One of the main barriers to organic certification is the transition period. In order for land to be eligible for certification, it must not have prohibited substances applied for a period of 3 years. Therefore, once a farmer makes the decision to transition land to organic production, they must manage the land without the use of prohibited substances for 36 months before any crops or other agricultural products produced from that land can be marketed as organic. This presents a challenging financial risk where production costs may increase under organic management, but organic market premiums cannot be attained for three years.
What is a prohibited substance? The NOP standards include the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, or the National List for short. It includes the criteria for what materials, or inputs, are permitted in organic production. Prohibited substances include most synthetic substances, with some exceptions. Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), sewage sludge, and irradiation are all prohibited from organic production. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) reviews and maintains lists of materials for use in organic production and processing. However, as you transition into organic production, your certifier will have the ultimate authority on what materials are permitted.
Once the last application of a prohibited substance is made on a given piece of land to be transitioned, the 36 month transition “clock” begins ticking. Consider the example of a grain farm that has been under conventional corn-soybean management: A corn field receives a fungicide application at tassel on July 10, 2017 as the final application of a prohibited substance. In May 2020, the field is planted to corn. Ahead of the July 11, 2020 eligibility date, the operation submits an application to a certifier since no prohibited substances will have been applied for 36 months. By the time the corn crop is ready to harvest in the fall of 2020, the operation could receive its organic certificate and market the corn crop as organic. Therefore, this farm will only have to market conventional crops during two growing seasons (2018, 2019) while in transition. Their certificate will be in place before the third crop (corn) is harvested. So, be sure to plan your transition to take advantage of this timing. Several organizations, such as the USDA, have created guides about the transition process. Continue reading below to learn more about the Purdue Extension guide.
The National Organic Program (NOP) is a regulatory program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service that is responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agricultural products. In order to use the USDA organic seal or the term ‘organic’ to market agricultural products in the US, operations must be certified to the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. The NOP standards are defined in 7 CFR 205 in the Code of Federal Regulations.
Interested in certifying your farm or agricultural business?
Exploring a transition to organic grain production?
According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic products in the U.S. have grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $52.5 billion in 2018. Domestic supply of organic grains is not keeping up with growing demand from the organic dairy and poultry sectors, resulting in increasing imports of organic corn and soybeans. According to Mercaris, approximately 75-80% of organic soybean and 25-30%of organic corn were imported in 2017/2018 and 2018/2019 marketing years. Organic processors and handlers are seeking domestic supplies in order to reduce dependence on imports. This presents opportunities for farmers who are interested in diversifying into organic grain production.
Read on to learn more or visit our guide here.
Transitioning acreage to organic grain production takes time.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards require a three-year transition following the last application of a prohibited substance. This includes most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, GMOs, and other inputs as defined in the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (CFR 205). Many farmers explain that the process of developing a productive, sustainable, organic crop rotation often takes additional years as the soil ecosystem and the farmer’s management shifts to a biologically driven production system. During the transition, yields will likely decline as the system shifts away from chemical-based fertility and weed management. Over time, yields can return to levels that compete with conventional yields.
Marketing is crucial to success in organic grain farming.
Forward contracting is common, particularly with food-grade crops. Price discovery can be a challenge, so take time to talk to buyers and other organic farmers. Over the last decade, organic grain crops have generally received a premium of two to three times conventional prices. For the latest published prices, refer to the USDA National Organic Reports. However, do not let the financial premiums be your only driver. Organic farmers are rewarded these price premiums because they take on additional risks with organic production—navigating the 3 year transition process, challenges with weed management and consistent yield, and entering a new marketplace. Seasoned organic farmers make it clear that you need to identify other motivating factors—the financial reward alone will not be enough to keep you on track with transition and certified-organic production for the long term
Transitioning to organic production does not translate to an abandonment of technology.
GMO crop technologies and synthetic fertilizers and pesticide will no longer be in your toolbox, but the latest technology with GPS guidance, VRT, and more will still apply on your organic acreage. Many farmers who have transitioned to organic production find that the spray rig is still one of their most important tools, but used to apply organic-approved inputs such as biologicals, compost teas, foliar fertilizers, and approved pesticides.
- Don’t bet the farm. The entire farm does not have to be in organic production, fields can be transitioned in a phased approached over time, and you can maintain a “parallel” or “split” operation. Look at it as a diversification opportunity.
- Transition your best fields first, fields that are fertile, well drained, and close to the home farm. Take time to learn the system, and see if organic management works for you before transitioning more acreage.
- Diversify your crop rotation. Sustaining a rotation that only consists of row crops (corn, beans) is possible, but is challenging over time to maintain adequate weed control and fertility levels.Meeting Nitrogen demand of corn will be particularly challenging. Cover crops and hay/pasture incorporated into longer rotations will help with weed management, soil building, nitrogen fixation, and disruption of pest life cycles.
- Develop a holistic/integrated/adaptive approach to weed management. Herbicides are no longer in your toolbox. Learn about weed populations on your farm, their life cycles, and recognize that mechanical weed control will be required.
- Develop a business plan for navigating the transition. Find a lender that understands organic or is willing to work with you through the process.
- Study the NOP standards to understand what’s required in organic production. This includes the National List of allowed and prohibited substances, record keeping and organic system plan requirements, crop rotation standard, and more.
- Develop and maintain a record keeping system, which is required for certification. Many resources are available to help you develop such a system, e.g., MOSES
- Find an accredited certification agency. You can work with any USDA accredited certifier, so take time to “shop around”. Visit the following USDA NOP website for more details about organic certification here.
- Commit to transition for more than financial reasons. Having additional motivators beyond the price premiums in the organic marketplace is important. The book “Gaining Ground: Making a Successful Transition to Organic Farming” includes testimony and quotes from Canadian farmers about their reasons forgoing through transition.
- Build a support network. This includes your certifier, extension and agency staff, seasoned organic farmers, other transitioning farmers, input suppliers, consultants, and family members. As you enter this new marketplace and community, it will take time to make connections.
Presentations and Videos on Transitioning and Certification
- Organic Crop Budgets and Financials of Transition
Michael Langemeier, Purdue University
February 19, 2020
- Certification to the National Organic Program (NOP)
Michael O’Donnell, Purdue Extension
Mark Seeley, OnMark Certification Services
February 19, 2020
- Transition Strategies, the Basic Tools, and Fertility Considerations in Organic Grain Production - Part 1 and Part 2
Michael O’Donnell, Purdue Extension
Will Glazik, Cow Creek Farm
February 19, 2020
- Managing Large-Scale Organic Transition and Parallel Production Systems
Megan Wallendal, Wallendal Farms
- February 20, 2020
- This resource is a free, web-based learning material to provide quality educational materials for farmers and students interested in or pursing organic certification.
- This free Transition to Organic Course outlines the theory and practice of organic agriculture. It includes lessons on soil health, pest management, business plans and marketing, and more.