|Steps to a Successful Organic Transition
The transition from
conventional to organic farming requires numerous changes. One of the
biggest changes is in the mindset of the farmer. Conventional
approaches often involve the use of quick-fix remedies that,
unfortunately, rarely address the cause of the problem. Transitioning
farmers generally spend too much time worrying about replacing
synthetic input with allowable organic product instead of considering
management practices based on preventative strategies. Here are a few
steps new entrants should follow when making the transition to organic
A) Understand the basics of organic agriculture and the organic farming standards
production systems are knowledge based, new entrants and transitional
producers must become familiar with sound and sustainable agricultural
practices. Transitional producers should be prepared to read
appropriate information, conduct their own trials and participate in
formal and informal training events.
As mentioned, switching from conventional to organic farming is
more than substituting synthetic materials to organic allowed
materials. Organic farming is a holistic system that relies on sound
practices focused on preventative strategies. Since there are often few
organic remedies available to organic producers for certain problems,
prevention is the key element in organic production.
B) Identify resources that will help you
farmers are generally very helpful in sharing valuable technical
information. A good mentor should be able to provide transitional
producers with knowledge, practical experience and suggest appropriate
reading materials. Mentors are able to identify some of the most
important challenges transitional farmers will be confronted with.
Mentors may also help source production materials that are otherwise
difficult to find. Producers should also contact agrologists,
veterinarians and other agricultural and financial consultants, in order
to learn ways to improve their current farming practices.
The Internet is a
valuable source of information, especially to new organic farmers. A
broad range of reading materials are available from many
organic/ecological organizations such as the Organic Agriculture Centre
of Canada (OACC), the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network
(ACORN), the Canadian Organic Growers (COG), the Certified Organic
Associations of British Columbia (COABC), the National Sustainable
Agriculture Information Services/Appropriate Technology Transfer for
Rural Areas (ATTRA), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
(SARE), and the Agri-réseau/agriculture biologique- Quebec. Consider
joining an organic organization or network to access these valuable
resources and establish good working contacts.
C) Plan your transition carefully
transitional plan with clear and realistic goals. The plan should
clearly identify various steps to be taken in making the transition to
organic and be sure to include realistic timeframes. Identify your
strengths and weaknesses. Consider ways to address any weaknesses,
while building on strengths. The business side of the transitional plan
should contain a multiple year budget and an effective/realistic
marketing strategy. Make sure your list of expenses is comprehensive.
Include all prerequisites to begin the transition; such as, mechanical
weeding equipment, specialized composting equipment and applicators,
additional handling equipment dedicated to the organic products, and
processing equipment. Although the demand for organic products is
continually growing, growers need to make sure they have a reliable
market for the organic products they plan to produce.
Careful planning is
very important. During the early part of the transitional period,
yields are often depressed and premium prices for certified organic
products are generally not yet obtainable. Use realistic yields and
prices when evaluating the feasibility of your project.
In some instances, it
is preferable to continue using conventional measures early on in the
transitional process in order to avoid dramatic yield reduction which
could jeopardize the financial well-being of the operation.
Farmers who are planning to convert their livestock operation
should consider certifying their fields first. This allows time to
learn more about organic livestock management requirements while, at
the same time, starting to produce organic feeds.
Although organic certifiers generally want to see the entire
farm become organic, certifiers generally allow new entrants several
years of transition time before the whole farm is fully certified.
is the simultaneous production, processing or handling of organic and
nonorganic crops, livestock and other products of a similar nature.
Although this type of activity is highly discouraged by certifiers,
some allow it, especially during the transition period. If permitted to
practice parallel production, producers must be prepared to deal with
significant record keeping in order to ensure traceability and organic
D) Understand your soils and ways to improve them
Since soil is the
heart of the organic farming system, it is crucial that new entrants
understand the various characteristics and limitations of the soils
found on their farm. Soil suitability may vary significantly from one
field to the next. Fields with good drainage, good level of fertility
and organic matter, adequate pH, biological health, high legume
content, and with less weed and pest pressure, are excellent assets.
Often these fields are the first ones ready for transition and
Many tools exist to
assess soils. Soil chemical, physical and biological analyses, soil
survey and legume composition field assessments, and field yield
histories are very important and should be considered early in the
transition. Unhealthy soils require particular attention.
If farmers plan to
grow crops without raising any livestock, it may be necessary for them
to source allowable soil amendments such as composted manure,
limestone, rock dust, and supplementary sources of nitrogen,
phosphorus, potassium and micro-nutrients. Even with the best of crop
rotations that include green manure crops like legumes (nitrogen fixing
crops), transitional growers will be challenged if they want to obtain
optimal yields without additional livestock manure, compost and/or
other off-farm soil inputs. When these inputs are scarce or expensive,
producers may benefit from integrating livestock on their farm.
Let’s not forget,
under organic production, farmers must be able to recycle nutrients
through proper nutrient management practices: recycling through good
manure and compost utilization, crop rotations, cover crops (green
manure, catch, and nitrogen fixing crops), and by reducing nutrient
losses due to leaching, over-fertilization, as well as poor manure and
compost management (storage, handling, and spreading).
E) Identify the crops or livestock suited for your situation
Before growing a crop
or raising any livestock, consider the following: degree of difficulty
to grow or raise the product organically, land and soil suitability,
climate suitability, level of demand for the product, marketing
challenges, capital required, current prices for conventional,
transitional and organic products, and profitability over additional
F) Design good crop rotations
Once the crops are
chosen, carefully plan the crop rotation(s) and select the most
suitable cover crops (green manure, winter cover crops, catch crops,
smother crops, etc.). Crop rotations are extremely important management
tools in organic farming. They can interrupt pest life cycles,
suppress weeds, provide and recycle fertility, and improve soil
structure and tilth. Some rotational crops may also be cash crops,
generating supplemental income.
On some farms, land
base availability may be a limiting factor when planning your crop
rotations. The transitional plan should, therefore, include crop
rotation strategies. Responding to external forces such as new market
opportunities may also have a significant impact on crop rotations, so
farmers need to consider the effect that growing new crops has on their
crop rotations and land base availability.
G) Identify pest challenges and methods of control
It is important to
know the crop’s most common pests, their life cycles and adequate
control measures. For instance, Colorado potato beetle may be a pest of
significant importance when growing potatoes; cucumber beetles in
cucurbitaceous crops (cucumber, squash, and melons); flea beetle in
many seedlings crops; clipper weevil and Tarnish Plant Bug in
There are several
measures available to reduce pest pressure: crop rotation, variety
selection, sanitation, floating row covers, catch crops, flamers,
introduction of beneficial insects, bio pesticides, and inorganic
pesticides. Transitional growers should be prepared to use and
experiment with some of these options. When considering a new type of
production, discuss pest issues with your agrologists, IPM specialists
and/or other existing organic producers to optimize your chances of
organic supplies has improved significantly over the past few years.
New pest control products containing B.t., spinosad, kaolin clay are
effective and currently available to organic growers.
It is often reported that the types of weeds found on the
farm evolve with time as growers change the way they grow their crops
and control their weeds. By keeping track of the weed population,
growers will be able to refine their crop rotations and improve their
livestock management, cattlemen must provide attentive care that
promotes health and meets the behavioral needs of various types of
livestock. With good herd health practices, farmers rarely need to rely
on conventional medicine. Organic cattlemen should, however, try to
familiarize themselves with alternative remedies such as herbal/aroma
therapies, homeopathy,and immune system promoters.
H) Be ready to conduct your own on-farm trials
farmers continuously try new and/or innovative management practices.
Practices such as cover cropping, inter-planting, and use of various
soil and pest control materials need to be evaluated regularly by
organic farmers. Be prepared to try new approaches.
I) Be ready to keep good records
Record keeping is one
of the most important requirements to maintain organic integrity.
Farmers are expected to keep detailed production, processing and
marketing information. This information includes everything that enters
and exits the farm. Third party, independent inspectors require
farmers to present the above mentioned documentation when inspecting
the farm operation. Once the record-keeping requirements are understood
and the reporting procedure established, paperwork becomes routine.
J) Avoid these common mistakes
• Underestimating the need for good transitional and marketing plans.
• Underestimating the need to fully understand the Organic
Standard. Organic producers must understand the standard in order to
know what is permitted and prohibited.
• Failing to think prevention. Transitional farmers should
consider improving their crop rotation, soil and crop management skills,
livestock management practices (feeding program, heard health program,
grazing system, housing facilities, and husbandry).
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