NRCS Assistance for Organic Farmers

Certified Organic:
one of the fastest growing segments in agriculture

CERTIFIED ORGANIC FARMING IS A LABELING TERM used for food and other agricultural products. Products that are certified organic 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 USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regulations. Managed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the NOP develops, implements and administers national organic production, handling, and labeling standards. 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. 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.

Many USDA organic regulations can be achieved using practices offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “The NRCS programs available to organic farmers are incredibly valuable to any operation,” farmer Elizabeth Miller notes. “Some of the practices we were already doing, such as cover cropping, but it incentivized us to go deeper with more habitat management, encouraged us to plant hedgerows, and the single greatest benefit for us has been developing irrigation infrastructure.”

The United States is 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 NRCS embarked on a journey with The Lexicon to tell the story of organic agriculture in this country. The Lexicon spent two years crossing 30+ states to conduct hundreds of interviews with inspiring organic and transitioning farmers, NRCS soil scientists, and district conservationists, then translated these insights into a series of short films, information artworks, books and traveling exhibits to accelerate a transition to organic agriculture.

Farmers who transition to organic agriculture

TO BE CONSIDERED ORGANIC and have the right to use the USDA Organic seal, farms with more than $5,000 in organic sales must be certified. While a number of independent, third party USDA-accredited organizations perform this certification service, a conventional farmer’s transition to certified organic farming is nonetheless  challenging. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” observes Clif Slade, an organic farmer in Surrey, VA. “But now I get three, four, even five times the price for my transplants. And double the price for my organic sweet potatoes.”

A third generation farmer, Clif Slade of Surrey, Virginia, grew up on farms that had used conventional practices since 1965. NRCS helped him transition from using chemical-intensive practices to a certified-organic, conservation-focused operation that develops healthy soils using a variety of conservation practices. These include crop rotations that increase biodiversity, minimum tillage to reduce soil disturbance, and year-round cover crops to keep the soil covered and reduce erosion. He also uses composts, manures, and crop residue to recycle nutrients and build soil organic matter.

Certified organic producers must maintain records from “seed to sale” 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, third party certifiers also ask farmers to verify they are adhering to NOP requirements from “seed to sale;” doing so requires producers to share crop rotation records (including the use of cover crops), harvest records, pack out slips, and to provide detailed written production and sales records for all farm inputs, including verification that no GMOs, synthetic fertilizers or herbicides have been used.

For many farmers, keeping records can be yet another chore added to an already busy day, but for Brian Keough of Sauvie Island Organics in Portland, OR, it just makes good business sense. “As a farm manager, I make hundreds of decisions a day,” he notes. “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.”

How organic farmers build healthy soils

EARLY LEADERS IN THE ORGANIC movement emphasized that successful farming depended on the health of all natural resources on the farm and in its surroundings. Their legacy lives on; organic producers today strive to develop farming systems that mimic nature and utilize natural processes to build soil organic matter.

Instead of relying on chemicals, organic farmers can employ cover crops to build healthy soils. Farmers using cover crops with a mix of grasses, legumes, and forbs increase soil fertility through the addition of organic matter, break pest and disease cycles, allow the ground to rest, increase soil moisture, suppress weeds, and minimize erosion.

By rotating crops across their fields from season to season, organic farmers add biodiversity and increase resilience in their operations. Organic no-till systems, such as the roller-crimper, have also helped organic producers reduce soil disturbance intensity in annual crop rotations. These practices feed the soil, reduce erosion, improve soil structure, enhance nutrient cycling and water retention, sequester carbon, and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat —often with better yields.

(are not a farmer's best friend)

ONE OF THE GREATEST CHALLENGES organic farmers face is weed management. Weeds compete with market crops for light, nutrients, and water, and can even reduce crop yields. In fact, a single weed can produce more than 10 million seeds, so if they’re not dealt with in time, they can present farmers with challenges for years to come. Rather than using chemical herbicides, organic farmers implement a variety of innovative practices that suppress weeds while continuing to build soil health. 

Preventing weeds can take many forms, but some common methods include: intercropping, reduced row spacing, adjustments to seeding rates and dates, fertilizer schedules that help crops outcompete weeds, plastic mulches, and cultivation tools for specific soil conditions.

Cover crops are one of the most effective tools for suppressing weeds, and they work in three ways. When alive, they outcompete weeds for water, nutrients, and sunlight. As mulch, they minimize weed growth by physically preventing the germination of weed seeds, cutting off access to light and warmer temperatures. And finally, when certain legumes, cereals, or brassica decompose, they produce natural herbicides that can suppress weed seed growth and also sequester carbon. 

Choosing the right planting dates and rotating crops can also decrease weed germination windows. Farmers may increase seeding density to suppress late-germinating weeds. To further reduce weed pressure, farmers often use natural materials, paper, or plastic as mulch. These are installed at the beginning of the growing season and trap soil moisture while preventing sunlight and weed growth.

Organic farmers can use a variety of other mechanical tools, including tractor-mounted cultivators, to handle weeds. Although machines are convenient, extensive tillage can reduce soil organic matter and even lead to erosion. As a result, some farmers use organic no-till practices to create effective mulches. Using tools like the roller crimper, they roll cover crops in one direction, pressing them like a carpet against the ground so they can act as mulch to prevent annual weeds from growing through. “Weeds are brilliant opportunists and have incredible ways to proliferate,” a farmhand at Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minnesota points out. “We can all learn perseverance from weeds!”

Enhancing biodiversity and providing habitat

ORGANIC FARMERS FORGO THE USE of synthetic herbicides and pesticides that can be harmful to soil health. Those who believe in organic recognize that soil is a living organism with multiple beneficial functions. To mimic nature and enhance biodiversity, they build field borders, hedgerows, and riparian buffers to conserve vital habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects, and wildlife. These barriers can also intercept pesticide and GMO pollen drift from neighboring non-organic farms.

To maintain the delicate balance between wildlife and farm activities, organic farmers often build wildlife corridors and animal-friendly fences to keep wide-ranging fauna, such as deer and predators, away from their crops. They also install structures like owl and bat boxes to create habitat for beneficial wildlife that reduce pests.

“We’re most proud of the progress we’ve made with this property in restoring the native habitat on the conservation easement area, the hedgerows, the riparian corridor, and the increased diversity in the plants and wildlife in the area,” observes Jeanne Bryne, a certified organic farmer at High Ground Organics in Watsonville, California. “And we’re also proud that we were able to make a living from being organic and farming in a way we think has a positive effect on the land.”

Keeping livestock on the move

ORGANIC LIVESTOCK PRODUCERS PROVIDE LIVING AREAS that encourage their animals to engage in healthy natural behavior. They use only certified organic feed and provide year-round access to the pasture for ruminants. Organic livestock will never be given antibiotics or growth hormones.

Pastures, regardless of organic status, can become overgrazed, which can harm animal health and damage natural resources. USDA organic standards require that producers maintain pasture in a healthy state through management strategies that promote good forage quality and quantity, weed control, infiltration of precipitation, and erosion control.

One key practice is rotational grazing. This approach separates open fields into a series of closed paddocks that regularly direct animals to fresh pasture. The size of these paddocks is determined by the number of animals, time of year, grazing duration, and quality of available forage. Proper fencing and adequate water supplies are features of intensively managed rotational grazing systems. Fences control erosion and impede animal access to sensitive areas like ponds, streams, wellheads, or protected habitat. Further, gated paddocks can be opened and closed to provide cattle access to fresh pasture.

Healthy soils conserve water

MANY ORGANIC PRACTICES RELY ON THE SLOW-RELEASE of nutrients to help crops grow and build soil organic matter. This reduces the risk of nutrient runoff and leaching, which would otherwise adversely impact water quality in neighboring streams and rivers. To further reduce nutrient runoff, organic producers utilize a number of practices to reduce their water use.

Agriculture accounts for over 70% of our country’s consumptive water use, which is a critical natural resource issue. One way for producers to conserve water is by building healthy soil. By only increasing a land’s soil organic matter by 1 percent, an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre can be banked and made available when plants need it most. That means, at 444 acres, the average US farm will conserve 8.8 million gallons of water per year.

Water is a precious natural resource, and conservation benefits all of us. To further reduce water use, many organic farmers use tools like drip irrigation, which provides water precisely where and when it’s needed most. The addition of flow meters and soil moisture sensors to these systems allow these farmers to achieve even greater precision. Technology helps take the guesswork out of irrigation by using science to measure the available water around a crop’s root zone.

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