Risk Assessment of Transitioning Your Operation to Organic
Producers who successfully made the transition to organic production and those who considered transitioning but chose not to cited social and economic isolation, weeds, yield/income loss, infrastructural weakness and unwelcome third-party oversight as major risks of transitioning. Of these, social isolation and weeds were cited as the most onerous and persistent.
The risk of social isolation exists because of the change to an organic orientation. No longer will farm conversations with your peers involve pre/post-emergent herbicides or stacked traits. Instead, discussions of crop rotations, tillage operations and reliable buyers will dominate. Few peers will be conversant with organics and the loss of common ground will extract a toll during and after transition. Many producers break the isolation by networking with other organic producers, attending conferences and joining producer groups. It is necessary to recognize that as a transitioning farmer and then an organic producer, you are doing something differently than your former peer group and this group will treat you differently. The transitioning producer also risks a form of economic isolation because of the specialized nature of organic production and sales. Certified organic agricultural inputs are not as widely distributed as their conventional counterparts. Most organic producers are unlikely to purchase organic inputs or sell their production at the local cooperative. The organic producer will purchase inputs and sell production outside the local market and not participate in this aspect of community relationships, thus adding an economic aspect to the overall isolation.
There is a risk of being seen an incompetent farmer if the transitioning or organic producer fails to control weeds. Such failure can reduce yields and negatively impact relationships with buyers, neighbors, bankers and others in the community. Consistent organic weed control is a hard-earned skill tested annually. Transitioning farmers and organic producers must be familiar with a variety of control strategies. Fortunately, there is a great deal of practical and scientific information generated by organic farming groups and land grant university extension disseminated at meetings, conferences and on-line. Producers should be familiar with these resources and use them often. Generally weed control is addressed through the use of careful observation of field conditions, weed varieties, crop rotations, timely and appropriate tillage, approved herbicides and in some cases, hands and hoes. Though an annual challenge, weed pressures appear to recede the longer the field remains in organic production.
The organic production and marketing infrastructure may appear more complex and less secure than that of conventional agriculture. The complexity and insecurity exist because the federally regulated organic system is new, small and demand-driven. The
transitioning producer should make every effort to become familiar with relevant rules and potential pitfalls. For example, failure to acquire a working knowledge of the relevant rules may result in a violation foreclosing certification for up to three years. Also, organic farm production is subject to exacting contract specifications. Producers would be wise to familiarize themselves with a variety of production contracts and ask the buyer who drafted the contract and competing buyers to explain in detail anything unclear. Most importantly, the producer must understand the terms and conditions of payment and state regulations relating to product sold. Once familiar the producer limits the risk of, among other things, confused pick-up dates, and penalties for failing to meet contract specifications or uncertain payment dates and recourse in the event of non-payment.
Yield loss is often, but not universally, experienced during transition and is linked to the drop-off of readily available synthetic nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus and weed pressure. Addressing the risk of yield loss involves a familiarity with soil needs, crop nutrient requirements and allowable sources by which to fill those requirements. Many of the soil and crop needs are filled partially or entirely through crop rotations, especially by planting legumes. Raw or composted manures may also be used, subject to the restrictions contained in the federal rules. Certified organic bagged or liquid fertilizers are also available.
Income loss is a risk faced by any new business and organic production is no exception. It is reasonable to expect to lose income at least through the first two crop years. Often, the third year’s crop will be certified as organic. Income loss can be mitigated by locating specialized markets. Soybean producers often grow non-genetically modified (non-GMO) food grade varieties that sell at a modest premium. While a non-GMO corn market may be found, filling the increase demand for ethanol may result in greater returns. Due to bulk and the high cost of transportation, alfalfa hay and hay in general is probably more economically sold into local markets even when the hay is certified organic. Because produce is seasonal and more personal in nature, a local market is often the best market during and after the transition period.
Third party oversight of the farming operation is a fact of certified organic production. A variety of choices of certification agencies exist. Each agency will dispatch an independent inspector to review the farming operation, from seed to sales to determine compliance. Comprehensive record keeping will mitigate the risk of loss or delays in certification. Field histories, farm layout, seed choices, inputs and crop sales are samples of the data reviewed. While well organized hand written records are acceptable, it would be wise to consider moving to a computer based system to take advantage of the efficiencies currently available and those that will be available in the future.
While a few of the basic risks associated with transitioning to organic production have been identified above, the importance of these and others will depend on the operation involved. Perhaps the most important tool to address any of the associated risks is that of communication. It is highly likely that someone has faced the problem you are now encountering and it is essential you know how and where to find this expertise.
Kathleen Delate is an associate professor in the departments of horticulture and agronomy at Iowa State University. She holds the first tenured position in the country that is dedicated to organic agriculture production, research and extension. Bob Turnbull is currently and extension specialist at Iowa State University coordinating a project to determine control strategies for Asian Soybean Rust in organic soybeans.