Considering organics? Farmers offer advice on how to get started
Interest in growing organic commodities remains high among California farmers and ranchers, with certifying agencies reporting increases in the number of acres being converted.
But becoming successful at organic farming doesn't come without hard work. Just ask fourth-generation farmer Greg Massa of Hamilton City, who in 1998 started making the transition on a 20-acre plot of conventional rice to organic rice and now has more than 130 acres that are organically certified. Massa has 36 more acres scheduled for certification next year.
Greg Massa of Massa Organics in Glenn County stands in a field that he is transitioning from conventional to certified organic.
"When you transition to organic you will see variation in your field a lot more. You will see the interplay between your soil, water temperature, weed populations and many other interactions that go on in a field that you did not notice before," Massa said.
After several years of transitioning a small amount of acreage at a time, Massa formed Massa Organics, a diversified operation that specializes in organic, whole-grain brown rice. Massa distributes rice through farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs and restaurants. He also grows organic almonds, wheat and hay, as well as 550 acres of conventional rice as part of the family farm. Massa Organics has been organically certified since 2002.
To certify conventional acres to organic, a grower must go through a process that is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program. During the transition process, growers must keep fields free of inputs that are not allowed in organic systems for a period of three years. Farmers should complete a certification application, which requires that they fill out their Organic System Plan. The plan includes detailed information about the following: operation information, parcel description, seeds, soil management, compost and manure, pest management, input materials, production, harvest and transport, storage, labeling and record keeping.
Completing the paperwork will take about 90 days, but growers are asked to begin at least six months in advance, according to Jane Baker, director of sales and marketing for California Certified Organic Farmers. Based in Santa Cruz, CCOF is the largest of several organic certifiers in California, with nearly 80 percent of the state's certified organic acreage under its program.
Farmers interested in pursuing organic farming should begin by collecting as much information as possible. CCOF Inspector Amy Lamendella says to "ask questions."
"We are always willing to talk to prospective growers, and if we don't know the answer we'll try and find someone who does," she said. "We can't consult, but we can clarify the regulations and point you to other resources."
Organic farming consultant Fred Thomas of CERUS Consulting in Chico recommends that growers talk to other organic farmers growing the same commodity.
"Whether it is Joe down the street or people you are on a board with, go to lunch with them, start talking to them and start asking questions," Thomas said. "What do you use? How do you deal with brown rot? Do you sell your entire crop (as organic), or do you end up having to sell half of it as conventional? Is there expansion within the marketplace from your perspective?"
Consultants such as Thomas advise growers in the process of transitioning to organic. He said he provides growers with a one-year service to help them complete their Organic System Plan and will be present during the visit by the inspector.
Prior to pursuing organic, Thomas suggests that farmers talk to their prospective buyers.
"If you are a walnut grower, your buyers might say, 'We're certified with QAI (Quality Assurance International) so you ought to be certified with QAI,'" Thomas said. "Or they may say, 'We ship one-third of our walnuts to Japan, so you should make sure you sign up for the Global Marketing Access Program.'"
Massa advises growers interested in making the leap to organics to take it slowly.
"One piece of advice I always give is to never jump into it with everything you've got. Step into it by starting small: 20 acres, 40 acres. Don't start transitioning 500 acres because you are not going to do well," Massa said. "You have to make sure that you can manage the fields and your production so that you can get yields and manage your risk."
It is important for those starting to grow organically to know that yields are likely to be less, he said, unless you have a good crop rotation.
"The more crops you can put into a rotation, the closer to conventional your yields will be," Massa added. "The longer the rotation, the fewer weed problems you will have and the higher your yields will be. I had a friend who grew organic rice and his yields matched his conventional yields, so it is not impossible; it just takes a different approach."
Other recommendations include:
- Acquire a separate Pesticide Use Reporting number from your county agricultural commissioner for your organic parcel right from the get-go. This helps you prove to the certifier that you kept the property clear of unapproved inputs for the required three-year period.
- Assure that materials you use are approved for organic production. Salespeople won't always know, so always double-check either by calling your prospective certifier or looking at the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) list.
- Save all receipts and documentation. Creating a paper trail, to prove that you are doing what you say you're doing, is critical to organic inspection and certification.
- Remember that cover crop seed also has to be organic and make sure that any inoculants are also documented and approved.
- Record keeping is critical and fundamental to the inspection and certification process. The more organized your records, the faster and therefore cheaper your inspection will be. As you are transitioning, use that time to create a record-keeping system. Make sure to keep receipts for seed, materials and all activities on your farm, including harvest and sales.
- Turn in your organic certification paperwork early. Some growers submit it one year or more before the end of their transition, just to make sure that they are doing everything correctly. Give certifiers time to get you through the process without getting too close to your first organic harvest.
To learn more about the organic certification process, visit any of the following online resources: USDA National Organic Program at www.ams.usda.gov; CCOF at www.ccof.org; or the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service at attra.ncat.org, where you will find additional information and technical assistance.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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