As part of his continuous soil improvement plan, North Carolina vegetable grower John Vollmer, who received a SARE producer grant, mows a cover crop of millet and soybeans to create a rich amendment.
As part of his continuous soil improvement plan, North Carolina vegetable grower John Vollmer, who received a SARE producer grant, mows a cover crop of millet and soybeans to create a rich amendment. Photo by Mary Vollmer

Factors to Consider Before Transitioning

Converting to organic production is not a decision to take lightly. Organic farmers must learn how to work with nature to solve problems, such as adapting crop rotations to improve soil fertility, manage weeds and control pests rather than simply substituting accepted materials for prohibited ones.

Farmers considering a transition to organic farming should think about the following questions, drafted by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA):

  • Do you enjoy walking your fields on a regular basis?
  • Can you distinguish pests from beneficial insects?
  • Are you curious about why things happen on your farm?
  • Can you tolerate a field that is not weed free?
  • Do you have the patience to trade short-term economic returns for longer-term "ecological" credits while building soil health?

Farmers converting to organic purely to improve profits often fail because they do not consider the huge range of economic, social and production changes that must occur. The transition period can be particularly stressful because of the need to develop and implement new management skills. In fact, you must be prepared to survive a short-term financial loss if yields drop and costs increase during this period.

Other considerations, posed by OEFFA and others, include:

  • How will the transition period, where yields sometimes decrease and price premiums are not yet available, impact your family?
  • How will social stigma and negative peer pressure from other farmers impact you? Lydia Poulsen, the Utah cattle and grain farmer, said that when she converted a decade ago, people couldn't understand what she was doing, or why. Now, people seem more accepting and interested.
  • What resources are available? Consider labor, borrowing capability, knowledge base of local extension and information exchange regarding organic production. When the organic dairy industry was expanding in Vermont, SARE-funded researchers designed a study to explore business, crop and animal management on dairy farms. One the most important findings of the study, said researcher Lisa McCrory, was "how all the growers benefited from what they could share with each other, the time spent brainstorming and sharing through on-farm demonstrations and conferences, and exchanging pasture management skills."
  • How will you develop the new types of relationships required to market organic products?

Some farmers view the transition period as an investment in education. During this time, when some growers experience declining profits, remember you are not only learning new skills but also are building what some economists call "natural capital." This refers to improved physical characteristics of soil and plants, such as better soil water infiltration, increased microbial populations, more natural predators, and better control of the weeds.

Like investing in a new stock, there may not be short-term profits, but in the long run, you are setting the stage for the sustainability of your land and farm.

USDA Economic Assistance for Organic and Transitioning Farmers

Some federal programs provide financial assistance to organic farmers and ranchers and those transitioning to organic systems. Check details with each program to verify current status and obtain additional information.

Organic Certification Cost Share, National Organic Program (USDA-AMS)
Offers organic producers and handlers financial assistance to offset the costs of certification under the National Organic Program. Each operation is eligible for up to 75 percent of its cost of certification, not to exceed $500. Administered by state Departments of Agriculture. Contact your state Department of Agriculture for more information.

Organic Transition Payments Agricultural Management Assistance (USDA-NRCS)
In the 12 northeastern states, plus WY, UT, and NV, provides conservation financial and technical assistance to farmers making the transition to organic. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/ama/

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (USDA-NRCS)
Provides technical and one-time financial assistance to farmers and ranchers for management conservation practices. Some NRCS state offices have developed specific organic cropping or livestock conservation options under EQIP. Check with your NRCS state office. www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/eqip/

Value-Added Agricultural Producer Grants (USDA-RBCS)
Organic foods qualify as value-added agricultural products eligible for grant funds through the VAPG program. Individual producers, producer groups, or producer-owned cooperatives or business ventures can apply to develop business plans or feasibility studies or to develop a new marketing or processing venture that will improve farm income and competitiveness. www.rurdev.usda.gov/rbs/coops/vadg.htm


After deciding to take the plunge into organic production, consider the following strategies:
Start-up Ideas

  • Identify the closest certification organization and start collecting information about how to come into compliance. (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/)
  • Make contacts. Attend meetings of organic and other transitional farmers, collect books and other resources and find extension agents and other educators who are knowledgeable about organic production and transition strategies.
  • Experiment with a systems approach that will work on your farm or ranch. Focus on prevention strategies and treating the causes of problems rather than specific problems themselves.
  • Develop marketing strategies for your organic products. (SAN's Building a Sustainable Business is a useful planning guide for farm entrepreneurial activities. See "Resources")

In the planning phase, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the farm. How will you work with the natural system you have? Are you ready for a transition? For example:

  • What are your most valuable natural resources?
  • Does topography work for or against you?
  • What kind of pest pressure do you experience?
  • How healthy are the soils?

(Adapted from The Transition Process by the Rodale Institute.)

Soil health is extremely important because you will no longer rely on external inputs, but depend instead on the activity and capacity of the soil. "I knew that my soils were basically sand with a little bit of nutrients and that everything was burned out," said John Vollmer about why he took two years to even start the transition.

When breaking new ground or exploring new enterprises, "Spend the money to get good soil tests done so you know what amendments you'll need," said Tony Norris, an organic vegetable grower in New Britain, Conn.

Think about pest control. Biological pest control is complex, involving complicated interactions among crop rotations, intercropping combinations, planting schedules and beneficial habitats. What strategies or systems are already in place?