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Gaining Ground: Making a successful transition to organic farming
This article was first printed in the May/June 2008 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.Download a PDF to print
At the recent MOSES board meeting discussion turned to the subject of resources available to farmers interested in transitioning to organic. With crop prices at record highs, several board members noted that "this is the perfect time to transition." Income from record-high conventional prices can help cover the 3 years of transition costs until an organic premium can be achieved. Of course, high prices may also keep some farmers satisfied with existing conventional operations, until something happens to open the organic opportunity for them, or till prices drop again. The board decided it would be valuable for us to explore what transition resources are out there and let folks know which we recommend.
I remembered that there was a recent book on transitioning that I had been meaning to look at - Gaining Ground: making a successful transition to organic farming. This is the latest book put out by the Canadian Organic Growers, also publishers of the Organic Field Crop Handbook, and Organic Livestock Handbook which are among MOSES’ top sellers.
I opened Gaining Ground with some hesitation, as I think it is no easy task to take on the complex subject of transitioning to organic in any one volume. Trying to explain management and farm practice changes, not only on a general level, but also for various crop and livestock operations, as well as the details of certification and marketing issues would be very hard to do succinctly and effectively. I have to report that I am very pleased by what I found inside this 312 page spiral-bound book.
The first thing that caught my eye was the prominence of direct quotes from farmers that have been through the transition. Eighty farm families were interviewed for this book. They start by offering thoughts on subjects such as “Why I decided to go organic,” and “What changed when I went organic,” and “What was hardest about the transition,” and “What would I have done differently, given what I know now.” The perspectives of successful organic farmers from all over Canada are invaluable in helping a farmer new to organic understand why, and what, they might really be getting into. I especially like the first quote used in the book- on the introduction page, from a woman farmer in Ontario that begins: “The hardest part about transition is that there is no recipe.” I respect that the authors took on their complex subject with the idea that they couldn’t necessarily give someone a recipe on how to transition, but that they could share what other people had learned and give basic guidelines on where to start, what to watch for and where to go for information and help.
In the introduction the authors explain that this book is somewhat a preamble to the other two books in their series. Gaining Ground is designed as a stepping off point to get farmers started in their thinking processes. The authors state up front that the book is not intended to “provide answers for all aspects of organic farming.” They lead people looking for more detail to a long list of other resources, and to the two previous, more focused books on organic crop and livestock production.
The fifteen chapters are set up as a blend of material from “this is what we heard most frequently from the 80 farm families we talked to” to simply stated definitions, descriptions and guidelines. The book starts with discussions on why the interviewed farmers decided to go organic, moves to straight forward descriptions of what organic farming is, what a transition might look like, the importance of planning and the diversity of challenges the interviewed farmers have faced.
The second part of the book delves into the specifics of changing to or developing an organic production system. The authors discuss soil fertility and nutrients, including organic fertility management, how to monitor soil health and tips on organic matter and green manure. They then outline the effects and designs of good crop rotations, including how rotations can be used to prevent weed and pest problems. From there the book moves into strategies for organic weed, pest and disease management. They complete the production section with a short overview of organic livestock transitioning.
Each of these sections begins with a 2-3 page farmer profile focused on “the challenge” of the chapter. How did a farmer from Quebec “manage weeds to an economically viable level?” Steve and Loraine Lalonde describe the fears they had pre-transition and how they dealt with the realities of the transition to organic, which they started in 1995. Steve then briefly explains what he does for weed control now, and includes a chart laying out his 4-year rotation schedule. Each production chapter also has a section called “making the transition” which highlights specific keys to success.
Sprinkled throughout this second section, as the whole book, are 3-5 sentence quotes from farmers relating to the subject at hand, such as this statement from an Alberta farmer about organic weed management: “Variety choice is important. For example, earlier maturing varieties should be selected over higher yielding when given the choice, as it will help with weed competition.” Various useful charts, sidebars, fact sheets and graphics are placed throughout the text to highlight important concepts and details. Each chapter concludes with a comprehensive subject-specific resources list (most with web links) and a list of references.
The third section of the book briefly discusses organic certification, and highlights recordkeeping and the importance of protecting organic integrity, including storage and seed sourcing suggestions.
The fourth section, titled “Managing the Transition of the Farm Business,” focuses on the economics of organic farming, including discussions of yield changes (interviewed farmers state that yields dropped 20-50% in the first 5 years, in crops varying from grapes to corn to milk and apples, but that yields generally are at or above area averages for conventional crops once a farm has been managed organically for 5 or more years). Also highlighted in this chapter are changes needed in workload management, and discussions of variable production costs, equipment and profitability. The resource section of this set of chapters offers contact info for sourcing numerous useful management tools and guides.
The final section of the book includes appendices, references, resources, a glossary and an index. Appendices include :Interviewed farmers’ recommended seed varieties, Farmers’ advice on seeds, Successful internet marketing, and a brief description of each of the interviewed farmers’ operations.
I also recommend this book to anyone who is newly transitioned, or even several years into organic production. There is so much wisdom in the voices of the interviewed farm families that this book is a “must read” for anyone open to learning from others’ experiences.
Naturally, good information does not come cheap. Gaining Ground: making a successful transition to organic farming is available from MOSES for $45.00 & shipping. Get your copy today by calling or emailing the MOSES office at email@example.com or 715-778-5775.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to look Gaining Ground over, and add it to MOSES’ recommended resources for transitioning to organic. Look for more recommendations in the future, including information and links on our website to help lead folks to good transitioning resources.
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and co-coordinator of the Organic University. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.Return to TOP