“Certified organic” is one of the fastest growing segments in agriculture, yet the United States is still a net-importer of certified organic food. To help shift the conversation and find new ways to explain the economic, environmental, and social benefits of organic food, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) embarked on a two-year journey with THE LEXICON to tell the story of organic agriculture in this country.
We began by crossing the country to conduct hundreds of interviews with inspiring organic and transitioning farmers, NRCS soil scientists and district conservationists to learn more about their principles and practices, then translated their insights into a series of short films and information artworks.
Organic agriculture is an ecologically based system that relies on preventative practices to deal with weeds, insects, and disease, using nontoxic methods for any problems that arise. “Certified Organic” practices require the use of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and preserve biodiversity. Organic producers also avoid synthetic fertilizers and do not use sewage, sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering on their operations.
“We are rooted in a type of farming that respects biodiversity and the health of the planet. The more we learn about natural systems and how we can work with them and enhance in order to produce food, the more excited we are. You just feel really good to be part of a larger system.”
Certified Organic Farmer
Gays Mills, WI
Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming. Early leaders of the organic farming movement emphasized that successful farming depends on the health of all natural resources on the farm and in its surroundings, which is why organic producers strive to develop farming systems that mimic nature and utilize natural processes.
“I just have this love of nature, I guess, that really drives me. When I decided to get into agriculture myself, it wasn’t like I switched from chemical production to organic; it was more an extension of the values I learned growing up.”
Certified Organic Farmer
Blue Fruit Farm
NRCS looks forward to providing conservation assistance to farmers and ranchers transitioning to organic production. And consumers can do their part too by supporting organic growers both locally and across the country.
To be CERTIFIED ORGANIC, producers must follow regulations outlined by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP). Managed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the NOP develops, implements and administers national organic production, handling, and labeling standards.
“To us, organic farming is the only option. I want to leave a legacy of supporting my family by feeding a healthy community.”
Minto Island Growers
NRCS can help farmers develop practices that promote diversity and build soil health organically. A Conservation Activity Plan can be used as part of the Organic Systems Plan required as part of the certification process. “The NRCS programs available to organic farmers are incredibly valuable to any operation,” Elizabeth Miller of Oregon’s Minto Island Growers notes. “Some of the practices we were already doing such as cover cropping, but it incentivized more habitat management, encouraged us to plant hedgerows, and the single greatest benefit for us has been the irrigation infrastructure.” For organic certification, farmers and ranchers must present the following to an independent USDA-accredited certifying agent:
1. A detailed description of the operation to be certified.
2. A history of substances applied to land during the previous three years.
3. The organic products grown, raised, or processed.
4. A written Organic System Plan describing the practices and substances to be used.
A three-year process is required to transition land that was previously farmed conventionally to USDA Organic standards. GMOs, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are eliminated. Farmers may choose to have both organic and nonorganic fields, but buffer zones between organic and nonorganic fields are required.
A labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations. This means that organic operations must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used. Only products that have been certified as meeting the USDA’s requirements for organic production and handling may carry the USDA Organic Seal.
Since 1932, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has provided assistance to agricultural producers to conserve the soil, water, air, plants, and animals on their land.
Through offices in nearly every county across the U.S., NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help agricultural producers – including certified organic and transitioning producers – plan and implement voluntary, science-based conservation practices.
“NRCS is a great resource for understanding some baseline things, like soil types and characteristics of a particular growing environment right up through supporting cover cropping, high tunnels and a whole range of technical assistance and financial support.”
Certified Organic Farmer
NRCS experts, such as district conservationists, soil conservationists, engineers, biologists, botanists, and others, work together to help producers find and apply conservation solutions while ensuring their working lands remain productive. Staff often live and work in the counties that they serve, and thereby understand local issues and challenges.
Organic agriculture and NRCS’ goals are well aligned. Many of the USDA Organic regulations can be achieved using NRCS conservation practices, which reflect these shared goals.
“I would say to farmers thinking about transitioning to organic that you really have to be open to experimentation,” says Stephen Pederson, an organic farmer at High Ground Organics in Watsonville, CA. “There’s no substitute for trying different methods on your farm under the exact conditions that exist where you’re farming and to experiment. Be willing to be flexible and to adopt new methods and try things differently every single season.” To be considered organic and to use the USDA Organic seal, all operations with more than $5,000 in organic sales must be certified. Independent, third-party USDA-accredited organizations certify farms and ranches as organic. The application to become certified organic and use the USDA Organic seal includes:
1. Detailed description of the operation
2. History of substances applied over past three years
3. Organic products grown, raised or processed
4. Organic System Plan describing practices and substances used
A three-year process farmers follow to transform their land from conventional to certified organic production, with all farm inputs and practices third-party verified for conformity to National Organic Program (NOP) standards.
It takes three years to transition land to an organic system that was previously farmed conventionally. Farmers may choose to have both organic and nonorganic fields, but must create buffer zones between them.
Clif Slade is a third generation farmer who grew up on farms using conventional practices since 1965. NRCS has helped him transition his farm from conventional agricultural production using chemical-intensive practices to certified-organic operations that develop healthy soils using a variety of conservation practice that build soil organic matter. These include crop rotations that increase biodiversity, minimum tillage to reduce soil disturbance, and year-round cover crops to keep their soil covered. They also use composts, manures and crop residue to recycle nutrients and build soil fertility, and by minimizing their use of off-farm inputs, they build more regenerative systems.
“Am I glad I went organic? Yes, I am. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done … and now I get three, four and five times the price for my transplants. And double the price for my organic sweet potatoes.”
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) requires certified organic producers to maintain records concerning the production, harvest, and handling of all agricultural products sold, labeled, or represented as “organic.” Having third party certification agencies verify these records gives consumers greater confidence in the product they’re buying. Aside from periodic onsite inspections, these third party certifiers also ask farmers to verify that they are adhering to NOP requirements from “seed to sale” by sharing crop rotation records (including the use of cover crops), harvest records, pack out slips, and provide detailed written production and sales records for all farm inputs, including verification that no GMOs, synthetic fertilizers or herbicides have been used.
“As farm manager, I make hundreds of decisions a day. If they weren’t captured, I wouldn’t be able to remember what I learned and observed. We keep accurate records to be good stewards of the land, to learn from our mistakes and make better choices in the future. You can’t grab a gardening book that makes better decisions than what you learn from your records.”
Sauvie Island Organics
I. PLANNING — NRCS technical assistance is free and voluntary. The first step is to visit your local field office and work with a conservationist on a conservation plan that meets the goals of your operation. Ask your conservationist if financial assistance is available to implement any the practices outlined in your conservation plan.
II. APPLICATION — NRCS can help you fill out the right forms for the application process. Applications for most programs are accepted on a continuous basis, but they’re considered for funding in different ranking periods. Ask your local NRCS conservationist about the deadline for the ranking period to ensure you turn in your application in time. You can also apply for financial assistance and manage applications, contracts, and conservation plans online through the NRCS’ Conservation Client Gateway.
III. ELIGIBILITY — To determine eligibility, you’ll need an official tax ID (Social Security number or an employer ID). You’ll also need a property deed or lease agreement to show you have control of the property. You’ll also need a farm and tract number. If you don’t have a farm and tract number, you can get one from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). Typically, the local FSA office is located in the same building as the local NRCS office.
IV. RANKING — The NRCS will take a look at the applications and rank them according to local resource concerns, the amount of conservation benefits the work will provide and the needs of applicants.
V. IMPLEMENTATION — If you’re selected, your next step is to sign the contract. You’ll then be provided standards and specifications for completing the practice or practices, and will have a specified amount of time to implement. Once the work is implemented and inspected, you’ll be paid the rate of compensation for the work if it meets the NRCS standards and specifications.
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