planting media which does not contain any synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, wetting agents or other prohibited materials. These items are not mandated to be listed on the label of commercially available potting media, so you must get information in writing from the manufacturer detailing the ingredients, stating that the media has not been treated with prohibited fungicides, insecticides, etc. There are many organically approved potting mix and input suppliers. For resources, see the MOSES Resource Directory or the OMRI Products List.

Be very careful when purchasing any fertility input or potting mix, since the word “organic” on these items does not always mean the same thing as “approved for organic production.” Long before the USDA organic regulation, the word “organic” on a label meant it contained the element carbon. To find products you can use, you must look for the OMRI seal and the words “approved for organic production.” Always verify with your organic certification agency that whatever you want to use is acceptable before you buy it.

For fruit trees, raspberry bushes, or other perennials, you are mandated to search for organic planting stock. However, if you cannot find the variety, quality or quantity you want as organic, you can use non-organic planting stock. You must document this search.

In a recent National Organic Program guidance it was clarified that an organic harvest from non-organic planting stock can be done immediately after beginning organic management and planting into organic soil. However, you cannot create and sell organic planting stock from parent nonorganic stock until it has been managed organically for 12 months. For example, you can plant non-organic strawberry plants and harvest an organic crop that same year after planting (after failing to find commercially available organic plants) whether you manage the strawberries as an annual or a perennial. If you buy a non-organic tarragon plant, you can sell the tarragon as organic immediately after planting in organic soil, but could not make cuttings and sell those as organic tarragon plants for 12 months.

Items such as potatoes, garlic, and sweet potatoes (in other words, roots, tubers, rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings) are subject to the organic search, and can be planted as non-organic if none were found. However, each year there is more and more availability of these items as organic, and your search must truly cover not just your local store, but also the many mail order and internet operations that sell these items.

How do I grow high-quality fall brassicas?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson:

Organic farming is a long-term process. Always start the year before by planting a good cover crop, something that will over-winter and return in spring like cereal rye, clover or vetch. If that didn’t happen, or if you’re farming your acreage more intensively, you can also start with a spring cover crop like a mix of field peas and oats. You can research your cover crop options to find the best mix for your soil needs. A good place to start is with the MOSES fact sheet “How to Choose Cover Crops“.

To ensure optimal nitrogen value and also create a good amount of biomass for soil microbes without allowing the cover crop to set seed, incorporate the cover crop in early to mid-June. By starting early, but not too early, you leave yourself enough time to work out many of the residual weed seeds in your field. Incorporate the cover crop the first time, then wait 10 days or so and work your field again, by tilling, cultivating or plowing, using whatever machinery and method you usually use for bed prep. Depending on the weather (always), you’ll ideally get another nice weed flush right before you plant. Prep your bed as usual right before planting by cultivating or tilling, then plant your brassica transplants.

The nutritious vegetable that they are, brassicas are heavy soil feeders. Making sure your soil macronutrients are balanced is key. Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels need to be balanced, and not too high or low. Trace nutrients like manganese and boron can also make a big difference in the quality of your brassica crop. Soil tests (, applied to fertility practice are important to start with because it’s really hard to make drastic changes in your soil chemistry at any time, especially in the thick of the season.

Some symptoms of out-of-balance soil resulting in nutrient deficiencies:
• Light yellow color and/or premature head formation also called “buttoning” can be a nitrogen deficiency.
• Too much nitrogen can cause the plants to grow too fast also resulting in a hollow stem.
• Large pest infestations can mean your plant isn’t healthy and can’t defend itself.
• Iron can inhibit calcium uptake, causing localized browning.
• Phosphorus deficiency, especially when the phosphorus can’t move in the cold of later fall, can cause the plant to turn purple.
• Boron deficiency can cause a hollow brassica stem, and browning and uneven heads.

Starting with healthy transplants is always essential to healthy produce. One of the most difficult parts of growing fall brassicas is having to care for the transplants in the greenhouse while you’re in the thick of summer harvest. Starting the seeds in a good soil mix, watering consistently, and applying a foliar feed or root drench fertilizer to boost your brassica plant’s health prior to transplanting can make all the difference in the health of your final product. Another option is to create a healthy seed bed in the field, seed with your varieties and bare root transplant from that. For more on this, see

If you’re buying seed varieties as most produce farmers do, ask the farmers in your area what has worked for them, and also try a few different varieties to find what works for you.
When the plants are in the ground, the best way to balance deficiencies is to either side-dress or foliar feed the plants. Going back to those soil tests and symptom list, you can know what you might need to attend to the health of your growing brassicas and create a mix of fertilizer and minerals in a hopper to be side-dressed once or twice throughout the growth life.

Companies such as Midwestern Bio-Ag can work with you to read your soil tests and provide inputs to balance your soil. You can also try a few different products to find what works best.
At our farm, we foliar feed our brassicas weekly with a fish emulsion mixed with Photo Mag, both OMRI-approved applications. Our soil was in conventional production up until last year, and shows some deficiencies in most everything, including the trace minerals like boron. It’s been really important to give those brassicas feeders good additional nutrition as they grow this season.

I can’t find enough certified organic blueberry plants to upscale my certified organic berry farm. What do you suggest?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson:

The National Organic Program defines planting stock as “any plant or plant tissue other than annual seedlings, but including rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings, roots, or tubers, used in plant production or propagation.” The NOP regulation applies to the details of the growing methods of the plants. Certified farms must use organic planting stock, bulbs, roots and cuttings except when these are not commercially available. If you cannot find your preferred blueberry variety, or can’t get sufficient quality or quantities for the scale of your operation, you can use non-organic planting stock.

As with all seed and planting stock searches, you have to provide your certifier with good documentation of your search. And of course, price cannot be a consideration for determination of commercial availability.

Each year, the availability of certified organic planting stock grows. More varieties, better quality and bigger quantities become available. It’s the age-old high school economics supply-and-demand lesson in action.

To find planting stock, you can Google “certified organic planting stock” for your area, or “certified organic blueberry plants,” using the specific variety you‘re looking for. This will help you find local plant nurseries that carry certified organic plant stock. Another great resource may be the organic growers in your area. Networking with the other certified organic growers in your area can be a great benefit in many ways to everyone involved.

If you’ve exhausted all your options for finding the variety, quality and quantity that you need, and you’ve kept really good records of your search, you can begin to explore other options. NOP regulation states that you can purchase a non-organic plant and sell its fruit the next day as certified organic fruit with some exceptions—the regulation is in the details. If the purchased non-organic plant has been grown in planting media containing any synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, wetting agents or other prohibited materials or has been treated with prohibited fungicides or insecticides, these are prohibited substances, and so the fruit cannot be certified organic. Not only that, if you introduce these prohibited substances to your certified organic soil, you may risk needing to re-transition your soil for another 36 months.

Buying non-organic bare-root plants rather than potted plants is the best way to avoid these unwanted materials. If you can verify and document that your bare-root planting stock hasn’t been treated with any prohibited materials, you can plant the new planting stock in your organic soil and sell the fruit as certified organic.

Only the fruit can be sold as organic. The planting stock, crowns or bulbs off the newly purchased non-organic plant must be in your certified organic ground, grown according to NOP regulation for 12 months before the plants can be sold as organic. Since most perennial fruit-stock will not produce a commercial crop the first year of planting, this probably would not be an issue.

For example, after failing to find commercially available organic plants, you can plant non-organic blueberry plants and harvest an organic crop that same year after planting. However, you cannot sell any excess planting stock as organic blueberry plants for 12 months.

Ultimately, the search for certified organic planting stock is similar to the search for seeds. You have to keep good records of your steps. And while it’s best to find and support certified organic suppliers, you have other options if you’re unable to find what you need. As with all certification questions, call your certifying agency to be sure of what you’re bringing into your certified organic farm operation.

We have Canada thistle growing in the large aisles in our two-acre asparagus patch. What can we do to manage this perennial weed?

Answer by Senior Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

Canada thistle is a difficult weed to control—I have also dealt with it on my farm in annual crops. I am going to give you a variety of options. Timing and persistence are very important in all of these options.

Dig Them Out
I know this is very time consuming and difficult. The time to do this is as early in the spring as you can see the thistle, preferably when it is still just a rosette and has not yet started to grow a vertical stem. The length of the stem of the plant relates to the depth of the root—the taller the plant, the longer the root. So digging when the plant is very young gives you a better chance of getting the whole root.

Dig when the ground is soft and moist. You want to get the whole root. At the bottom of the Canada thistle root, there is a piece of root that is horizontal to the vertical tap root. I call this an anchor. When you get full root, including that little anchor, then you know you have gotten the whole root. REMOVE the thistle from the field and either fully compost them, or burn them on a burn pile. Thistle roots are very resilient and can re-sprout quite easily. I use a garden fork to dig out the thistle rather than a shovel. This way I don’t break the roots. Leather gloves are another essential tool when digging thistle. I do this in the early morning over a 2-week period in the spring. You can really make a lot of progress, even with just one hour a day.

Burn Them
If you have a handheld flame burner, you can burn them. Again, this needs to be done in the rosette stage and would probably need to be done 2-3 times in the early spring. This is faster than digging, but still needs persistence!

Smother With Mulch
Unfortunately, mulching is not the best method, unless you have a very thick mulch for 3-5 years that truly does not let the thistle receive any sunlight. The root will still be getting nutrients and moisture, so you may just weaken the root, but not destroy it. Black plastic mulch might work best; but make sure you don’t use a woven landscape fabric, which would still allow nutrients and moisture to keep those roots viable.

Smother With Cover Crop
I have had success with this on my farm, and I know corn/soybean growers have also had success with this on a larger scale. Plant sorghum-sudangrass with a drill or some way to cover the seed lightly after broadcasting it. Use very shallow tillage to prepare the area if you need to, but as little as possible. When the thistle is about 2-3 feet tall or starts to bud in your thick stand of sorghum-sudan, go in and mow it. It’s very important that you DON’T LET THE THISTLE GO TO SEED! This mowing cycle can be done 2-3 times in one season. This causes the thistle root to lose a lot of its vitality.

The reason this works well is that the sorghum-sudan is very thick and grows so quickly that the thistle can barely compete for nutrients, water and sunlight, and must use up the nutrients from its root stores. When you cut it, the cycle starts again.

Thistle also likes compacted soil and the incorporation of all of this mowed organic matter loosens up the soil and changes the soil environment so it is less “attractive” for the thistle to grow. I’ve had about a 65-85 percent reduction in thistle in one year with this activity. Then the following spring I go out and dig or burn what is left.

Mow the thistle continually through the season, keeping them 6 inches or less. This will also weaken the roots, but is not as effective as the other options above.

Soil Health, Nutrient Balance
Having a well-balanced soil nutrient profile, especially with the use of high calcium lime or gypsum to bring up low pH soils, will also reduce compaction. Do some soil testing, and compare trace nutrients in the areas where the thistle is present and where it is not. You might be surprised to see some nutrient deficiencies in the thistle areas that you can work on correcting.

Herbicide Approved for Organic
There is an herbicide called AllDown, that is approved for use on organic land. It is a blend of acetic acid, citric acid and garlic juice. Again, it must be used in the rosette stage to be effective, although they advertise it as being effective on larger weeds, too. I do not have personal experience with this product, but others have told me that it works best on the smaller thistle. The manufacturer is located in Minnesota: 952-368-0020 or This is the only herbicide that is approved for use in organic production that I know of for use on thistle.

As you can see, there are a variety of strategies to control thistle. You can do one or more of these at the same time to get long term control. It may take 2-4 years of persistent effort, but you can get ahead of thistle in your organic system!

Can I plant non-organic strawberry plants, and then sell the strawberries as organic?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

Yes, you can plant non-organic strawberry plants and sell the fruit as organic with no waiting period, provided you have documented a search and could not find commercially avail­able organic strawberry plants.

The requirement for planting stock is similar to that for commercially available organic seeds. You must use an organic version unless you cannot find it in the variety, quality or quantity that you need. You must document your search for organic strawberry plants or other types of planting stock. If you cannot find them in the type, quality or quantity you need, then you can plant non-organic plants and sell the fruit as organic.

In February 2013, the National Organic Pro­gram (NOP) updated guidance on whether or not “planting stock” such as strawberries, rasp­berries, tree fruits, and herb plants needed to be under organic management for one full year before selling the production from these plants as organic. Many certification agencies had required a year of organic management. With the update, the NOP clarifies that the one year of organic management is only required when a grower is selling the planting stock itself as organic.

You can sell strawberry fruit as organic at any time from a non-organic strawberry plant. However, the runners from that plant must be under full organic management for a year before you can sell them as “organic planting stock.” Also, you can sell rosemary or lavender leaves as organic from non-organic plants recently planted on your organic farm, but you must manage the plant organically for one full year before you can make cuttings and root them to sell as organic plants.

What can I do to get rid of the bugs eating my organic vegetables?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: As an organic producer, you should be looking at the bigger picture. Our ecosystem is a web of interdependent life. The “bugs” you are seeing could be predators that actually are helping you control problem insects! So your first step is to identify the insects you see to make sure they are the ones causing the damage. Do an online search for images of pest insects that affect vegetables. Purdue University has a good photo gallery of vegetable insects at

Before you take drastic steps, determine if the damage is at an economic threshold where you need to take control measures. Knowing the life cycle of the pest bothering your vegetables will tell you if the population numbers can rise very quickly, or if they tend to lessen over time. Your understanding of the insects’ needs and dislikes will help you manage them over time. In a war where only numbers are considered, insects tend to win. In a war where knowledge is the main weapon, humans have the upper hand.

The organic regulation has a pest control hierarchy that mandates you start with cultural, biological or mechanical practices to manage pests, weeds and diseases. When those don’t curb the problem, you can use natural products. After that—but only as a last resort—you can use synthetic materials that are on the National Organic Program’s National List of Approved Substances. Use of synthetics should be avoided as much as possible; broad spectrum insecticides kill beneficial pollinators or predatory insects along with problem insects.

Organic agriculture is a system of production, not just a way to grow food by substituting organically approved materials for non-approved ones. Keep track of problems you have had in the past and seek out resistant varieties (cultural control). Grow habitat beneficial to insects that prey on your pests (biological control). And, use exclusion devices like netting or floating row cover (mechanical control) to protect the tender young plants so favored by insects.

Research has shown that insects favor weak and stressed plants; healthy plants are less attractive to pests. Try foliar feeding your plants with a fish emulsion and seaweed blend to boost their immune system, both to help them recover from the insect damage and to discourage further infestation. Consider starting a regimen of foliar feeding when your plants are usually stressed, such as right after transplanting, when they flower and when they set fruit. Improving the health of the plant also helps you achieve higher yields of quality crops.

Another management technique is to plant a trap crop that is highly favored by your problem insects, and then spray an approved pesticide only on that crop. If you need to move to your last resort of approved synthetic materials, check out Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply’s pest solution chart ( html). This cross-referenced chart of problem insects and control materials is very useful.

As you learn more about insect life cycles and how insect pests interact with your environment, you can help your plants become less vulnerable to insect problems.

I am washing roots, squash and other vegetables for short- and long-term storage. Is there something I should add to my water to help them keep?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

There are three common wash water addi­tives used for washing organic vegetables. One is food-grade hydrogen peroxide, 35%. This should be diluted down to 3% in the wash water. That would be one part 35% H2O2, to 11 parts water. This product is corrosive, so handle it at full strength only when wearing long rubber gloves and goggles. H2O2 can degrade organic materi­als, bacteria, and organically approved or non-acceptable pesticide residues.

Another product is peroxyacetic acid, with Tsunami, a brand name for this blended product. Use this at dilution noted in the instructions. It is advisable that a final clean water rinse be done after the use of hydrogen peroxide or peroxyacetic acid before putting into long-term storage.

Let the root vegetables mostly dry before put­ting into storage. Some producers put these in large food-grade plastic bags in open-top totes to retain some moisture. Periodically check to make sure the roots are not too moist and getting moldy. For very long storage, you want some moisture so the roots do not dry out. Packing root vegetables in clean, slightly damp sand also works.

Chlorine also can be used, but only in fairly low concentrations. The organic regulations require that the effluent after washing contain no more than 4 PPM chlorine, which is the level allowed in drinking water. You can have your concentrations higher when washing the produce, but the chlorine must basically all be consumed and volatilized by the action the chlo­rine has on the bacteria and organic matter in the water. This makes the use of chlorine on a small-scale farm more problematic, since you will need to test the waste water to verify you meet the regulatory requirements.

How can I manage post-harvest handling of my certified organic flowers to make them last longer?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson:

Your primary piece of equipment to ensure long-lasting flowers of most varieties is a cooler. You need to be able to take the field heat out of the flowers and hold them until delivery at about 40 degrees.

One easy and inexpensive option is to build your own cooler. Many flower growers build relatively inexpensive 8×12 coolers using foam insulation, a store-bought 18,000-BTU window air conditioner, and a “CoolBot”—a $300 piece of machinery that helps the A/C unit to cool the space to as low as 35 degrees.

Cleanliness of all your tools is of utmost importance. The “godmother of flower farming,” Lynn Byczinski, likes to say, “Keep your vases as clean as your teacups.” The same goes for buckets and clippers. Install an easily accessible, easily cleaned bucket-washing station. Certified organic growers can use biodegradable soap for washing, along with a little bit of bleach or hydrogen peroxide for sanitizing. Wash and sanitize your buckets after every use.

Many flower growers use hydrator and preservative in the water, but the research is unclear on whether or not these make a difference. Hydrator helps the stems take up water efficiently from the first cut, ensuring longer vase life. Preservatives have a sugar to feed the flowers, and a bactericide to kill the inevitable bacteria produced—the “slime” that you see in a vase of old flowers. There is one hydrating and preserving product on the market that certified organic growers can use called Vita Flora (

Once you’ve installed a cooler, and have your squeaky clean buckets and clippers, the next step is timing your flower harvest. Flowers keep best when harvested in the cool morning or evening. In the morning, flowers are most turgid and very fresh. In the evening after photosynthesizing all day, they have the most carbohydrates to give them a long life. Either way, it’s best to harvest in temps under 80 degrees, while steering clear of times when dew is on the flowers. Wetness on the petals can lead to disease and fungus during storage. If you harvest in the morning, it’s important to hit that sweet spot between when the dew dries and the day gets too hot.

Every flower has its own peak time to harvest to ensure longer vase life. For example, sunflowers can be harvested and kept in the cooler the moment the first petal lifts from the center. That’s not the case for dahlias, which won’t open any further after you harvest. You’ll want to get to know each flower’s peak harvest time. Learning the ins and outs, and likes and dislikes of each specific flower can take years! That’s why it’s so important to work with other growers as you begin flower farming on your own. (Consider applying for a flower mentor through our Farmer-to-Farmer Mentor Program.)

The importance of cleanliness in flower harvest and handling can’t be emphasized enough, and that continues into how you cut and strip the flowers. Again, start with clean clippers. Most flowers can be cut and stripped in the field for efficiency and speed. But, if it has been especially rainy and the stems are muddy, you may want to cut the flowers and bring them to your processing area to strip the leaves and clean them up.
As you harvest, strip and put your flowers in buckets. Keep the harvested flowers in the shade, never in direct sunlight, and deliver to the cooler frequently as you go. Taking that field heat out of the flowers as quickly as possible after harvest does wonders for their longevity.

A few flowers do better when they’re not cooled, most notably, the zinnia. Zinnias like to be in the shade, but not cooled, and never harvested when they’re wet. I’ve learned that the hard way; they’ll turn to mush in a day or two.

You can ensure the continued longevity of your certified organic flowers when they’re out of your hands by educating your customers. Let them know to keep vases as clean as teacups, and replace the water and rinse the stems daily. To achieve even longer vase life, customers can give the flowers a fresh cut every other day, and display them out of direct sunlight. You have given your beautiful local, certified organic flowers a great start. By following these few easy tips, your buyers can enjoy them for several weeks.

What are the requirements for organic certification regarding water to wash my produce or irrigate my vegetable fields?

 Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar

Water that comes in direct contact with human food in post-harvest handling must meet the clean water drinking act requirements of “potable” or drinkable water. This means it cannot contain E. coli or coliforms. A $10-$18 water test can prove this drinkability.

If you are getting water from a hydrant or a faucet, heat the end of the pipe to kill any bacteria before you take the sample to send to a government or private testing laboratory. The sample needs to get to the lab within 2-3 days. There are many testing laboratories—ask your local extension agent or call MOSES to find a lab in your area.

The water also cannot contain more than 4 parts per million chlorine per liter, which can also be tested. If you have recently shocked your well with chlorine, you should definitely get a test. Typically, municipal water is not over this amount of chlorine. Water from a creek, river, pond or other “surface waters” will typically have a bacteria count that is too high to be used for washing vegetables meant for human consumption. Water from a cistern should be tested more often than from a sealed well, since risk of bacterial contamination is greater from this source. If you have a gas motor mounted on your well, make sure no gas or oil leaks on the ground around the well.

Water used for irrigation is not addressed in the organic regulation. However, organic certifiers may assess risk of organic land contamination, especially if you’re irrigating with surface waters. Consider what is occurring upstream from your organic operation. Is the time of year that the water is used the same time that many prohibited materials are being used upstream? Is there a risk that livestock upstream could be polluting the water so food safety is at risk?

You should be prepared to answer these questions so the organic certifier is satisfied that you are aware and can protect the organic integrity of the land and food you are growing. A larger creek or river, due to the continual movement of the water, would have less risk than a farm pond where the water from non-organic fields accumulates.

Pesticide and herbicide tests are expensive, and are usually not requested by certifiers. Instead, they look at the situation and assess the risk before they decide if that specific water source can be used to irrigate organic land.

Lastly, with the upcoming implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), irrigation water testing may be required, depending on the size of your operation and how far your crops travel to market. These rules are not yet finalized—MOSES will provide that information once we have it. In general, greater care regarding food safety should be taken with crops that are eaten raw from the field versus those that will be cooked.


Organic Markets/Labeling:

I’m transitioning to organic. When should I start looking for markets for my new organic production?

Answer by Organic Specialist Lauren Langworthy:

One of the most important—and most overlooked—steps in the process of transitioning is to plan ahead for a marketplace where you will be able to move your organic products. Because an outlet for your goods is such an important part of the financial health of your farm, you should make an extra effort to set yourself up for success long before you have organic goods to sell. If you’re coming up on your certification date and haven’t yet found a buyer, you risk losing the important price premiums that will help your organic farm thrive. Instead, plan ahead!

Begin conversations with grain elevators, creameries, co-ops, farmers’ market managers, wholesale buyers, or whoever helps you move your products long before you’re ready to sell. You may even want to begin these conversations before you begin transitioning to organic so that you can be certain the plans you’re making will be well received at a price point that works to support your production.

Depending on what you’re producing, the new “marketplace” may be similar to (or even the same as) your previous one—or it might be vastly different. An example of a marketplace that doesn’t require many changes in marketing might be transitioning from selling non-certified produce to wholesale accounts or at a farmers’ market. Producers making this sort of transition may find that the price point they can request improves with proof of certification, but little else has to be modified from previous relationships and sales methods. Certification may even increase your opportunity to expand into additional farmers’ markets or wholesale accounts by giving you a preferred ranking.

However, some marketplaces treat organic products completely different than they do non-organic. If you sell commodity crops to local co-ops or elevators, you may need to seek out new buyers in order to maintain the organic integrity and price point of your crops.

In that same vein, if you are a dairy producer, you may be surprised to learn that you’ll be signing a multiple-year contract to produce for a creamery purchasing organic milk instead of having your prices fluctuate frequently due to the marketplace demands. While it requires learning a new system, these contracts can be extremely valuable as you plan the future of your business and consider accessing credit for farm infrastructure. You may have to seek out new relationships if your current creamery does not deal in organic milk. Again, it is much better to get on a list and have a buyer expecting you than to learn too late that the creamery you’d hoped to work with will not be accepting new producers at the time you are ready to start selling organic product.

While finding a new buyer can be daunting, it’s also good to learn about the opportunities that are available to you. Because the relationships and structure of your sales may differ significantly from your previous experiences, it’s important to begin preparing for these changes well in advance. As you research the local landscape of organic marketing opportunities, you might learn that certain crops will not be well supported while others might offer an exceptionally good price. The more of this information you have at your fingertips before beginning your farm’s transition, the better prepared you can be with contracts and rotation plans that will allow you to be successful in your newly established organic enterprise.

Keep in mind that the more you can utilize the transition period to practice your organic production skills, organic seed varieties, and relationships with future buyers, the more likely you will be to experience success when your certification finally comes. Planning ahead and preparing for the future will help you find stable footing as you move into new mindsets for your production.

Should I trademark my farm’s name?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:If you sell retail or direct-to-consumer products or plan to add value to your farm’s production with a packaged product carrying the farm name, it might be a good idea to trademark your farm’s name. A trademark creates legal protection for your farm or product name. It is completed at the national level, and involves research to ensure that you’re not using a name that someone has trademarked already, which would create a challenge to your use of that name.

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 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.

If you have more questions, you can contact a law firm. Here are two that specialize in working with sustainable and organic farmers in the upper Midwest: Fare Grange and Farm Commons.

Can any farmer label products as organic?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: The use of the word “organic” on a label in the U.S. is regulated by law, which is managed by the National Organic Program (NOP) within the USDA. Farmers who are certified organic or those who sell less than $5,000 a year of organic products can use the word “organic” or phrases such as “grown using organic methods” to describe products. Even though farmers who sell less than $5,000 are exempt from NOP certification, they still must meet all other requirements of the law, such as use of organic seed when available, certified organic transplants, and documenting all farming activities.

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 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

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.

Farmer Name
Farm Name

*OMRI=Organic Materials Review Institute (

I buy only certified organic ingredients for a food product that I roast and blend in order to sell a finished beverage to the public. I sell more than $5,000 a year of this product. Can I label it as organic?

Answer by Senior Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

The word organic on a retail food label is a guarantee to consumers that the entire process, from seed through field production, storage, sales and any food processing is reviewed and approved as meeting the organic regulations. Since you sell more than $5,000 per year of product that you wish to sell as organic, as the processor, you must be certified in order to use the word organic on the product label.

Organic ingredients alone are not sufficient for using the word organic on a product—the processing facility also must be certified organic. A certified food processor goes through a similar annual certification process as a farmer or rancher.

If you choose not to be certified, you may identify which ingredients are organic on your product’s ingredient list. However, you cannot label the finished product on the principal label as organic, nor use the USDA organic seal on the package.

To label your finished beverage something like “Organic Roasted Vanilla Coffee,” all ingredients or inputs either must be certified organic or on the National List of approved ingredients if they are synthetic. Recipes for each product you wish to label as organic, along with the production methods, needs to be included in your Organic System Plan that a certification agency will review.

Sanitation and pest management materials and protocols must also be documented. Processed organic food products have their own sections on the National List of approved pest control inputs, sanitation products, ingredients and more. Reviewing an organic certifier’s organic system plan will provide you with the information you need to prepare the necessary documentation if you decide to become certified. Pay special attention to the organic regulation section on labeling, which specifies the colors of the USDA organic seal, font size of the word organic and placement of your organic certifier’s name.

If you grew, processed and sold less than $5,000 in annual sales of organically labeled products, then, under the small operator exemption from certification, you could label the product as organic without going through and achieving organic certification. You would still need to follow all of the organic regulations, including use of approved sanitation materials and processes, approved pest management strategies, documentation that all ingredients were either certified organic or on the National List, etc. Again, a review of a sample Handler Organic System Plan would help you prepare and maintain the records you need to have to meet the law. You still could not use the USDA organic seal on your package—that is reserved for certified organic operations only. Most organic certification agencies have Handler Organic System Plans on their websites.

The National Organic Program regulations are here: Since each product and process is unique, it would be best to contact the MOSES Organic Answer Line if you have more questions.


Organic Seed/Organic Inputs:

Must I use organic seed?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: If you are still in transition to organic, you are not required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed. However, you cannot plant seeds that have prohibited synthetic treatments applied, such as a fungicide or insecticide (ie: Captan, Maxim,Thiram). Nitrogen-fixing rhizobial bacteria, used as a treatment on leguminous seeds, is allowed. You must make sure this bacteria is not genetically modified, and the bacteria is not sold with a prohibited synthetic carrier or fertilizer.

You must keep documentation that the seed planted during your transition meets these requirements as part of your application for organic certification. If you plant a corn seed treated with captan after two years of transitioning to organic, for instance, you must restart the 36-month clock on your transition, to the day you planted that seed on that field. If you are unsure if a seed treatment is allowed, ask MOSES, or the organic certification agency you are planning to use when you become certified for organic production.

If your operation is certified organic, you are required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed, unless you cannot find an “equivalent organically produced variety” in the form, quality or quantity that you want. For example, you may want organically approved clay-coated carrot seed for ease of planting, and it is not available on organic seed; or, you want 1000 pounds of bodacious sweet corn seed and you cannot find organic seed in that quantity; or, the germination rate for the organic barley you found is only 65%; or, you cannot find the specific variety of seed in an organic form that the buyer of your crop wants you to grow. In all of these cases, you can use non-organic seed. It cannot have prohibited seed treatments, as described above.

Note that the rule requires you to seek out an “equivalent” variety. If you are new to organic and are unsure whether the organic seed varieties are equivalent to the familiar non-organic varieties you are used to growing, you should trial out organic varieties with similar characteristics at the same time as planting your untreated non-organic seed, to see if you can find one to your liking. Higher price is NOT an acceptable reason to avoid planting organic seed.

Organic seed is an investment in our future as organic producers. Since organic seed is produced under organic management, and the seed breeders are specifically working to provide characteristics that organic crop producers need, it makes sense to purchase from these companies and support their efforts. For example, organic corn producers cannot plant in cold ground in the early spring, since their seed is not treated with fungicides. Therefore, they want a seed that will germinate quickly as well as canopy thick and early to help with weed control in their organic fields. Organic seed breeders work to have crops that respond well to natural, slower release forms of fertility inputs, whereas nonorganic corn seed breeders don’t do this.

I know I am supposed to plant organic seeds if I sell my crop production as organic. How do I accomplish this?

Answer by Senior Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

The National Organic Program (NOP) man­dates the use of organic seed for crops that will be sold as organic unless you can show that you could not find the quality, quantity or equivalent variety of seed you wanted to plant. Under no circumstance can seeds treated with GMO nitrogen-fixing bacteria or non-approved syn­thetic fungicides or insecticides be used when you sell your crop in the marketplace as organic. This rule also applies to producers who sell less than $5,000 in organically labeled products, making them exempt from organic certification (but not from following organic standards). If prohibited materials are used on the seed, or a GMO seed is planted, the land cannot be used for organic production for three years.

More and more seed companies are develop­ing organic seed varieties that function well in organic systems to meet the demand of the organic marketplace. By supporting organic seed suppliers, you encourage further research and development of organic seeds that compete well with weeds, grow vigorously with slow-release fertility inputs and are resistant to disease and pests. Also, certified organic seed would never have prohibited seed treatments.

An excellent resource for finding organic seed of all types is the website www.organicseed­ Field crops, vegetables, fruits, herbs and flower sources are all listed. This website is also helpful for finding seed suppliers that would be the most likely to carry organic seed varieties.

A broader list of organic seed suppliers is in the Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory. The “Seed Sup­pliers” section lists not only suppliers of seed, but also farms that supply seed potatoes or grow crops for seed. The directory also is available in print. You may request a copy by calling the MOSES office at 715-778-5775.

If the specific variety of seed you want is not available, you are required to purchase organic seed of an equivalent variety. If you are unsure if the organic variety is similar or equivalent, consider purchasing some organic seed and trialing out new organic varieties to see if they do as well as the non-organic seed that you are used to growing. Remember, the NOP does not consider price to be a valid reason not to pur­chase organic seed.

If you plant untreated non-organic seed, you will need to document why your search for organic seed was unsuccessful—quantity, qual­ity, and variety are all valid reasons for buying non-organic seed. For example, the organic seed only came in one-ounce packets and you wanted to purchase 20 pounds (quantity). Or, the organic seed germination rate was only 20%, and the non-organic seed had a germination rate of 95% (quality). Or, you wanted to grow an orange oxheart tomato, and could not find it from at least three sources that typically sell organic seed (variety). Searching at your local garden center which does not typically sell organic seed is not considered a viable organic seed search by most certification agencies. You should be trying to find organic seed from the many suppliers that offer it. Even a search on the Internet for organic seed varieties can be fruitful.

Organic seed can be in short supply. It is a good idea to start your organic seed searches in winter and not wait until late spring when they often are sold out.

My certifier wants me to use organic seed instead of the untreated, non-organic seed I am used to planting. Why do I need to make this change?

Answer by Senior Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: The organic regulation mandates the use of organic seed unless you cannot find an “equivalent” variety in the quality or quantity that you need. Seed is the foundation of growing a crop, and the requirement in the organic regulation that organic seeds be used when commercially available is a recognition of this principle.

The selection of organic seeds is expanding. I was recently perusing the seed catalog of a Midwestern supplier of organic and non-GMO seeds, and was inspired by the many improvements that continue to be made in organic seed availability.

Organic seed breeders build characteristics into seeds that perform best under organic production methods, whereas non-organic seed suppliers focus on traits for growing systems that rely on chemical inputs. Organic seeds offer characteristics such as good growth when using naturally slow-releasing fertility inputs, quick emergence and canopy for better weed control, and pest-resistance through hairy leaves that lessen insect feeding.

Since many organic seed varieties are not the exact variety you are used to growing, you need to look at several factors to determine if the organic seed is equivalent to the non-organic untreated seed you are accustomed to planting. Compare the characteristics listed for both type of seeds, such as days to maturity, compatibility with your soil type and climate, resistance to pests or disease, and more. If the organic seed offers nearly the same characteristics, it’s likely your certifier will consider it “equivalent.”

The best way to judge a new seed is to trial it on your farm. Purchase a packet/bag or two of several organic varieties and plant them on the edge of a field where you’re growing your favorite variety (and document which varieties are planted where). During the growing season, look over all varieties to assess how they stand up to the tried-and-true version you are growing in the remainder of the field, and keep track of yields from each. You may be surprised how good the organic varieties are!

Trialing organic seed, both when you are in transition to organic and when you are certified, will result in finding the best organic seed varieties for your own operation. I’ve heard many organic farmers say this method has led them to plant organic varieties that perform better than the non-organic ones they had preferred.

I would like to purchase an older sprayer that had been used with prohibited synthetic materials. Can I do this and use this sprayer to apply products approved for organic production?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

Yes, you can purchase and use this sprayer. However, you will need to perform some cleaning and refurbishment activities and document these before you may use it on organic land.

Most certifiers recommend a clear water rinse first. Completely fill the tank and spray it until empty on non-organic land. Second, fill the tank again with diluted household ammonia, such as one quart of ammonia per 125 gallons. Run this through the sprayer again on non-organic land. Perform another clear water rinse as above. If you continue to smell the residues of the prohibited chemicals, do another ammonia and clear water rinse again. Poly tanks are porous so you may need to repeat this procedure a few times.

Replace all rubber parts including hoses, washers, and nozzles with new ones, as these are very difficult to clean completely.

Many certifiers require that once you have converted this piece of equipment from non-organic to organic production, you can no longer use it for spraying prohibited materials. In other words, if you are sharing this piece of equipment with a non-organic farmer, or you manage split production on your own farm, you may need to dedicate this sprayer, once cleaned, to organic and not go back and forth between organic and non-organic use, even if you perform this cleaning activity each time. Check with your certification agency on its policy for sprayer use to see if it mandates dedication to organic.


Season Extension:

I need to create some fast, inexpensive greenhouse space. What do you suggest?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson: In 2015, we bought a farm with some infrastructure but no greenhouse. We grow flowers and vegetables. Because we were low on capital, but high in experience and knew how to “hack” together season extending systems, we chose to build two souped-up caterpillar tunnels for our greenhouse space. (See caterpillar tunnels at We didn’t want to build anything permanent until we had a couple of years under our belts farming our new land, in order to know more about the patterns of the wind and sun. Additionally, we have really felt the effect of climate change more than ever these last two years, and it seems like the pattern that’s emerging is extreme weather events. We want to build a resilient farm with good systems, and inexpensive, easy-to-fix structures.

The most protected space on our farm, which sits high on a windy ridge, is tucked in southeast of our big pole shed. We can fit two 10 x 60 structures in this protected space. To make our temporary greenhouse more secure in the high spring winds, we spaced the PVC bows closer together than is usual, and added more rope to hold down the plastic. We also added some Lexan polycarbonate sheeting remnants that we received from a generous friend. We used those below the hip board to add stability.

Another great, easy structure for this same purpose that’s even more secure can be made with galvanized steel chain link fence rails bent as bows that are more sturdy than PVC. (Learn more about this structure at
We rolled the sides up and down depending on the weather, and entered through one place on the wall. Doors are better and make a more comfortable entry, but we got in and out without too much trouble.

Inside this house, we built 2-foot high tables with wood frames and polycarbonate panels offset for drainage. The tables are balanced on cinder blocks. We tried tables covered in poultry wire, but these were too unbalanced; the wire would inevitably sag in one area. Instead of heating the air, we heat the tables that the plant flats sit on. It’s more efficient all around, and especially in this hack system that isn’t extremely airtight.

We’ve tried table-heating two ways: first with electric heat mats and, second with radiant roll-out heat mats that operate with an on-demand tankless water heater system that runs on propane. Water, mixed with glycol, runs through the tubes in the heating mats within this closed system that keeps the water temperature between 90 – 120 degrees F, a relatively small differential. Keeping the soil temp level and warm enough does far more for good germination and the early days of seedlings than air temp.

We have an exhaust system, and a few makeshift fans in the greenhouse, but the downside of this system is definitely controllable air-flow. For our early growing purposes it hasn’t mattered. Also, with climate change bringing earlier spring, by the time good air flow makes more of a difference, we’ve been able to open up the sides and allow the spring winds to blow through.

Our favorite low-cost system for starting plants early (February) is to build a mini tunnel inside the larger greenhouse. We attached electric conduit (available at home improvement stores for about $2.50 for 10 feet) to the tables, and put plastic over the conduit for a mini greenhouse inside the larger greenhouse. On super cold nights (-10 outside) we threw some sheets and blankets over the whole structure and kept the soil temps above 55.

System Costs
The average cost to build a caterpillar tunnel is about $700. The set up for the electric heat mats was about $600. We could fit 22 flats on the mats. The cost to build the radiant roll-out heat mats that operate with an on-demand tankless water heater is about $700, not including the mats. We got mats from a former farm for a really good deal. They’re also available online through BioTherm along with the hardware needed to set up the system. (See We have run about 700 square feet of tables on one water heater, fitting about 350 flats. The folks at BioTherm would be able to help you work out what you need.

I can also share a couple of watering hacks that have improved our farm life:

Bottom Watering
We set our newly seeded and just germinated trays in open flats without drainage, then fill the flats as needed for watering. It’s a little tricky to get the balance of how much water to add to the flats given cloud cover, but with a little time and practice you get the hang of it. This improves germination as we seed many flowers that sit on top of the soil and require light to germinate. It also prevents disease and fungus because we aren’t spraying water on the leaves and top of the soil.

Overhead Watering
Once the plants are large enough to handle a little more adversity, we hook up the PVC pipes with 1/16-inch holes drilled into for easy overhead watering. We only do this when we get to the point where we need to be in the field and are spending less time in the greenhouse. It’s not ideal because the plants aren’t getting the same amount of water, but it’s a functional hack.

There are many, many more greenhouse hacks especially in larger systems. These hacks have been great solutions to challenges on our new farm without requiring a lot of capital.

I have an infestation of fruit flies in my greenhouse. How do I get rid of them organically?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti:

First, you need to make sure that they are actually fruit flies. Fruit flies are often confused with a different insect called a fungus gnat. Fruit flies have red eyes, a round body and tend to hover or fly pretty slowly. They are slower moving while walking on the ground, too.

Fruit flies need overripe, damaged or rotting fruit in order to feed and breed. They are also known as vinegar flies, and are attracted to the smell of acetic acid (rotting fruit and vegetables). If you keep these materials out of the greenhouse, you are not likely to have fruit fly problems. Clean up damaged fruit and remove ripe fruit as soon as possible. The old baited fly trap with vinegar and a little soap works well to reduce their numbers, but you have to control the food source with good sanitation to get rid of fruit flies completely.

If your sanitation is good, and you are still seeing small files, they are likely fungus gnats. Fungus gnats are quite fast, both in the air and on the ground, are more thin bodied and do not have colored eyes.

Fungus gnats breed in the organic matter of soil mixes that are kept too wet and thus breeds molds, which the fungus gnat larvae feed upon. The solutions to control fungus gnats are to avoid overwatering plants in the greenhouse, improve drainage, and allow the potting soil to dry in between each watering.

Fungus gnats are not harmful to plants, but the conditions they like are also the same conditions that can lead to fungal and bacterial diseases.

Either fly problem is best solved by cultural techniques, rather than approved sprays.

I have been having problems with aphids in my high tunnels. What can I do to control them?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Greenhouses and high tunnels are great tools, but they also provide a nice protected environment for certain insect pests. Normally, aphids are kept in check by predators, parasites and by wind and rain which can knock them off plants. In the protected environment of a greenhouse or high tunnel, they can become a problem because there are few or no natural controls. In the right conditions, aphids and other pests, such as whiteflies and spider mites, can explode in numbers very quickly.

Aphids are sucking insects that weaken plants by sucking up sugars and other fluids from crops. They are not easy to see, since they are the same color as the plant stem and generally like to feed on stems, buds, and underneath leaves.

Step one for control is to monitor your crops on a regular basis. Infested plants are often stunted and can be a lighter green or yellow. Look closely at the stems under the leaves for aphids. A magnifying glass or loop can help. A good approach that saves time is to flag “sentinel” plants. Mark plants in a grid pattern and only monitor those specific plants on at least a weekly basis. If you find significant numbers of aphids on these plants, you know it is time for control options. Yellow sticky cards are another good monitoring device. Adult female aphids have wings and are strongly attracted to the color yellow, which mimics the color of sickly plants. The cards are coated in sticky glue, which traps them. Check cards at least weekly for signs of adult aphids. Sticky cards need to be replaced frequently to work well. Fortunately they are cheap and available through any greenhouse supply company.

If you have any infested plants in a greenhouse or high tunnel, you should begin control options since their numbers can explode quickly.

Here are your options as an organic farmer:

Biological control

There are a number of predators and parasites available for purchase and release. Ladybug larvae are the most familiar, but there are parasitic wasps, lacewings and others available now as well. Biological controls work best to keep aphid levels down, but may not give good control if you already have a problem. They simply cannot reproduce as quickly as aphids (which can actually reproduce without males- females give birth to clone daughters). Beneficial insects work best as preventative controls. A number of companies sell beneficial insects, including:

Non-Chemical Spray

Soapy water will kill aphids. The soap strips away their waxy cuticle and they die of dehydration. In order for this to work, they must be directly sprayed with the soapy water. Use a sprayer and mix one tablespoon of liquid soap per gallon of water. (Dr. Bronner’s is pure soap. Be careful not to use soaps with perfumes, dyes or other synthetic additives.) There are also many ready-to-use brands that are OMRI listed including the common Safer Insecticidal Soap.

Allowed Chemical Sprays

Remember that all insecticides approved for organic use are “restricted use” products. You can use them only when your other control options have failed, and you must notify your certifier if you intend to use a new product and the reason you must use it. Pyrethrum/pyrethrin-based sprays will work on aphids, but have a very short residual effect and must come in contact with the aphids. The product Pyganic works well, since it is pyrethrin mixed with oil, which coats and kills aphids and many other insects. Your certifier should be able to provide a list of approved pyrethrum/pyrethrin sprays or check the OMRI website for a list:

Aphids also love plants that are over-fertilized with nitrogen. If they are a constant problem despite other control efforts, you might be adding too much nitrogen to your potting mix or through fertilizer applications. A tissue test to determine nitrogen levels may be in order if you are having ongoing issues with aphids and other sucking pests.

As always, crop rotation and good sanitation practices can help control aphids in the long run.


Soils & Systems:

What should I know about taking soil samples and testing my soil?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar

Taking soil samples and testing is a good idea every few years to track if your soil fertility pro-gram is moving in the right direction. These tests are one way to prove to your organic certifier that inputs, such as micronutrients, are necessary.

While numerous testing laboratories are available, give some thought to how you will use these tests and what your soil fertility program will require. If you are planning on using the test results to justify a government-approved Nutrient Management Plan, make sure you use a lab that is approved. Tests from an “unapproved” lab cannot be part of an NMP.

It is worth the extra dollars to go beyond testing only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK). Get a full analysis, including Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which gives you an idea of the nutrient transfer capability of the soil to your plants. Organic matter (OM) helps you track if you are building soil structure and nutrient-holding capacity. All of the micronutrients plus pH are important to help you understand imbalances that can result in certain type of weed or pest problems, as well as depriving your crops of some nutrients.

To take soil samples, walk your fields in a zig-zag or wide “W” pattern, taking 6-10 samples at a minimum, depending on the size of the field. You will then mix these together in a bag and take a smaller amount of this composite sample to send to the lab. Use a soil probe or a trowel to dig about 4-8 inches deep. Try to avoid putting vegetation into the bag. Send if off to the lab in a timely manner.

Depending on your field(s), you may need to take numerous samples. If the soil type changes in the field—more clay on one end, sandy on the other—send in two samples so you can understand what is going on in these different areas. Also, make sure you have composite field samples for each of the fields that are growing different crops, so you can plan for your yield goals based on the needs of the crop and what the soil currently offers. Soil testing can be a good tool in helping you plan your crop rotations for both building soil health as well as crop yields.

Lastly, start a file for your soil tests so you don’t lose this information and can track, over time, the effectiveness of the soil amendments you might purchase and apply. Do not take your soil samples right after applying minerals or manure—the test would not give you a true  picture of your soil composition.

Can I use my non-organic neighbor’s manure on my organic field?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar: It is not required to use manure from organic livestock on organic fields. If you are growing livestock feed, ornamentals, or fiber, then you can apply manure at any time on your organic cropland.

Feed and bedding: Arsenic is the only prohibited feed input that could have been fed to non-organic animals, which would prohibit use of manure on organic land. Arsenic has at times been added to conventional broiler chicken feed. It is an element, and will remain in your soil since it does not break down. You must document that this is not in the feed if you are using broiler manure. Other than this, animals could have been fed genetically engineered (GE) feed, or given antibiotics or hormones, and the manure is still allowed on organic land.

However, if the manure includes bedding, it cannot contain prohibited synthetics, like treated wood shavings or glues/paints/heavy metal-based inks. On the other hand, GE corn stalks, or any conventionally raised crop is allowed as bedding in manure that can then be spread on organic land.

Piles and Lagoons: You must obtain a document from the manure supplier that a manure pile or manure lagoon did not have prohibited synthetic items used in or on the manure. For example, no non-approved fly sprays or herbicides may be used on manure piles, or non-approved synthetics put in manure lagoons to control odor. A natural lactobacillus bacterium is allowed as a manure lagoon additive, as long as it does not contain non-approved synthetics. Manure that has been piled outside or in a barn for 10 years with no turning and/or no documentation that it reached the high temperatures required for compost (see below) is still considered raw manure, and can only be used according to the manure restrictions on human consumed crops.

Human-consumed crops: If you are growing crops for human consumption, and the manure is not composted or processed, the manure must be incorporated either 120 days before harvest of the crops where the crop has contact with soil (either growing in or on the ground, or where rain might splash soil on the crop, such as beets, tomatoes, peppers), or wait 90 days before harvest where the crop does not have contact with soil (i.e. corn or soybean seed).

Compost and processed manure: Manure that has been composted (documented temperature of over 131 degrees for 15 days and turned 5 times) or processed (150-165 degrees for one hour and tested to have less than 1000 most probable number (MPN) of fecal coliform and 3 MPN salmonella per 4 gram sample) can be used up until day of harvest with no restriction. If you are composting only vegetative matter, without any animal by-products, then there is no requirement to track the compost reaching a specific temperature. Non-animal product compost can be spread this on your organic crops at any time.

Using manure: Be aware that raw manure that has not reached the high temperatures of composting or processing will contain viable weed seeds. You will be adding more, and possibly different, weed seeds to your fields. It is a good idea to obtain an analysis of the manure you are using so you can better manage for the nutrients it provides.

Can I use compost from my county’s composting program on my organic farm?

Answer by Organic Specialist Joe Pedretti: Municipal compost is becoming more common as communities switch to composting yard and kitchen waste instead of sending it to a landfill. The National Organic Standards separates compost in two groups: one that might contain fecal matter from animals or humans, and one that does not. Within each group, the compost must meet specific criteria to qualify for use on organic farms.

Compost that might contain manure must meet the composition, temperature and turning specifications in the National Organic Standards:

(i) Established an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1; and

(ii) Maintained a temperature of between 131 °F and 170 °F for 3 days using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system; or

(iii) Maintained a temperature of between 131 °F and 170 °F for 15 days using a windrow composting system, during which period, the materials must be turned a minimum of 5 times.

The county/city must provide the documentation to show these standards were met before you can use a material as compost. If they cannot prove they have met these standards, it may be possible to still use it, but it will not be considered compost, it will be considered raw manure, and will have different handling requirements:

1) Raw animal manure, which must be composted unless it is:

(i) Applied to land used for a crop not intended for human consumption;

(ii) Incorporated into the soil not less than 120 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion has direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles; or

(iii) Incorporated into the soil not less than 90 days prior to the harvest of a product whose edible portion does not have direct contact with the soil surface or soil particles;

Composted and un-composted plant materials without manure have no application restrictions, but the composting center must verify that the compost contains only 100% plant materials. If there is a possibility that it contains pet waste (animal manure) then it must be handled as raw manure.

Whether or not it contains animal manure, you still must make sure compost contains no prohibited materials:

•Recycled building materials/lumber (due to paints, varnishes and glues)
•Human waste
•Plastics and other un-compostable synthetics

Check with the composting facility to see if they have the necessary documentation. If other organic farmers have been using their product, it is quite likely they have this paperwork on hand. Also check with your certification agency, which can do a product review if it has not already reviewed this compost for other farmers. Ultimately, your certifier makes the final call on whether a product is allowed or not. All new inputs should always be verified and added to your crop input list before use.

What can I plant mid-summer to feed pollinators and beneficial insects into the fall?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson:

As we enter the time of mid-summer bounty, the pollinators and beneficial insects are busy sipping up the nectar and pollen from your flowering plants. Nectar provides energy, and pollen is high in protein. If you are managing bees, you’ll want to research specific mixes of flowering plants that provide a good balance of both nectar and pollen. If you are a farmer who wants to make sure your farm’s beneficial pollinators have plenty to eat, you have a variety of options. Nature provides a diverse assortment of plants that flower from early spring into the fall, ensuring a good food supply for pollinators all season long.

Your first option is to ensure you have plenty of perennial and native plants on your acreage. Buffer strips of native prairie flowers and grasses are a functional and beautiful addition to larger acreages; perimeter buffers work well on smaller plots. Native flowering plants and perennials not only feed pollinators throughout the season, but also hold soil from erosion and buffer your land from neighboring farm chemicals. These plants also are easy to maintain and tolerate a wide range of climatic conditions.

Establishing native prairie and perennials can take a few years. A good resource to help you in this endeavor is the Organic Broadcaster story “Native prairie plantings can be established without using herbicides” by Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist. You can find it online at

A shorter term option to feed your pollinators is to plant annual flowering cover crops on your land that will grow fast, while improving soil and feeding wildlife, but winterkill to be easily tilled in when spring comes. Diversity of cropping not only feeds your pollinators, but cover crops are a great source of green manure and biomass for your soil. All of the following crops will die over winter and be ready for spring tillage.

Calendula – For small to medium acreages, this useful flower is easy to grow, and blooms its pretty head off all season long. When the flowers die, it can be mowed, then will come back and flower as many as three times during the growing season.

Sunflowers – There are many single stem and branching varieties with various grow times, some as fast as 60 days. You can seed them in July and enjoy them in September until the frost. Sunflower heads make a great bird feast during winter, while holding soil from erosion. Note: don’t leave over winter in a field you’d like to plant early because the thick stems will take some time to break down after spring tillage.

Buckwheat – Buckwheat is a wonderful warm season cover crop. The flowers attract many different beneficial insects and birds. It germinates well and canopies quickly to suppress weeds as it matures in 70-90 days. Buckwheat is also reported to extract soil phosphorus.

Phacelia – Another wonderful cover crop for large or small acreages, this flower is highly frost tolerant and loaded with pollen, or protein. It germinates in 5-10 days, grows fast for weed suppression, and has excellent ability to accumulate and recycle excess nitrates and calcium. Plant phacelia with overwintering crimson clover for a cocktail that will not only feed pollinators during the end of the season (phacelia), and also fix nitrogen and feed pollinators in spring (crimson clover).

Cowpea – A heat-loving legume, the cowpea or black-eyed pea not only suppresses weeds and sources nitrogen in the heat of the summer, it has “extrafloral nectaries” on petioles and leaflets that beneficial insects love to eat. Cowpeas can be planted with sorghum Sudangrass, which they’ll climb. The two together create a lot of biomass. Make sure to plant cowpeas in July at the latest, as they are not frost tolerant and require 60-90 days to mature.

My neighbor is certified organic by a different agency than I am. He uses a blended fertilizer product on his certified organic land. Can I use the same fertilizer on my organic land?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

Since the materials you use are part of your specific organic system plan, you must verify with your own agency if it has reviewed and approved this product before you apply it to organic land or crops. Some, but not all, certification agencies will accept any OMRI-listed products, but you still must inform your agency if you choose to add an OMRI-listed product to your Organic System Plan’s list of inputs used on your organic land or crops. You can ask your certifier what the agency’s policy is on OMRI-listed brand name products to help you when deciding which products to purchase.

Since product formulations may change periodically, certifiers will want you to update each year what inputs you are purchasing and using, so they can check that they have current ingredient information to verify the product is still in compliance with the organic regulations.

It can be frustrating to know that some certifiers accept a product and others may not. However, the National Organic Program is currently working with the National Organic Standards Board to develop procedural guidelines for certifiers and organizations like OMRI, who review and approve these inputs for organic producers. Once these guidelines and NOP oversight are in place, this should provide a level of confidence between certifiers where they feel comfortable allowing the use of brand name products that have been reviewed and approved by another certifier who has met these NOP guidelines.

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