Chapter 7

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms

National Organic Program Standards for Crop Rotation

Organic producers are required under the National Organic Program (NOP) rules to choose crop rotations on the farm whether they grow field crops, vegetables, hay, cover crops, or all of the above. The NOP defines “crop rotation as, the practice of alternating the annual crops grown on a specific field in a planned pattern or sequence in successive crop years so that crops of the same species or family are not grown repeatedly without interruption on the same field. Perennial cropping systems employ means such as alley cropping, intercropping, and hedgerows to introduce biological diversity in lieu of crop rotation.” Long-term three to seven year rotations provide the most benefit, but short-term rotations may also be compliant. While crop rotation is part of the rule and is an integral part of the Organic System Plan (which is considered incomplete without a plan), there is no one right way to create a compliant and successful crop rotation plan. Simply including a fallow period could be a start, but a sustainable rotation will require more diversity over the long run. Organic production systems will have difficulty meeting crop nutrition needs if crops that require high levels of fertility are grown frequently. Heavy feeders (e.g., lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, corn, etc.) produce more when rotated with light feeders (e.g., carrots, turnips, radishes, beets, etc.) and nitrogen-fixing legumes.

USDA Organic Regulations on Crop Rotation Practice Standards

The intent of the following NOP standards is to promote crop rotations that improve the soil, minimize weed and other pest problems, and provide erosion control.

Section 205.205 Crop Rotation Practice Standard

National Organic Program (NOP) Crop Rotation (§ 205.205) is defined as “alternating annual crops grown on a specific field in a planned pattern or sequence in successive crop years so that crops of the same species or family are not grown repeatedly without interruption on the same field.” NOP § 205.205 states that a producer must implement a 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:

Section 205.203 Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrient Management Practice Standard

(b) The producer must manage crop nutrients and soil fertility through rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials

Section 205.206 Crop Pest, Weed, and Disease Management Practice Standard

(a) The producer must use management practices to prevent crop pests, weeds, and diseases including but not limited to:
(1) Crop rotation and soil and crop nutrient management practices, as provided for in §§ 205.203 and 205.205;

Certifying Agencies

It is up to the certifying agency to determine that the farmer is implementing a sound crop rotation on the land that is farmed. Certifying agencies require proper record keeping of the planned sequence of crops in each identified field. Criteria to judge compliance with the standards are subjective. No technical measurement tools are required to evaluate the effectiveness of a rotation for building organic matter or controlling erosion. The NOP standards do not state how frequently a crop can appear in the rotation. Also, the standards do not state that a farmer must include a cover crop or green manure crops in the rotation. Such practices may not be advisable in certain situations, as in dry years in the Great Plains.

Perennial Cropping Systems

Section 205.205, the crop rotation practice standard, is meant to ensure that the farmer implements practices that will maintain soil organic matter, control pests, conserve nutrients, and protect the soil against erosion. For growers of annual crops, those practices typically include crop rotation, but other practices can be substituted if rotation is not practical. Some perennials will be part of a long-term crop rotation, which may last a few years or even decades. Asparagus, for example, is a perennial that can be productive for 15 years or more. When a field is taken out of asparagus production, it is typically planted with another crop to reduce the incidence of soilborne disease.

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