Many farmers are well aware that organic farming is a good thing to do. But knowing that something is right and actually implementing it fully are two very different things. Many farmers, even those who are sympathetic to the ideas we espouse and have a favorable option of organic production, may struggle to see how it is actually real-world feasible to make the switch.
As a permaculture designer and consultant, I often help small-scale farmers, market gardeners, or homesteaders move towards more sustainable enterprise on their properties, and so I thought I would share a few simple tips to help anyone who wants to convert an existing growing business to organic production.
Understand Organic Farming Legislation Where You Live
First things first, understand that sometimes, in certain jurisdictions in particular, conversion to organic production is about more than just farming organically. There can be a plethora of forms to fill in and red tape to wade through before you can actually be certified and be allowed to sell “organic” label produce.
As well as familiarizing yourself with the legislation and requirements for organic farming where you live, it can also be very useful to speak with those who have already gone through the process and who are growing organically—ideally in a location nearby and on land similar to your own.
While you can read about things all day, actually speaking with someone with their hands in the dirt and real-world experience can make all the difference. It can open your eyes to potential problems of all kinds, but also bring clarity about the achievability of your organic farming goals.
On any arable farm, sourcing organic seeds will be one key part of the puzzle. Fortunately, today, organic seeds are more widely available than they once were. And you can potentially buy just once, then convert to saving your own seed for subsequent years in order to keep costs down.
While this may not be feasible for all farms, seed saving is one potential way to reduce operational costs for a small-scale food-growing business. You would only be able to use your own seed and call it organic once the conversion period has elapsed.
Managing Soil Health and Fertility
Organic farming is about far more than just the avoidance of certain products. It is also focused on holistic land management and, crucially, on maintaining a healthy and fertile soil ecosystem.
Key things to think about when it comes to managing soil health and fertility are:
- Crop rotation and crop sequence to balance demands on the soil.
- Using legumes/dynamic accumulators and/or animal manures to cycle nutrients through the system.
- Management of waste and the creation of closed-loop systems.
While certain inputs for fertility are allowed in organic crop production, your goal, both for optimal production and for financial reasons, should be to minimize additional inputs required as much as possible.
Weeds, Pests, and Disease Control
It is important to understand that you will have weeds, pests, and diseases on an organic farm. The key, of course, is to maintain a natural balance so that none of these problems are able to proliferate too much or get out of control.
Pests and diseases are typically the easier things to manage in organic arable farming. Begin with healthy soil, which will yield healthier and more resistant plants.
Integrated pest management, with strategic sowing times, crop rotation, physical barriers where required, and, most crucially, the boosting of biodiversity and the attraction of natural predators, can all keep crops safer and reduce crop damage and losses.
However, there will be times in organic production when the “nuclear option” is required, and certain organic pest control products might be used.
Weed control requires significant consideration in organic conversion and can sometimes be one of the most challenging aspects.
But using both mechanical and cultural methods, and timing these correctly, can mean that the transition goes more smoothly than it might otherwise do. Dense sowing, the use of mulches, and the reduction of bare soil and soil disturbance will all play their roles in keeping weed pressures under control.
Livestock Systems Organic Conversion
If you have livestock on your small farm then organic conversion can be more complex than for non-integrated arable systems. However, one might argue that the rewards are even greater when the conversion is complete (both in “real” value and in financial terms for a farming business).
In livestock farming systems, you will need to think about what you feed to livestock and where they are housed.
You may also have to consider where your breeding stock comes from, and you will need to make sure that you have a feasible and well-thought-out livestock management plan in place. You need to consider veterinarian treatments and how grassland will be managed short and longer term.
Thinking carefully about how you will manage each of these issues will help you determine the shape of your new enterprise and see how things will alter from your current practices.
Get a clear idea before you begin, and you are far less likely to fall at the first hurdle during the organic conversion process.