What is Organic and How to Get Certified

organic farming field

What Does Certified Organic Mean?

The last decade has seen a surge of organic products and farms. From grocery items to cosmetics, to textiles the label organic can be found on thousands of products in America. But, what does this label actually mean about the product?

The US department of Agriculture defines organic as, “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. Organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” There is a long list of requirements set for organic agriculture. The most important ones include not using radiation as a method of preservation, not using genetically modified crops, and that production must be overseen by a USDA organic representative.It is a lengthy process to get a farm certified organic. While the certification process can be finished in six to eight weeks, many farms face a “transition” period of three years. During this period, products cannot be labeled organic, but the farmer must follow all organic regulations. While this process seems extreme, market trends are surging toward organic produce it may be beneficial for some farmers to make the switch.

No matter the size of the operation, from 1,000 acre farms to backyard gardens, the organic guidelines can be helpful in maintaining a sustainable and natural yield. In order to better understand the benefits of these regulations it is important to understand the process behind becoming certified.

First, farmers must take a look at the entire farming operation from tilling practices and pesticide usage to harvesting and storage and make a plan that meets the USDA guidelines.

The guidelines differ for produce, livestock and textiles. There are strict regulations against GMO foods and synthetic fertilizers. If GMOs or chemicals were used in previous harvests the farm must use organic practices for three full years before getting certified. This can be one of the hardest parts of getting certified organic.

Taking an intense look at an operation and considering the environmental and nutritional impact of agricultural practices is beneficial for any size operation. Even if organic is not an option for you, are there steps that you can take that will make the production more sustainable? For example, instead of using synthetic fertilizers, can you replace them with composted materials? Instead of pesticides and herbicides, is there an alternative practice such as companion planting or solarizing that can be utilized? Even small changes can make a huge difference in the overall sustainability of the farm.

 The next step in becoming organic is to get in contact with the USDA.

An inspector will take a thorough look at the operational plan and approve it. Once this has been approved, it’s time to enact all the changes.

While the USDA oversees all farming to ensure food safety is maintained, organic farms have an extra level of supervision. These strict regulations force farmers to run a highly organized, well maintained operation equating to higher quality produce.

If getting certified is not your end goal, it is always a good idea to maintain a good relationship with the USDA. The USDA provides resources such as insurance, loans, grants, new agricultural research findings, food safety guidelines, and agricultural policy updates.

 The final step in the certification process is to complete an Inspection

Once the organic plan is successfully running, it is time to get certified. An agent from the USDA will come to the farm and do a thorough inspection of the land, water, farming practices, and records. If farms pass this inspection (and have maintained their transition period) they can officially market products as organic. If not, the USDA will recommend changes that will allow them to apply for another inspection.

The process of becoming an organic farm is very thorough. To ensure a high-quality product, these regulations serve to standardize and enforce sustainability and efficiency across all certified farms. While organic produce costs more, it may be worth it to a consumer once they know the process a farm must go through to become certified organic. Consumer demand is what drives the agricultural practices. If people demand foods from sustainable and natural sources, the industry will deliver. While these practices do not suit every operation, there is something to be learned from the organic guidelines. If all farms made changes to reduce their environmental impact the combined results would be significant.

Author - Riley Graham

About Riley Graham

Riley is a third year Food Science student at UC Davis hoping to one day work in research and development. Her specific areas of interest are in sustainability in agricultural processing; however, she’s exploring other options in food science such as sensory science and even brewing. Being a food science student at one of the world’s premier agricultural research centers gives Riley a unique perspective on the issues we face in food production. Even when I’m outside of the classroom, Riley never stops learning. When not doing homework or working in a lab, Riley plays piano, reads science fiction, and loves to cook.

The Effects of Fertilizer Runoff

Runoff from harmful algal blooms

Fertilizer Use Revolutionized Food Production

Have you ever wondered why so many people are concerned about the use of fertilizer in agriculture and the impact of field runoff on the environment?  Let’s talk about it for a minute.

The use of fertilizer in agricultural practices revolutionized food production and helped to build modern society as we know it today.  From the big, industrialized farms to the little organic plots, most producers improve the efficiency of their soil by adding sources of Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (N, P, and K) to their cultivation practices.  These traditions have been in place since the beginning of modern farming and make it possible to feed the world.

A field can only hold as much fertilizer as its soil can capture.  Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay.  Each of these structures have different sizes and qualities.  They mix together to form the soil’s texture.  This texture informs how a soil behaves: how crop roots develop, how much water the soil can hold, how well the field drains, and how much fertilizer can the soil structure hold.  Soil is only capable of holding a certain amount of nutrients based its structure.  Fertilizer compounds that are not contained and held by the soil structures dissolve into the water of the field and are carried away as fertilizer runoff.  It does not matter if the fertilizer is organic or not.  All added nutrients to soil have the potential to become runoff.

Lost Nutrients Increase Costs

Fertilizer runoff is a concern for both farmers and environmentalists.  Nutrients lost from fields are wasted resources for farmers.  These inefficiencies created unnecessary operational costs and limit the profitability of a farm.  The environmental impact of runoff is a concern for everyone in the community, including the farmer.  When the nutrients in fertilizer flow into local bodies of water, they can have damaging effects on local wildlife and water quality.

The nutrients found in fertilizers are not just good for crop growth.  They encourage natural biological growth as well.  Normally, more growth from fertilizer would be a good thing.  However, natural systems, like rivers and lakes, have a balanced ecosystem that keeps them healthy and clean.  When fertilizer leaves a field and enters these systems, the balance is thrown off.  N, P, and K nutrients are naturally present in these bodies of water in very small amounts. The concentrations found in field runoff are typically much higher than an ecosystem is used to.  Bacteria and algae grow extremely quickly using fertilizer nutrients.  As their population explodes, the quality of the water decreases.  The water becomes too toxic for fish and other aquatic life to live in the system.  Eventually, the water begins to stink, turn green, and become unsafe for humans to use.

Nutrients in Runoff Create Toxic Effects

The scary thing about this effect is that it does not stay in the local river.  All rivers flow to bigger bodies of water, and those nutrients travel with them.  As they flow downstream, more runoff from other fields is added to the river until it reached its end point.  In the United States, this is typically an ocean or one of the Great Lakes.  When all of the nutrients from all of the field runoff reach those big bodies of water, we see the same algae and bacteria growth we saw in the local river on a massive scale.  This growth is what causes large algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Great Lakes.  The water surrounding these blooms becomes so toxic, so quickly that mass die offs of local fish and plants occur.  The blooms also make the water unsafe for humans to use or even touch in some cases.  This effect is commonly referred to as hypoxia.  It can cause problems at home and even bigger ones downstream.

In case you were curious about why so many people are talking about the problems of agriculture runoff, these are some of the reasons why.

Claire Haselhorst

About Claire:

I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from Purdue University and am currently working on my doctorate. My research focuses on improving the productivity of small scale local producers and new farmers entering agriculture.  I believe that strong and clear communication between educational bodies and agricultural producers can provide the tools and opportunities to build a better tomorrow.

 

The Deeper Benefits of No-Till Farming – Part III

No till farming

Welcome to the third part of our series addressing the benefits of No-till Farming. In the early part of the series, we went over the physical changes of the land moving from tilled farming to no-till. We also looked at the ways the land and the farmer change during and after the switch. In this installment, we look at the deeper benefits of no-till and address some pitfalls in thinking about no-till.

On the farm, the deeper benefits of no-till means a proactive approach to building and maintaining soil. That benefit becomes a sustainable process by which a farm can continue to produce healthy and viable crops for generations.

The physical process begins with soil that is less compact – fluffier. Then two things happen. First, the moisture levels rise in the soil column and aggregates near the surface hold a higher moisture content. That action signals the second event which is the return of soil biota. Small organisms need moist soil to function, and tilling tends to dry out the soil causing a loss of soil biota.

These are natural systems that impact each other. When balanced they enhance. However, take one away and the others tend to collapse. This is where the relationship between the farmer and the land becomes real. As a steward, it is important to monitor these types of systems.

Complaints about No-Till

Drive down the road and look at abandoned fields. They are full of things growing on their own. A lot of farmers try no-till for a year and then abandon it because the yield was not what they thought it should be. Some never tried because they heard they would have to buy all new seed stock. When it comes to no-till there are many complaints. I find many of those stem from a misplaced relationship in growing. Many farmers have a relationship with their crop but not necessarily with the land – Crop focus. Got a problem? Add more inputs. That equation is not sustainable. The farther one goes down that row the higher the costs become and that means that on the end consumer level the prices have to go up.

Switching from tilling to no-till is a big change. In the first few years, you should be able to produce about the same amount, maybe a little less in the first year. You will also have to blend both till methods and no-till methods in the first couple of years. For example, increasing the use of inputs such as nitrogen. This is as much about dialing in the farmer as it is the crops. For many farmers, switching to no-till is not about going back to the “old ways.” Instead it is about learning a new way of farming.

The benefits of no-till really begin to emerge after the third year. That is because the relationship between the farmer and the land has grown. Also, during that time, the natural systems begin to return to a state where they are working together. This means the soil organics are causing the soil to be fluffier. It also means that soil biota is returning and thriving. This is the result of crop residue that is beginning to enhance soil nutrition. Also, the water level has risen in the soil column. Trying no-till for a year and giving up is wasting time and resources. In most situations, the seed stock you’ve been using should be fine.

What also changes is the skill set of the farmers. This is evident in the differences seen in weed emergence from till to no-till. Farmers are also seeing the benefits of improved soil nutrition and how water is better managed because of the organic material in the soil. And, they are seeing there is a decrease in heavy work, that they need fewer inputs, that weeds are naturally controlled, and that they have better accesses to fields earlier in the spring.

These are all benefits that are sustainable but they do not happen overnight. No-till is a sustainable way to improve soil health and that leads to improved crop health, better yields, and protection for the very resource that enables us to farm – the land.

Problems with Tilling

There are problems with tilling. There appear to be insects that are resistant to GMO crops. Weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. Consumers are starting to show resistance to the use of both GMOs and non-organic crops by consumers. And there has been an increase at the end-consumer level for organic produce and meats.

Sustainable growing is leaning towards no-till. The benefits are just too good to ignore and as technology increases, we are likely to see a larger input from end consumers – one that is big enough to change farming.

David Stillwell organic gardener

About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. David specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.