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COG Organic Field Crop Handbook
This chapter deals with the practical considerations involved in converting a conventional farm into an organic farm.
When making the transition from conventional to organic agriculture, farmers realize that their approach to farming changes. Organic farmers see the farm as a complex system where every part of the farm interrelates with every other part and, in turn, each part of the farm affects the whole farm and consequently the whole ecosystem of which it is a part. Organic farmers place their emphasis on the health and nutrient balance of the soil rather than on the nutrient demands of the crops. Organic farmers are also united by a fundamental philosophical conviction that the farm system must be self-sustaining -- that is, ecologically sound, economically viable and socially responsible.
1. Convert gradually
Some farmers go "cold turkey" and convert their whole farms to organic methods overnight. This is definitely not recommended because the farmer needs time to learn new management skills and the soil needs time to rebuild itself. We suggest you go through the transition slowly, converting sections of your farm in stages. Some farmers have taken up to 10 years to convert the entire farm. Others have done it sooner, as they become comfortable with the new system and different management techniques.
A gradual approach to the transition period will help maintain production and minimize financial risk. Although organic farms compare favorably with conventional ones in profitability, some farmers have reported a reduction in yield during the transition. However, the decline is greater with some crops, such as corn and some fruits and vegetables, than with others such as barley or red clover. Reduced yields were more likely when chemicals were suddenly withdrawn from land that had been farmed for a long period with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
It will take a minimum of three years without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides before your crops can be considered organic. During this time, premium prices will not be available and in any case they should not be relied upon for the viability of the farming operation. While input costs will be lower, it is possible that a more diversified cropping system and new management practices will create a need for different equipment and additional storage facilities.
2. Problems specific to the transition
The state of your land will determine how smooth the transition will be. If the soil has been severely depleted of organic matter and is seriously compacted, building it up will be your first priority. Only when the soil has been restored will you be able to see significant responses to organic management techniques. Use of a good crop rotation (Section 2), compost (Section 1.4), green manures (Section 1.5) and soil amendments (Section 1.6) will assist this process.
Certain problems should be anticipated during the transition period between conventional and organic. Until a good rotation is established to break pest cycles, assist weed control and improve the soil and nutrient cycling, weeds (Section 1.7) and pests (Section 1.8) may be problems when herbicides and pesticides are withdrawn. The severity of the problems is usually only transitory. Well-established organic farmers repeatedly report that these problems become controllable or disappear altogether.
A common mistake during the transition is for farmers to be so concerned with having enough nitrogen that they inadvertently apply it in excess, in the form of manure or other organic inputs. Excessive nitrogen, regardless of source, is likely to suppress biological activity (including mycorrhizas role in the uptake of phosphorous), reduce nodulation in legumes, give a competitive advantage to the weeds over the crops and increase the incidence of pests and disease.
While it is possible to farm organically without livestock, the presence of livestock greatly simplifies sound soil management and reduces dependence on purchased fertilizers. Cycling nutrients and energy through livestock means that the farmer can have both a source of income and avoid depleting the nutrient reserves on the farm.
If manure is not available, the cash crop farmer focuses on plant residues from green manures and cover crops in the rotation to provide the organic matter for the soil. The cash crop farmer should place a greater reliance on soil tests to determine the specific needs for other soil amendments such as rock powders. Outside sources of compost or fertilizer may be needed.
3. Prepare yourself adequately
There is a possibility that at the beginning of the transition you will not feel very sure of yourself or of the decisions that you are making. Learning new techniques and becoming familiar with different crops will initially be more demanding of your time and management skills. Making the transition is not easy and will require a strong commitment on your part if it is to succeed. Read as much as possible on the subject and attend courses and conferences. Organic farmers are usually prepared to help and support each other and share their hard-won information. Join an organic farming organization (see Appendix A) and, most importantly, visit farmers who have made the transition. The support of other organic farmers will be invaluable.
[photo 2.1 A field day on an organic farm]
Plan carefully and keep records. Many farmers find conducting their own on-farm research helps them determine which methods work best for them, but it is only useful if you remember to record the results. Information from soil tests, records such as crops planted, compost applications, yields and weed problems can be recorded directly on a map of the farm each year for easy reference. The design of a rotation suited to your farm is probably the most important part of your conversion plan. Section 2 of the Handbook has been designed to assist with this process.
"It probably takes a little keener management for organic farming because there aren't as many experts around to advise you on various problems you may run into. So you have to develop your own systems that work well for you and your management ability."
Dave Reibling, Oak Manor Farms
"Don't expect the impossible and go into it with the idea that you're going to make it work."
Gerry Poechman, Ger-Mar Farms
Cleary, A. & Martin R., From Conventional to Ecological Agriculture - A Guide to Transition, COG Ottawa Reference Series, RS6/90, Canadian Organic Growers, Ottawa, Ont., 1990, 8 pp.
Kirschenmann, F., "Putting a System Together and Making it Work", Synergy, Summer 1990
MacRae, R.J., Hill S.B., Mehuys, G.R. & Henning J., Farm Scale Agronomic and Economic Conversion from Conventional to Sustainable Agriculture, Ecological Agriculture Projects Research Paper #9, MacDonald College of McGill University, Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., 1989
Copyright © 1992 Canadian Organic Growers. Inc
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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