Chapter 6

Cover Crops for Organic Farms

National Organic Program Standards for Cover Crops

The National Organic Program (NOP) final rule (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2000) does not have a separate standard that governs the use of cover crops; however, they are mentioned in two sections. The soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard (§ 205.203) lists cover crops as a method to manage crop nutrients and soil fertility. The seeds and planting stock practice standard (§ 205.204) requires organically grown seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock be used, and thus, applies to cover crops. There are several exceptions for using non-organically grown plant materials or those treated with prohibited substances. Organic producers should check with their certifying agent to obtain clearance prior to using any plant materials that are not organically certified. Use of prohibited materials (plant or chemical) can result in the loss of the certified organic status for the receiving crop field if the use of the materials do not meet the exception requirements. Refer to the NOP National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for more information. The crop rotation practice standard (§ 205.205) requires producers to use a crop rotation that includes cover crops to address soil organic matter, pest, nutrient, and erosion concerns. Cover crops can be managed as green manure or catch crops, which are also mentioned as possible components of a crop rotation.

Section 205.203 Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrient Management Practice Standard

The National Organic Program Rule, § 205.203, Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrient Management Practice Standard, does not define specific land practices that producers must use. But it does identify general soil management and environmental protection objectives. From these objectives, producers and the organic certifiers they work with must determine whether specific farming practices meet the NOP criteria.

Section 205.204 Seeds and Planting Stock Practice Standard

The National Organic Program Rule, § 205.204, Seeds and Planting Stock Practice Standard, require that organic producers use organic seeds, annual seedlings, and planting stock. The regulations allow producers to utilize nonorganic seeds and planting stock when equivalent organic varieties are not commercially available.

Section 205.205 Crop Rotation Practice Standard

The National Organic Program Rule, § 205.205, Crop Rotation Practice Standard, requires the producer to implement crop rotation including but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops that provide the following functions that are applicable to the operation:

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