Cattle producers can make a fairly easy transition to organic production. This Benton, Ark., rancher rotates his herd through paddocks every three weeks in an intensive grazing system.
Cattle producers can make a fairly easy transition to organic production. This Benton, Ark., rancher rotates his herd through paddocks every three weeks in an intensive grazing system. Photo by USDA--NRCS

Transition approaches

There is no one correct strategy for transitioning to organic. Growers have used one or more of the following approaches successfully.

Transitioning one parcel at a time. Start with limited acres as dictated by finances and labor availability. Certify your farm one area at a time to minimize risk and experiment with a portion of the farm rather than the entire acreage. Wende Elliott and Joe Rude attribute their success to their careful approach of introducing one field at a time.

"I've seen farmers hit a wall the third year of transition," said county extension agent Brad Brummond. "The chemicals have worn off, and the biological systems haven't quite come into place, so if you transition piecemeal, you can minimize the amount of land that is subject to problems, and you can learn on a smaller amount of land." Transitioning one parcel at a time also helps minimize the economic losses you may face during transition.

Gradual transition. Withdraw one class of inputs at a time, or start by banding fertilizers and herbicides and monitoring pests for threshold levels. Preliminary results from a North Carolina study investigating the impact of withdrawing classes of inputs show that there were no yield differences between conventional, transitional and organic soybeans for the first year of the transition. This approach will delay how quickly land can be certified - three years of complete chemical withdrawal are required - and may impact your profitability. However, direct marketers may be able to take advantage of transitional status to fetch a higher premium. (See "What's in a Name?" below).

John Vollmer grows 25 acres of conventional fruit and vegetables, including strawberries, which he markets for the same price as the organic strawberries. Consumers want the quality, he said, and when you are direct marketing, and the product is good, they'll pay for it.

"Cold turkey." Originally not considered a wise strategy because transitioning was thought to take three to five years, switching to organic within a shorter timeframe actually holds potential. Research shows that if you use crops that do not have high nitrogen requirements, or select varieties that can fix their own nitrogen, you can avoid yield declines. Moreover, legume crops such as soybeans are easy to cultivate and perform well even with all chemical inputs withdrawn. A Minnesota study showed that even corn could perform well by the third year of the transition.

Certifying Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land. If you can document that it has not received prohibited inputs, CRP land or pasture may qualify for immediate certification. A SARE-funded study on Iowa CRP land showed that there was virtually no economic loss when transitioning using soybeans. By the third year, the economic returns in the certified organic soybeans were 180 percent above conventional.

What's In a Name?

Any operation or portions of operations that produce or handle agricultural products sold, labeled or represented as "100-percent organic," "organic," or "made with organic ingredients" must be certified. Farmers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic agricultural products are exempt from certification, although they must abide by the national standards to label their products as organic. While the new standards allow for easier marketing, some smaller, highly diversified organic farmers, particularly those who direct market to consumers, don't find it worthwhile to certify because of the cost of certification or the time required for record keeping.

If you wish to grow your food in a manner that follows the principles of organic production but don't want to get certified, consider other labels to distinguish your products in the marketplace. Eliot Coleman, a 35-year organic farmer, advocates using the label "authentic." For Coleman, this label would identify livestock raised outdoors and on pasture; systems focused on "plant positive" rather than "pest negative" processes; systems using cover crops, farm-derived organic matter and crop rotations; and food sold within a 50-mile radius of where it was grown.

Other terms farmers use to carve out a market niche and distinguish themselves as environmentally friendly are:

  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  • Hormone or antibiotic free
  • Free range
  • Natural or authentic
  • Transitional

Since none of those labels have third party verification, they are best used when you are direct marketing to your customers and can explain your production practices.If you are looking for a label that has independent third party verification, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, hosts a web site, www.eco-labels.org, which contains summaries and ratings of other environmentally friendly labels.