Organic Management Practices
Organic production is not simply the avoidance of conventional chemical inputs, but rather is a way of production that focuses on preventative practices that limits the need for external and off-farm inputs, often called cultural practices. Some of these practices include crop rotation between plant families, techniques to build soil organic matter such as cover crops or adding compost and properly handled animal manures, selecting disease tolerant plants, scouting for insect and disease pests, using trap crops, proper disposal of diseased crop residue and good sanitation, and maintaining biodiversity on the farms. There are entire books written on each of these subjects. We give you some key tips and references below.
Organic Management Practices
Soil Health/Soil Management
Good soil quality is the foundation of an organic production system. Collecting soil for a Soil Test is the most simple and important step in understanding what your current soil health is and learning about how you can improve the health of your soil over time, depending on your land-use practices. Contact your County Extension Agent to learn more about collecting and submitting soil tests for analysis. A healthy soil has relatively high soil organic matter, cycles nutrients to make them available for crops, has high infiltration to utilize rainfall and irrigation water, provides a good environment for root growth and maintains a diverse belowground ecosystem of microbes, fungi, and invertebrates. Most agricultural soils in Georgia have low soil organic matter due to past farming practices. The hot, humid conditions here promote the decomposition of soil organic matter; consequently, farmers have to work to add and conserve soil organic matter. A target of 3% soil organic matter is good for many of our soils, though difficult to achieve in sandy soils. The USDA Web Soil Survey is a great resource to identify your soil type, which can be helpful in farm planning. For a brief description of Georgia soils in the building and maintenance phases is found here. (link to organic checklist for soils lab). An excellent primer on soil management is the Southern Agriculture Research and Education publication, Building Soils for Better Crops, 3rd Edition. How do you build soil organic matter?
- Minimize soil disturbance
- Use cover crops
- Use a complex crop rotation
- Use composts and animal manures
Biodiversity on the farm is one way to increase the resilience of the farming system to pests and possibly extreme weather events. Research has shown that crop rotation is a method to increase biodiversity by using crops from different families over a period of time. Crop rotation has also been shown to help build soil organic matter through different amounts of crop residues and different root structures. Many smaller organic vegetable farmers have complex crop rotations and don’t plant a crop from the same plant family on a plot for as many as eight years. Other farmers use three to four year rotations. Cover crops are also an important part of a crop rotation and can add biodiversity. A good crop rotation will help break pest and disease cycles and help manage nutrient availability in the soil. A good reference for how to develop a crop rotation for a vegetable farm is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) publication Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Guide. Remember, this was written for the Northeast and timing of crops will be very different here in Georgia.
Selecting the right variety for crops is an important key to success. A farmer must balance customer’s wants with varieties that perform best on their farm. Using hybrid varieties that have disease resistance can be an important tool for successful production. In addition to these considerations, organic farmers have other seed requirements:
- Must use certified organic seeds or seedlings when the variety is available as certified organic (as determined by checking with at least five known organic seed dealers)
- If the desired variety is not available, must use “raw” or untreated seed (i.e. cannot use unapproved fungicides or seed coatings)
- GMO seeds or seedlings are not allowed
There is increasing interest in variety production for particular areas. For additional information on organic seed, seed production, and variety trials, check out the eXtension resource page, as well as our Resources page to find helpful sources and publications on organic seeds and plant breeding.
Organic fertilizers are generally animal, plant or mined mineral based. There are a number of rules and restrictions on what organic fertilizers are allowed (see the NOP Handbook). The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is a good place to find fertilizers that are NOP compliant, but the ultimate decision rests with the organic certifier. Certified organic farmers list the fertilizers they plan to use in their organic systems plan. You should always check with your certifier BEFORE using a new fertilizer product. Here are several key points to be aware of:
- Cannot use synthetic fertilizers such as ammonium sulfate or 10-10-10
- Can use compost that has met the time/temperature requirement of the NOP
- Can use some mined products, such as limestone, rock phosphate, potassium/magnesium sulfate (check with certifier)
- Should use cover crops to help recycle nutrients and maintain availability
- Can use raw animal manure but harvest restrictions apply:
- 120 days after raw manure application for crops touching the soil, such as carrots
- 90 days after raw manure application for crops not touching the soil, such as kale
- Note - this may change with updates to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
Management of weeds, insect pests and plant diseases in organic production requires a systems approach to management. Using a systems approach means utilizing a variety of tools available to solve a problem rather than relying on one approach alone, such as a spray. This systems approach is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Used alone, approved organic pesticides are rarely as effective as the synthetic pesticides available for conventional farmers; however, an IPM approach enhances the effectiveness of organic pesticides and can even reduce their overall use. IPM is not a new strategy, as integrated strategies have been used for centuries without having a catchy name. IPM strategies include implementing a crop rotation, using resistant plants, and conserving beneficial predator insects and parasite species. In IPM, a grower will scout for problems frequently to identify the particular weed, insect or disease that is the problem, gain an understanding of its life cycle, then selecting specific ways to disrupt that life cycle. There are many approved biological and naturally-derived substances that can be used for particular problems, but you should always check with your certifier BEFORE using a new product. A great resource to learn more about IPM is the eXtension Introduction to Integrated Pest Management in Organic Farming Systems. Also, be mindful of some of the following key points in IPM:
- Cannot use synthetic pesticides
- Can use naturally-derived substances, such as kaolin, neem oil, soaps, vinegar or oil based herbicides
- Can use biological controls, such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), Trichoderma spp., predatory nematodes, ladybugs, and parasitic wasps
- Can use physical methods such as hand removal, exclusion devices, sticky traps, trap crops, vacuuming, colored mulches, flame-weeding and solarization
- Can use cultural methods, such as installing drip irrigation to minimize wet leaves and weed germination, manage crop spacing to provide good air circulation, maintain optimal soil nutrient levels, execute timely planting, sanitation of tools and machinery, and use of resistant plant varieties
Many times certified organic land is adjacent to conventional farms, roadways or even industrial land. Buffer zones are commonly required to prevent exposure of water-borne or airborne contaminants from other land uses. There is no standard width or height for these buffer zones, but 25 feet is common. The requirements are based on what the potential contaminant might be and how it might be carried onto the certified organic land. For example, to protect from herbicide spray drift from an adjacent farm, a multi-height vegetative buffer may be required with small evergreen trees or shrubs as well as grasses and forbs. These buffers can serve a dual purpose by also increasing biodiversity on the farm and provide both habitat and food for beneficial insects, pollinators and other wildlife. The potential risk of commingling of your organic product from the drift of nearby sources of contamination needs to be addressed in the producers OSP and will be reviewed by the organic certifier to make sure all efforts are being made to prevent those risks. The NOP Handbook provides information on the physical barriers you should address on your farm in their guidance on commingling and contamination prevention in organic production and handling.
Handling and Storage
In addition to farms, packing houses, processing facilities and storage facilities also have certification requirements. Irradiation as well as synthetic fungicides and pesticides are not allowed. The facility should prevent pest access, use traps, lights and other physical controls as well as approved lures and/or repellents. Certified organic crops cannot be co-mingled with conventional ones. Again, the NOP Handbook provides guidance on post-harvest handling, commingling and contamination prevention, and the handling of unpackaged organic products.
The rules for certified lilvestock production can be quite complex and there are several sections of the NOP Handbook that address rules and regulations for various aspects of certified livestock production; therefore, you should take time to review the NOP Handbook to find specific information related to your particular livestock operation. In general, there are restrictions on use of antibiotics and supplementary hormones. Animals need to be able to express natural behavior and biological functions. In many cases this means there are rules regarding access to the outdoors and/or pasture. Animals must have an organic diet.
If you are looking for additional information on organic management practices, please see our Resources page to find other publications and useful tools.