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Farming Without Chemicals in Ohio
A Case Study Report

Author: Keith Dix
Innovative Farmers of Ohio
in cooperation with the Citizens Policy Center

4. How do I make the transition to organic?

Organic standards, as defined by the Organic Crop Improvement Association, require three years of crop production without the use of any prohibited materials. This means that if crops were farmed conventionally in 1999, crops coming off of the same field could be certified and sold as organic in the fall of 2002. That is, assuming all other conditions for certification have been met. (For further information concerning certification see contacts listed in Appendix B.) The seven organic farmers interviewed were asked "What advice would you give to a farmer who wants to make the transition to organic farming?" There were production problems mentioned, but one of the major obstacles to farming differently is the need to change conventional ways of thinking about farming. It is also necessary to develop a "thick skin" against the inevitable skepticism and criticism of friends and neighbors. Steve B. said that the best thing to do was "stop going to the coffee shop and stop listening to what I call the coffee shop mentality. You've got to do your own thinking." Nelson W. echoed the thought when he said that you've "just got to quit looking at your neighbors. Keep your mind at home."

Ron G. He thinks that the transition requires good management: "The kind of people who are successful conventionally could probably be successful organically. If they gave it enough time and pursued it with the same intent as they did chemical farming. It takes good management and patience."

Dean M. Dean is frequently asked how one goes about getting into organic production and his advice is well thought out. Each farmer would have to look at their individual soils and determine what their yield-limiting factors are. Are there fields that have been seriously compacted? Are there fields that are really low in fertility or low in lime or are there particular weed problems that might indicate those problem areas? Soil testing would be good and you have to address each of these problems, either together or individually. It might require doing some unconventional things to start with, maybe to change our tillage, maybe get some deep ripping in or to change the crops that have been planted before. Corn and bean farmers should go to planting a whole field in hay or small grains to mix up the pests that have been in there. They would want to look at how they can build up their organic matter, if that's a problem. A lot of times people have asked me what to do and depending on the time of year, I most generally recommend that they get something growing out there, in the fall plant the whole thing to rye, in the spring put out oats. Most fields have been worn out from a corn and bean rotation. If they can, I tell them to dose with manure and rip it deep and plant the whole thing to a hay crop for two or three years. And then launch an organic rotation.

If a farmer is in that situation, it is best to just take a portion of his farm, maybe a quarter of it and begin a rotation from whatever point that will enhance soil life and organic matter and loosen the soil up. That way, over four years you could have the whole farm converted. A major concern to farmers considering making the transition to organic is the potential reduction in yields that might follow the withdrawal of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The question was put to the seven Ohio farmers and some admitted that, yes, their yields were lower during the transition years.

Steve B., who farms 1,050 acres organically, said that their yields of corn were so low during transition that they decided to drop that crop from their rotation. "We made the decision to go to a two year rotation and drop the corn." He said that both wheat and soybean yields were down somewhat during the transition period, but part of this was due to the weather and not the new system. Once his organic cropping system was established, his yields have been equal to or above county averages. For the period 1995-1999, he has averaged 40 bushels per acre of wheat and 39 bushels per acre of soybeans. Transitioning can be a failure, especially if it's undertaken without careful planning and forethought. Jeff D.'s story of his first year of "cold-turkey" withdrawal from chemical farming is instructive in this respect:

The first year I had no idea what I was doing. I just quit using chemicals in my corn-bean rotation. I didn't even own a grain drill to plant wheat or clover or anything. I went from one extreme to the other, completely cold turkey. On some of my ground I planted corn right after my beans, 28,000 population. Luckily it was a bad year for everybody so it didn't show up so bad, but it was disastrous. The corn was short, no ears on it, real yellow, just sickeningly yellow. It was pretty disgusting.

Jeff related that he went out into this disastrous corn field to find, to his surprise, a few small areas "say 10 by 10, where the corn would be real tall with nice big ears, for no apparent reason." This led him to think that "if I could do it here on this little spot, and there were little spots around the field, then I can do it on the whole field some day, somehow. It gave me hope that it was possible." In subsequent years, Jeff turned this early failure and the lessons he learned from it, into a very successful organic system on his whole farm.

Disasters do not necessarily happen, nor do yields necessarily decline during the transition years. Dean Mc. said that he had "pretty good success" when he went through the transition. "In those first couple of years, just doing something different just made the crops jump, so I wouldn't guarantee a failure because you change your techniques." He admitted that it's "a fear that many have, however, and, depending on how messed up or out of balance the soil might be, it might be a very real fear." That's why he recommends taking just a quarter of the farm the first year and working with that.

Byron K. said, "I think farmers are economically scared to make the transition," the operative word being "economic." He explained that he made the transition "by sowing alfalfa and leaving it for three years with no chemicals or commercial fertilizers. Sale of the (hay) crop to a neighboring dairy farmer more than paid for the cost of planting the crop in the first year. The fields were then ready for certification." It is worth remembering that the premium prices currently being paid for certified organic grains and soybeans will more than compensate any loss to the "bottom line" from yield reductions. Even during the transition period some farmers have found markets for "chemical free" soybeans that offer a price higher than conventionally grown beans.