Organic Crop Production
Organic farming became one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture during the 1990s, and the demand for a wide range of organic products continues to grow. Some U.S. producers are turning to organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on synthetic chemicals, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.
The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the home to the National Organic Program (NOP), which developed, implemented, and administers national production, handling, and labeling standards for organic agricultural products. The USDA standard defines organic production as “a production system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and preserve biodiversity.” The national organic standards address the methods, practices, and substances used in producing and handling crops, livestock, and processed agricultural products. All agricultural products labeled or represented as organic must be in compliance with the regulations as of October 2002. Organic crops can be produced on land that has had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least 3 years. The regulations require that organic producers and handlers be certified by a state or private agency accredited under the uniform standards developed by the USDA, unless the farmers and handlers sell less than $5,000 per year in organic agricultural products. For further information, visit the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service/National Organic Program Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/nop or call 1-202-720-3252. This site includes a list of accredited certifying agents, consumer information, state information, and NOP regulations and policies, information for producers, handlers, and processors.
Organic farming systems rely on ecologically based practices, such as cultural and biological pest management, and virtually exclude the use of synthetic chemicals in crop production and prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock production. Genetically modified crops are not allowed. Under organic farming systems, the fundamental components and natural processes of ecosystems, such as soil organism activities, nutrient cycling, and species distribution and competition, are used directly and indirectly as farm management tools. For example, crops are rotated, planting and harvesting dates are carefully planned, and habitats that supply resources for beneficial organisms are provided. Soil fertility and crop nutrients are managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, cover crops, and supplemented with manure, composts, crop waste material, and allowed substances. Sewage sludge is not allowed. Lists of allowed substances are available from accredited certifiers; products are reviewed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), omri.org, phone: 541-343-7600.
Several sources of information on organic production are available. The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC) is one of several topic-oriented information centers at the National Agricultural Library (NAL). The AFSIC serves as a clearinghouse, specializing in locating and disseminating information related to alternative cropping systems including sustainable, organic, low-input, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture. AFSIC’s staff and resources can be accessed at www.nal.usda.gov/afsic or by calling 301-504-6559.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service is managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology and provides information and other technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, extension agents, educators, and others involved in sustainable agriculture in the United States. Their technical publications address current topics in sustainable and organic agriculture and can be accessed at attra.ncat.org, or by calling 1-800-346-9140.