Organic Crop Certification
Transitioning to Organic Production
The process of converting fields previously in conventional production to certified organic production is known as “transitioning.” It is an extended, often challenging process that includes regulatory, production, and marketing components. Careful planning is important to a smooth, successful transition.
When a conventional farmer wishes to switch to an organic production system the National Organic Program Standards requires a three-year transition period before produce may be certified as organically grown. During the transition phase, growers must use cultural, chemical, and biological practices that are approved under the Final Rule. For example, if an apple orchard was last sprayed with a synthetic fungicide on August 1, 2010, then a crop harvested September 1, 2013, may be sold as organic, but only if the grower has a certificate verifying the organic status for the past three years. It is important to document the last date when a prohibited substance was applied, in order to demonstrate to the certification agency that the field has been free of prohibited substance applications for 36 months and is eligible for organic certification.
Prohibited and Approved Substances
For land to be eligible for organic certification, prohibited substances must not be applied to the land for a period of three years immediately preceding harvest of the crop. Prohibited substances include chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, as well as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), ionizing radiation, sewage sludge and treated seeds. All synthetic materials, unless specifically approved, are prohibited for use and all natural substances, unless specifically prohibited by the NOP, are approved for use. The National List outlines prohibited and approved substances; this is part of the NOP regulations found in sections 205.600 to 205.606.
It is important to document the last date when a prohibited substance was applied, in order to demonstrate to the certification agency that the field has been free of prohibited substance applications for 36 months and is eligible for organic certification.
During transition, you should establish a soil-building crop rotation and develop effective fertility, pest, disease, and weed management strategies using preventive practices and natural fertility inputs, such as compost, mulch, and cover crops. If needed, the grower may use non-synthetic (natural) biological, botanical, or mineral inputs, or, if these are not effective, synthetic substances that appear on the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances, which is part of the NOP regulation. The strategy for transitioning to organic crop production depends on the preferences of the grower and the farming system. Approaches for transitioning a farm include:
This approach involves progressively converting to organic production by temporarily combining conventional and organic practices before shifting exclusively to organic management. Producers considering making the transition to organic production are encouraged to do it incrementally. By converting portions of the farm to organic production while leaving other parts in conventional production, the producer has time to learn new management skills.
One Field at a Time
Transitioning selected fields of a farm allows growers to begin making the switch to organic production while still maintaining a portion of the enterprise in conventional agriculture. This practice, known as a “split operation,” is allowed in organic certification if the producer establishes protocols to prevent contact between organic and non-organic produce from seed to market. For example, buffer zones or other barriers may need to be established between organic and conventional fields.
Often referred to as the “cold turkey” approach, transitioning the whole farm at once provides a quicker avenue to becoming fully organic. Carefully selecting crops and cover crops that can help build soil health, as well as varieties that are pest-resistant, can help minimize yield declines that can occur during the transition period.
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