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Organic Consumers Association

Starting an Organic Farm or Ranch

Getting started in organic farming/ranching requires a mind set and determination to do things differently than the conventional. Organic production is all about working with nature rather than trying to force our goals and expectations on the land. Building Soils for Better Crops, a Sustainable Agriculture Network (http://www.sare.org/) publication by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es, provides an easy-to-read description of soil functions and processes and is a great foundation.

The difference between conventional and organic production is all about how products are raised. Section 205.202 of the National Organic Program rule states that no prohibited substances can be applied to land for a period of three years preceding the harvest of the crop. So, document when the last prohibited substance was applied, add 36 months, and this is your first opportunity to sell organic products.

A prohibited substance is anything that is genetically changed (GMO), synthetic, or altered from its natural state. The three major prohibited farm inputs are pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and GMO seeds. If you intend to sell more than $5,000 of product to anyone but an end-user, you need to be certified by a USDA accredited certifying agency. This agency should be contacted before applying any substances, even during the transition phase.

Documentation is key to organic production. Develop a field history sheet that lists historical inputs and crops. Define field boundaries and buffer zones if adjacent to conventionally managed land. Identify contamination risks such as chemical drift and runoff threat to see if your field can produce an organic crop that meets the requirements. Field identification also enables the product or crop to be traced back to its origin.

The transition period is a time for the land to adjust to its natural production capabilities and cleanse itself of synthetic inputs. It is also a good time for the operator to develop a written Organic System Plan concerning all aspects of agricultural production. Components of the Organic System Plan include:

> Practices & Materials used on the farm to build soil quality, improve water quality, prevent contamination, and insure organic integrity.

> Recordkeeping to show traceability back to the field and accountability for all that enters and leaves the farm.

> Monitoring the data recorded to show progress and/or improvement.

There are several excellent web sites to help you through the transition phase:

> New Farm (http://www.newfarm.org/) has three helpful tools: 1) An online transition exercise that allows you to develop an organic systems plan; 2) A financial comparison of organic versus conventional production; 3) A comparison of organic certifying agencies.

> Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Services (http://www.mosesorganic.org/) provides free education materials and fact sheets to help during and after the transition phase.

> Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA), 800.346.9140 (http://attra.nact.org/) is a USDA-funded information site with a helpful staff dedicated to providing you with the information you ask for about sustainable farming and organic production.

Contact: Martin Kleinschmit, martink@cfra.org or 402.254.6893 for more. Martin is also an organic farmer raising grass-fed beef.

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