Farming Fact Sheets:
1. Converting CRP Land to Organic Production
2. Educational Opportunities in Sustainable & Organic Agriculture
3. GAPS: Bringing Good Agricultural Practices to Your Farm
4. How to Choose Cover Crops
5. Organic & Sustainable Pest Control
6. Protecting Your Organic Land from Unwanted Chemical Sprays
7. Season Extension
8. What is Organic Agriculture?
9. Local and Organic: The Benefits and Differences
10. Facts about Organic Agriculture
11. What You Should Be Saying About Organic Farming
Ask an Organic Specialist: Farming Answers
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!
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 (mosesorganic.org/job-postings), or the Land Stewardship Project’s page, landstewardshipproject.org/morefarmers, 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 neworganicstewards.org. Scroll down the page to the heading “Learn to Farm.”
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?
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.organicseedfinder.com. 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?
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.
The place to start your search is the MOSES website: mosesorganic.org/find-a-farm. 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 apps.ams.usda.gov/nop). 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 www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/organic-production.aspx.
You can find a lot of information about organic production, including state and county data, from the last Farm Census (2012). See www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012.
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 www.cias.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/org12finalnewlowres021612.pdf.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture also has a good webpage dedicated to organic agriculture in that state. See www.mda.state.mn.us/organic.
I’m transitioning to organic. When should I start looking for markets for my new organic production?
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.
I have the opportunity to rent some pasture from my neighbor who hasn't used it in many years. What do I need to do to get this certified, and what is the best way to start pasturing organically?
Make sure that prohibited substances have not been used for at least three years. It is not uncommon to find that the owner may have spot treated weeds or applied manure. If herbicides have been used, it will take a full three-year transition from the last application date before the land can be certified. Conventional manure is allowed, but be sure that the manure and bedding source does not contain prohibited materials like recycled lumber waste, has not been treated with herbicides or insecticides or had chemical treatments to control odor or nutrient loss. Ask a lot of questions to be sure there are no surprises.
A soil test should be a top priority. Fallow land may or may not be fertile. The soil type and previous land use have a large impact on the quality of the soil. Large fields may even have multiple soil types and can vary in fertility from location to location. It is extremely rare to find a soil that isn’t lacking in some nutrients, and may even have an overabundance of others. The soil test can help you plan for the right fertilizer applications.
In general, fallow land tends to need renovation: fertility amendments and, often, reseeding for improved forage quality. Fallow land tends to revert to lower quality grasses over time. So you should also take an assessment of the plant population and type. You can request an assessment and assistance with a grazing plan from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, (NRCS) which will have a grazing specialist available for consultations. If you look in the blue pages (government pages) of your phone book, you can find your county NRCS office. The grazing specialist can help you assess your pasture quality, help you design a fencing and paddock layout and can determine ideal stocking rates. The NRCS also has programs providing cost share for some of these improvements, if you have a long-term lease on this pastureland.
Pastures, too, can revert to low-quality grasses and plants will need to be renovated. Ideally you want a mixture of cool and warm season grasses and a mix of legumes and other broadleaf plants to provide a resilient mix of forages throughout the growing season and changing climatic conditions. Legumes can sometimes be seeded into existing pastures by broadcasting them at the right time of year, typically late winter. If the thatch (root mass and decaying materials) is very thick, you may need to use a no-till seed drill to open up the soil enough for the new seed to make contact. These drills can sometimes be rented through local grazing groups. Good fertility, the right plant population and a good rotational paddock design are the keys to getting good production on your new pasture. Make sure you follow all requirements for your seed, such as planting organic seed or using seed that does not contain any prohibited treatments or inoculants.
Fencing that is already in place can be used even if the posts had been treated with prohibited materials, although your certifier may require an interior fence to prevent grazing right next to these posts. Any new fencing must comply with organic standards and cannot contain these prohibited materials.
205.206 (f) The producer must not use lumber treated with arsenate or other prohibited materials for new installations or replacement purposes in contact with soil or livestock.
Natural wood, metal posts, and concrete posts are allowed. AC2 copper-treated posts are allowed with restrictions such as having a buffer in place between the posts and organic grazing land.
Check with your certifier for details about fencing.
Buffer zones are required along any pasture that borders conventional fields. A 25-30 foot buffer, which cannot be grazed or harvested for organic use, will help prevent contamination from neighboring conventional fields. In most cases, an interior electric or similar fence will be adequate. The buffer zone can be harvested mechanically, or by grazing non-organic livestock such as horses, it cannot be sold or used as organic.
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?
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 www.panna.org/subscience/if-youve-been-drifted. PANNA’s Midwest office is located in Minneapolis. The phone number is 510-788-9020.
If you sell bulk products with no retail label, you probably don’t need to go through the expense and time of registering a trademark–this is especially true if your farm name includes your family name, such as Smith Family Dairy or Johnson Farms.
The first step in getting a trademark for your farm name is to register the name with your home state and surrounding states if you plan to do business there. For many farms, this step provides enough protection and a national trademark is not necessary—you’ll need to assess your own risk to determine if state registries are sufficient.
To find a state registry, search the Internet for “trademark registry [state name].” These registry websites have a search feature that lets you enter the name you want to trademark to see if someone else has already registered that name in that state. If the name is available, you can follow the instructions on the website to register your farm name. The cost to do this can range from $15 to $100, depending on the state. Registering your farm name this way gives you legal protection to challenge others who try to use the same name. It does not guarantee that someone would not use your name outside of the registry system.
To obtain broader legal protection for your farm name, you would need to trademark it on the national level. Start by searching for your farm name in the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) at www.uspto.gov/trademarks. In fact, it’s worth your time to conduct a search even if you’re only going to enter your name in state registries. You could run into trouble, as I have, if you use a trademarked name even locally.
I have used my farm’s name for more than 20 years without a trademark or state registry. I recently received a “cease and desist” order from a company in California who had federally trademarked “Sweet Earth” 25 years ago in numerous food categories, including fresh produce. I am now in the midst of changing my farm’s name, a difficult and time-consuming process, but better than a lawsuit that I would lose if I tried to keep my farm’s name.
Obtaining your own national trademark involves a lot of searching, documentation and time. You can go through numerous confusing steps on the national trademark website and do it yourself, but I recommend hiring a lawyer that specializes in trademarks. The cost to hire a trademark lawyer to set up a national trademark will be $1,000 or more.
Once your name is trademarked, you must maintain that trademark by periodically informing the state or federal agency that it is still in use. This might be every three, five or ten years depending on the agency. Typically, there is not a fee for renewal of trademarks, but that might change.
Take time to think about potential future endeavors involving your farm name. If you decide you’ll market products under your farm name, do a thorough trademark search and register that name. Consider getting a trademark for your logo at the same time—it can save you time and money to do both trademark searches and applications together.
At farmers’ markets, where these exempt-from-certification growers often sell products, labeling can become an issue. It is unfair to producers who go through the strict requirements to achieve organic certification to see the label misused. In many cases, misuse is a result of ignorance, not malice. But, it can cause bad feelings between growers at a market, and impact a market’s reputation if patrons see “organic” being used loosely.
To ensure that vendors at a farmers’ market are using “organic” correctly, managers can ask them to sign a statement that they have followed organic rules. This not only makes vendors aware of the standards they must meet, but also satisfies certified organic farmers that their market neighbors are meeting the same strict rules.
The statement below covers many of the requirements that a smaller scale grower or livestock producer must meet in order to sell organically labeled products as a noncertified (“exempt”) organic farmer. It provides information on what practices and inputs are allowed in order to use the organic label, and can be a valuable educational tool.
Farmers’ market managers should feel free to modify this statement and have it reviewed by their own legal counsel. This type of statement should be updated each year to keep current with changes to organic regulations.
NOTE: Anyone may file an anonymous complaint at NOPcompliance@usda.gov to report someone who is making an organic claim who is not certified or exempt from certification requirements.
Statement for exempt-from-organic-certification producers to use the word “organic”
I am a producer that is not certified organic, but I use the word “organic” to describe my products or practices in the marketplace. The list below describes many of the requirements in the organic law that I follow in order to use the word “organic.” I have read and follow the full U.S. organic regulation, which is located at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.
I affirm that:
1. I sell less than $5,000 annually in organically labeled products.
2. I have not planted any seeds that had synthetic treatments, such as fungicides or insecticides.
3. I have planted all organic seeds if they were available in the variety and quantity I required.
4. I have either grown transplants myself using only OMRI* or organic certifier organically approved potting mixes and other inputs or I have purchased certified organic transplants.
5. I have only applied fertility, pest, disease and weed management inputs that have either been approved by OMRI or by an organic certification agency. I understand that there are numerous agricultural input products that make organic claims that are untrue and I have gone the extra step to verify what I am using meets the organic law.
6. I have implemented a soil building rotation on my farm, where annual crops of the same type are not grown in succession in the same field. I also use plant and livestock based materials such as cover crops and compost to continually improve my soils.
7. I have not applied manure to my fields growing crops for human consumption any sooner than 90 days before harvest for crops that are not in contact with soil (i.e. sweet corn), or 120 days before harvest for crops that are in contact with soil (root crops, tomatoes, peppers etc.).
8. I have documentation that compost containing livestock originated components used on my farm meets the requirement of having a Carbon to Nitrogen ratio of between 25 to 1 and 40 to 1, has had a temperature maintained of 131 to 170 degrees F for 15 days and has been turned 5 times, or if in a static vessel, had this temperature maintained for 3 days.
9. All mammalian livestock has been managed organically from the last third of gestation of their mother to the day of slaughter. All poultry has been managed organically from the second day of life. Organic management includes 100% certified organic feed.
10. All livestock has had access to the outdoors, with ruminants receiving 30% of their nutrition from pasture during a minimum 120 day grazing season. All animal health products and feed supplements have either been OMRI approved or approved by an organic certification agency.
11. I have maintained documentation that verifies what I have stated above.
*OMRI=Organic Materials Review Institute (www.omri.org)
I think that I am renting out my cropland for too little money. What is the going rental rate for organic cropland?
People often think that because land is certifiable as organic, and because the organic premium is higher than conventional prices, that organic cropland can command higher rental rates. This is definitely not true. Organic farmers are usually not willing to pay any more than the going rate for similar conventional cropland —nor should they, for a number of reasons.
Conventional farmers can focus only on the two most profitable crops: corn and soybeans. The advent of GMO, glyphosate-tolerant crops has allowed the two-crop rotation to become the norm. Spray for weeds, spray for pests, add synthetic fertilizer as needed and, as long as you have insurance to cover disaster and subsidies to cover low pricing, you have a “can’t-fail” system that is driving rental and land prices to historic highs.
Organic farmers cannot, by law, continually plant row crops year after year. They must use farming practices that protect and build soil. So they have more complex crop rotations that include cover crops, small grains and forages. They also cannot use the time- and labor-saving herbicides and pesticides. So they must have a much more long-term approach to build soil and control pests. It is not uncommon to see five- to seven-year rotations in organic row crop systems. Organic small grains and forages do not command the same premiums as corn and soybeans. Knowing that, organic farmers are unwilling to pay more than the going rate for rental land, and they usually want longer rental contracts to reap the results of soil building.
Organic farmers, also by law, have to protect the natural resources of the land they farm. The fence row to fence row, put-everything-under-cultivation approach of conventional row crop farmers may make perverse sense economically, but it has been a disaster for our natural re-sources. An estimated eight million new acres of previously unfarmed land, much of it sensitive wetland or previously conserved acreage, has gone under cultivation, mostly to conventional production, over the past five years due to the insatiable quest for more cropland.
Organic farmers must protect wetlands, streams and natural areas by rule, and because having diversity actually helps protect against disease and pest outbreaks. Landowners need to take into account long-term goals for their land, and not just consider the highest possible rental price when considering with whom to rent their land. If bulldozing down trees, ripping out fencerows, tearing out contour strips and terraces, filling in wetlands, spraying it all with glyphosate, and dousing it with anhydrous ammonia sounds incompatible with your land use vision, you should take that into account when negotiating rental rates with organic farmers.
Cropland rental rates vary considerably from region to region. Soil quality and land quantity are the main factors to consider. Marginal land that needs a lot of inputs to be productive will be on the low end, while larger acreages of high quality soil will command the highest rates. Rental rates may be as low as $125 and up to $250 or more per acre for the most desirable cropland. The best way to determine local rates is to talk with your county’s University Agricultural Extension Agent. They are usually familiar with the going rates in your area. Getting a soil test and understanding the results can help when negotiating rental rates.
It pays to talk with potential renters about their management practices. Ask them about their crop rotation plan, pest and weed control, their soil-building practices, and how they plan to prevent erosion and protect sensitive natural areas. Organic farmers should be able to explain their management practices. Landowners who care about the stewardship of their land should and will make their rental decision on more than maximizing rental rates.
For more information about organic contracts and rental agreements, see the the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) website at www.flaginc.org/publication/farmers-guide-to-organic-contracts.
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 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?
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.
I read a news story recently that said organic produce isn't pesticide-free. Please explain this so I have information to share with my customers.
“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes the maximum allowed levels of pesticides, or EPA tolerances, which may be present on foods. Although most EPA-registered pesticides are prohibited in organic production, there can be inadvertent or indirect contact from neighboring conventional farms or shared handling facilities. As long as the operator hasn’t directly applied prohibited pesticides and has documented efforts to minimize exposure to them, the USDA organic regulations allow residues of prohibited pesticides up to 5 percent of the EPA tolerance.
In 2010, the National Organic Program worked with the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Science and Technology Program to evaluate pesticide residues on USDA organic produce. The study involved 571 domestic and foreign fruit and vegetable samples bearing the USDA organic seal, which were obtained from retail establishments across the United States. Using sensitive equipment, an accredited Government laboratory tested each sample for approximately 200 pesticides typically used in conventional crop production.
Of these 571 samples, 96 percent were compliant with USDA organic regulations. This means that the produce either had no detected residues (57 percent) or had residues less than 5 percent of the EPA tolerance (39 percent). Four percent of the tested samples contained residues above 5 percent of the EPA tolerance and were in violation of the USDA organic regulations. The findings suggest that some of the samples in violation were mislabeled conventional products, while others were organic products that hadn’t been adequately protected from prohibited pesticides. The National Organic Program is working with certifying agents to provide additional scrutiny in these areas.”
In short, there are three reasons for contamination: pollution, mishandling, or mislabeling.
We live in a polluted world, where water, rain, soil and the air can contain pesticide residues. Organic farmers do everything they can to minimize this contamination, and largely succeed according to the testing, but it is not possible to completely avoid the ubiquitous contamination of our shared environment. This is why organic does not claim to be “pesticide-free.”
Mishandling in the distribution and retail process can lead to pesticide residues on organic produce. Most stores handle both conventional and organic produce. Warehouses, crates, storage bins, boxes, displays and human hands can all be contaminated with pesticide residue. If organic food is not handled correctly, it can pick up pesticide residue from conventional produce. This is called commingling, which organic farmers and processors take great care to prevent, but once the product is sold and distributed, the handling is beyond their control.
Mislabeling or violation of the rules, either by accident or on purpose, is very rare—only 4 percent of samples tested exceeded EPA tolerance. As with all human endeavors though, it is possible that some organic produce was either mislabeled (conventional mislabeled as organic), or organic produce that was treated with pesticides against the USDA National Organic Standards.
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.
Ask an Organic Specialist: Certification Answers
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 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.
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 offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app. 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 (www.googleearth.com), or www.websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov 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?
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 (attra.ncat.org) 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.
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 ams.usda.gov/services/grants/occsp.
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.
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 https://mosesorganic.org/native-prairie-plantings.
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.
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?
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.”
Resources & Research:
- Agriculture & Carbon Sequestration
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, LLC have jointly published Carbon Sequestration Potential on Agricultural Lands: A Review of Current Science and Available Practices exploring agriculture’s crucial role in reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions. The paper investigates how carbon is sequestered in the soil and the current potential and state of carbon soil research. It is available as a free PDF download.
- Carbon-Management Tool
The USDA released a new “Carbon Management and Evaluation Tool” known as COMET-FARM. This free, online tool estimates the ‘carbon footprint’ for all or part of your farm/ranch operation and allows you to evaluate different options, which you select, for reducing GHG emissions and sequestering more carbon. General guidance is provided about potential changes to your management practices that are likely to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Cover Cropping for Pollinators
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) has a new 16-page publication, Cover Cropping for Pollinators and Beneficial Insects, written by staff of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the NRCS. The booklet includes information and real-life farmer stories about pollinator ecology, cover crops and crop rotation, and navigating USDA crop insurance rules when prioritizing support for pollinators. The free booklet is available as a PDF download or in print.
- Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual
SARE Outreach announces a new planning resource for farmers seeking sound, science-based guidelines for managing crop rotations in organic farming. Download a free copy or order online www.sare.org/WebStore.
- Driftwatch™ registry
Certified organic growers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Delaware and Montana can register their land in the Driftwatch™ registry managed by Purdue University. The mapping tool provides a way for organic and specialty crop farmers to identify fields they want to protect from pesticide spraying. Beekeepers also can mark the locations of beehives. Applicators who register with the site receive email notifications with map updates. It is free to use this service.Farmers in states not served by DriftWatch can register fields/hives through state ag departments in Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
eOrganic website provides scientific, experience, and certification based information on organic farming for farmers, extension agents, agricultural professionals, and the general public. eOrganic provides articles, videos, webinars, and an ask-an-expert service, all which are free, peer reviewed, and checked for compliance with organic certification regulations. Topics include dairy farming, soils, weeds, disease, and pest management, vegetable production, and organic certification and marketing.
- Fact Sheet: Organic Farming Practices
The USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) has published a fact sheet explaining changes to the federal crop insurance program for organic farming practices. These changes include eliminating the 5% organic surcharge and changes to theTransitional yields* (T-Yield) offered to organic producers beginning with crop year 2014. RMA is also working toward having organic prices in crop year 2014 or 2015 for almonds, apples, barley, blueberries, oats, pears, additional stonefruits, table grapes and wheat.A transitional yield, in this instance, does not refer to the yields during the transition to certified organic production. For crop insurance purposes, a T-yield is an average yield for a county, determined by RMA in the collection of producer data, which may be used to substitute for low yields in a producer’s yield history (‘yield substitutions’) or to ensure an overall minimum level of insurance coverage. The purpose of the T-Yield is to minimize the downward impact on insurance coverage that can occur after an unusually bad year, or series of years.
The Center for Farm Financial Management at University of Minnesota Extension now offers a free web-based version of FairRent, a program farmers and landowners can use to evaluate cash, share, and flexible rental arrangements.
- Farm Employment FAQ Available Online
Practical Farmers of Iowa offers “Farm Employment FAQ,” to help Iowa farmers and farm workers better understand their rights and responsibilities as employers and employees. The resource functions as a starting point for farmers and workers to find answers to common questions and links to other resources. The goal of the FAQ is to help farmers gain more insight into how to comply with state and federal labor laws.
- Farm Law Resources
Farm Commons has created a series of farm law guides: Farm Employment Law; Financing a Farmland Purchase; Managing the Sustainable Farm’s Risks with Insurance; and, Building Strong, Legally Enforceable Sales Agreements. The free guides utilize a variety of methods from checklists to narratives to clarify the laws that affect farmers and landowners.
- Get ready for the upcoming vegetable growing season! Cornell recently published a Second Edition of the Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management. It’s free to download the PDF.
- GMO Contamination Prevention: What Does it Take?
The University of Minnesota has created an 8-page guide to preventing GMO contamination in organic crops. This 8 MB PDF covers best practices for both GMO and non-GMO growers regarding planting, harvesting, storage, transport, buyers, recordkeeping and risks.
- Guide to Organic and Organic-Related USDA Programs
An online PDF, provides information about all USDA programs and services related to organic agriculture.
- Manuals on Organic Plant Breeding
Organic Seed Alliance just published four organic plant breeding manuals to encourage organic farmers to participate in developing varieties suited to organic systems. The manuals include an introduction to plant breeding and three crop-specific manuals that provide step-by-step instruction for identifying good breeding material and maintaining a new variety for quality and uniformity.
Introduction to On-farm Organic Plant Breeding
How to Breed Carrots for Organic Agriculture
How to Breed Sweet Corn for Organic Agriculture
How to Breed Tomatoes for Organic Agriculture
- How To Go Organic
A web-based collection of resources from around the country. Useful for farmers or processors interested in understanding organic production, processing and marketing. Sponsored by the Organic Trade Association.
- National Organic Farming Handbook
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has released a new Organic Farming Handbook describing organic systems and a range of conservation practices and resources to assist organic operations. Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist, contributed to this book. Whether you’re in the process of transitioning or simply looking to improve your current organic systems, this handbook can help you find support through NRCS grants and programs ranging from operational planning to enterprise management support to addressing specific resource concerns on your farm.
- New Proceedings of the 2011 USDA Organic Farming Systems Research Conference
Research and perspectives from researchers on the positivity of organic agriculture and a synopsis from the 2011 conference.
- Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin
According to a report from the University of Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the WI DATCP, Wisconsin leads the nation in organic dairy and beef production. The report notes that the state has 1,257 certified organic farms, making it the second largest state for organic farming—California is first. The report includes additional statistics about organic agriculture in the state, as well as narrative about opportunities and challenges facing the state’s organic farmers.
- Organic Farm Profiles
Making the Transition to Organic: Ten Farm Profiles, a publication from the Tools for Transition Project, features stories from a range of producers who have transitioned to organic or are in the process. Each profile addresses transition strategies, challenges, and resolutions.
- Organic Transition Business Planner
Organic Transition: A Business Planner for Farmers, Ranchers and Food Entrepreneurs, a publication from SARE, explores organic transition strategies and asks important questions to help farmers determine the best plan for their farm. It is available as a free PDF download or for purchase in print.
- Organic Research and Outreach in the North Central Region – 2015
Produced by the Ceres Trust, the report includes state-specific details about student organic farms; certified organic research land and animals; sources of organic research funding; dissemination of organic research results through field days and peer-reviewed journals; organic education efforts of nonprofit organizations; and other relevant information.
- USDA Organic 101 Blog
A series of Organic 101 pieces that will explore the different rules within the USDA organic regulations.
From the Organic Broadcaster:
Participants in the Organic Check-Off workshop at the recent MOSES Conference agreed on one thing: more money is needed for organic research. Read more.
There are over 600,000 American youth involved in FFA chapters across the country. The renewed interest nationwide in FFA represents an opportunity for all of us who farm. Read more.
Many people love the idea of solar energy powering their farms and homes, but the initial investment can be overwhelming. Here’s how two small-scale Wisconsin farmers found ways to make the investment in solar work for their farms. Read more.
The generational divide can seem especially wide when you’re trying to cross it to secure your farming future. If you’re in the midst of taking over a family farm, here’s some advice to help you bridge the divide for a smoother farm transition. Read more.
My 153-acre farm would not be what it is today without the support of the Farm Service Agency (FSA). About four years ago, my husband and I were coming to the end of an annual lease and feeling frustrated about year-to-year rental situations. Read more.
The Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT) is a new model that reduces land costs for sustainable food farmers for generations to come. SILT permanently protects land not only from encroaching development…. Read more.
Ron Jost got in over his head. When he came back from Afghanistan for the last time in December 2014, the former cop and Army intelligence analyst put together a plan for his next career. His father wanted to retire from working the family’s Cleveland, Wisconsin farm…. Read more.
Women make up one of the fastest growing groups of new farmers overall, particularly launching smaller-scale and diversified operations. Our Rural Women’s Project is a year-round venture providing training, resources and networking specifically for women. Read more.
Tom and Irene Frantzen are leaders in their willingness to tackle generational farm transfer issues—and in being willing to share so that others may learn as well. Read more.
Hedgerows provide fantastic opportunities to conserve wildlife, sustain agriculture, and yield profits in previously unproductive areas of your farm. Your infertile farm edges can become fertile refuges for plants and animals that provide valuable ecosystem services. Read more.
Agriculture is our nation’s most dangerous occupation. Farms are the only worksites in the U.S. where children of any age can be present at any time. Read more.
As a fundamental input in agriculture, seed serves as a farmer’s first defense against production challenges in the field. Read more.
The statistics on farm accidents among U.S. children are sobering, if not downright terrifying. Every day, about 38 children are injured on farms, and a child dies about every three days from a farming-related incident…. Learn more.
The steadily climbing average age of the American farmer combined with high prices of farmland—mostly driven up by institutional investors—makes it increasingly difficult to transfer farm assets…. Read more.
Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture includes respectable up-to-date science, compelling testimonies, and cites the changing circumstances that ought to be affecting our decision-making…. Read more.
Nate Kleinman and his business partner, Dusty Hinz, have created the Experimental Farm Network, an open-source network to facilitate collaboration on plant breeding…. Read more.
With increased interest in providing habitat for pollinators and a concern over the loss of native plants in our landscape, many landowners want to transform…. Read more.
Crisis and chaos is the norm in a professional kitchen. But the kind of existential crisis that struck chef Dan Barber at Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan when he sold out…. Read more.
As a recent retiree from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), I can look back with satisfaction on the experience I had working with hundreds of producers…. Read more.
A challenging day in many farmers’ professional lives is the day they have to hire their first employee. The thought of having to figure out payroll taxes and cut paychecks can be a terrifying proposition. Read more.
My first introduction to the Xerces Society was at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference a few years ago when I attended an Organic University session with Eric Lee-Mader…. Read more.
John Jeavons shares his vision for sustainable farming future
January | February 2015
Director of the nonprofit Ecology Action, author, educator, agricultural researcher and farmer, John Jeavons has spent the last 43 years developing…. Read more.
2014 has been a banner year for pollinators in the media and public policy. Almost daily, we look around amazed at the flood of news articles about bees…. Read more.
The 2014 Farm Bill has opened the door for the creation of an Organic Research and Promotion Program, a.k.a. an organic check-off. Read more.
In 2010, I came across a fascinating map called the Carbon Ranch that detailed every possible activity for sequestering carbon in the landscape. Read more.
Let’s be honest—even with all the challenges of farming, few of us are likely to yearn for a cubicle somewhere, working on a presentation about…. Read more.
Dow AgriScience is pushing for deregulation of its Enlist Duo™ program—herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans genetically engineered…. Read more.
“Seeds are a sacred thing. Everything we have now is built on farmers selecting seeds for millennia. All of that genetic diversity is a great gift….” Read more.
There can be many innovative ways to move our farms towards greater energy self-sufficiency. As Bill McKibben has said, rather than looking for a single silver bullet, we should look for silver buckshot…. Read more.
The USDA Risk Management Agency introduced new procedures and government subsidized insurance options for all crop and livestock farmers. Read more here.
A 5-year farm bill was signed into law on Feb. 7, 2014. Read more here.
Converting Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land to organic production looks attractive: the land is already certifiable…. Read more here.
More frequent droughts and changing climate patterns are creating interest in permaculture concepts, especially water management systems such as keyline design. Read more here.
Keyline Design 101: Farmers learn water management in field from Mark Shepard
January | February 2014
On a hillside of stubble from recently harvested oats, 40 people crowded around a 1960s Oliver diesel tractor…. Read more here.
A new effort is underway in Wisconsin to document the history of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement in the U.S. Read more here.
Many of us dream of doing something powerful with our lives, but may never realize those dreams. Read more here.
Many organic producers in the Upper Midwest once again had weather challenges in 2013…. Read more here.
“With your eyes to the west, You keep watching the sky, While the leaves start to curl, ‘Cause the crops are so dry. It’s like everyone says’…. Read more here.
Mark Shepard is a unique farmer. In fact “farmer” might not really be the right term. Part ecologist, part forester, part farmer, part pioneer, part experimenter…. Read more here.
Amid reports of an “explosion” of glyphosate-resistant weeds, such as kochia, waterhemp and ragweed…. Read more here.
The defeat of California’s ballot initiative in 2012 to label genetically engineered foods, known as Prop 37, has strengthened the resolve…. Read more here.
The whole organic community agrees that we need to promote organic agriculture and fund research…. Read more here.