Organic Crop Production Practices: Management Techniques for Organic Farming provides an in-depth review of the practices used in growing organic crops. This book represents a current look at what we know about organic farming practices and systems, primarily from the United States perspective. The discussion begins with history and certification, ecological knowledge as the foundation for sustaining food systems, and biodiversity. The next chapters address approved amendments, crop rotation, cover cropping, intercropping, pest management, biorational and organic pesticides, seeds and planting stock, preventing contamination of organic crops, post-harvest handling and labeling and organic greenhouse production. Finally, a series of appendices provide numerous data relevant to growing organic crops. The information in this easy-to-use guide is distilled from a variety of sources, including scientific literature, extension publications, and grower experience and has the added value of numerous citations to more in-depth discussion on many topics. The book is thoughtfully organized presenting a seamless flow of topics within chapters making it easy to find specific information that interests the reader. No one concerned with the growing organic crops can afford to be without this book.
Organic agriculture is a system for crops that emphasizes environmental protection and the use of natural farming techniques. It is concerned not only with the end-product, but with the entire system used to produce and deliver the agricultural product. To this end, the entire farm cycle, from production and processing, to handling and delivery, excludes the use of artificial products such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and certain external agricultural inputs such as pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Organic farmers rely instead on natural farming methods and modern scientific ecological knowledge in order to maximize the long-term health and productivity of the ecosystem, enhance the quality of the products, and protect the environment. Proponents of organic methods believe that it is a more sustainable and less damaging approach to the enrinoment.
Organic certification verifies that your farm or handling facility located anywhere in the world complies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations and allows you to sell, label, and represent your products as organic. These regulations describe the specific standards required for you to use the word “organic” or the USDA organic seal on food, feed, or fiber products. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) administers these regulations, and validated by an accredited certifying agency. These agencies include private for profit and non-profit agencies, as well as public state-run certifying agencies. The standards are dynamic, and minor revisions are ongoing through a transparent process involving public notification, public comment, and federal rulemaking. All producers, handlers and processors who are certified are required to be compliant with the specific sections of the Final Rule that apply to their operation. Certified organic crop production is more than a list of acceptable and prohibited inputs or practices that can and can not be used; rather, it is a holistic approach to sustainable and healthy food production that enhances the well-being of the consumer and protects natural resources.
Substances that are used to produce and handle organic crops under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) must be selected for compliance and used in the context of organic principles for farming and handling practices. Whether a substance is allowed or not depends on the context. Some types of materials are integral to maintaining an organic system. Others may be used only when cultural, biological, mechanical, or physical methods are insufficient. In fact, the NOP requires that management practices must be implemented, and found to be insufficient, prior to the use of any input including soil-building crop rotations; sanitation measures to remove disease vectors, weed seeds, and pest habitat; selection of site-suitable and resistant plant species and varieties; release of pest predators and parasites; development of habitat for pest predators; lures, traps and repellants; mulching, mowing, grazing, mechanical, flame, and/or hand weeding; and cultural practices to prevent weed, pest and disease problems. Certified organic producers and handlers must use only materials that are approved for use according to the standards to which they will be certified. Prior to using any material, certified operations must include in their Organic System Plan (OSP) a list of all materials they use or plan to use, which is approved by their organic certifier.
Soil quality or health is generally seen as the foundation of successful organic crop production systems. Sustaining and improving soil quality over the long term are frequently identified by organic farmers as their primary management goals. Soil is a critical resource—the way in which it is managed can improve or degrade the quality of that resource. Soil is a complex ecosystem where living microorganisms and plant roots bind mineral particles and organic matter together into a dynamic structure that regulates water, air, and nutrients. In an agricultural context, soil health most often refers to the ability of the soil to sustain agricultural productivity and protect environmental resources. A healthy soil provides many functions that support plant growth, including nutrient cycling, protect the soil from erosion, biological control of plant pests, and enhances water field capacity and drainage. These functions are influenced by the interrelated physical, chemical, and biological properties of soil, many of which are sensitive to soil management practices. By understanding how the soil processes that support plant growth and regulate environmental quality are affected by management practices, it is possible to design a crop and soil management system that improves and maintains soil health over time. Nutrient inputs to organic production systems are focused on carbon-based nutrient sources (e.g., crop residue, compost, manure) and non-processed mineral sources (e.g., rock phosphate, lime, gypsum). As such, nutrient management in organic production systems is fundamentally different from that in conventional systems
Organic farmers share many of the same goals for building soil organic matter, fertility, and the capacity for supporting soil biological activity and productivity as conventional farmers. In organic farming this is achieved through integrated systems such as crop rotations, cover crops, and the incorporation or mixing of crop residues and organic amendments (e.g., manure, compost) as needed. The dilemma for organic farmers is that these approaches for increasing soil organic matter also require tillage. Specifically, tillage is required 1) to eliminate perennial legumes or winter annual cover crops before planting annual crops, 2) to incorporate manure or compost to avoid nitrogen runoff and volatilization losses, 3) to facilitate more rapid mineralization and release of nutrients to the crop, and 4) to prepare a seedbed and control weeds. Since an increase in tillage intensity and frequency has been shown to lead to soil erosion and decrease soil organic matter, careful timing and equipment selection can limit these effects. Organic farmers should recognize the wide array of state-of-the-art tillage and planting equipment. Farmers utilizing modern equipment have become proficient at very complex and integrated organic cropping systems. For example, a number of modern tillage implements have been designed to manage residue and cover crops, helping to reduce soil vulnerability to erosion and organic matter losses. Organic farmers must fully understand the impact of tillage practices on soil quality. A tillage system goal of sustainability relies upon regular soil quality evaluation, especially focusing on soil structure, tilth, organic matter, soil fauna, nutrient cycling, and microbial activity.
Cover crops are an integral part of organic production systems and one of the major tools that organic farmers. The purposes for cover cropping in organic systems do not differ from those in conventionally managed systems. However, the role of cover crops to support soil function takes on greater importance in organic systems because the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides are generally not allowed. Cover crops may be used as green manures to increase soil organic matter and nitrogen availability, as catch crops to reduce leaching by holding nutrients in the soil rootzone, insectary mixes, mulches for providing soil cover to control weeds and reduce erosion, and as forage crops when used for grazing. Because of the important role of cover crops in providing these services, the use of cover crops in organic farming systems is mandated in the Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrient Management (§205.203) and Crop Rotation (§205.205) practice standards of the National Organic Program. Cover crops are oftern referred to as “green manures,” “catch crops,” or “living mulches.”
Crop rotation is a valuable management tool for organic farmers, which involves the cultivation of different crops in temporal succession on the same land chiefly to preserve the productive capacity of the soil. Usually the succeeding crop will be of a different variety and species than the previous crops. Crop rotations can be as simple as rotating between two crops and planting sequences in alternate years or they can be more complex and involve numerous crops over several years. Crop rotations can break host cycles for pests and diseases. Alternation of crops with different seasonal patterns and growth habits can also help to suppress weeds. Properly managed rotations can also increase microbiological diversity and activity; raise organic matter content; conserve soil; and enhance soil structure. Even simple rotations over a short time period significantly improved soil quality in controlled experiments. Rotations often include a “rest” period for individual fields, where grass or a “green manure” such as clover is planted for a season or more, before being grazed or ploughed into the soil to add fertility.
Intercropping is defined as the growth of more than one crops simultaneously in the same field during a growing season. The crops may be seeded at the same time (mixed intercropping) or they may be seeded at different times (relay intercropping). Strip intercropping is a production system where different crops are grown in wide strips (usually the width of a seeder) in the same field. Row intercropping is the cultivation of two or more crops simultaneously on the same field with a row arrangement. Intercrops can be combinations of two or more species, including both annuals and perennials or a mixture. Intercropping is regarded as an important agricultural practice to improve crop production and environmental quality in the regions with intensive agricultural production.
Livestock manure is a valuable resource for organic and sustainable soil management. Manure is most, effectively used in combination with other sustainable and organic farming practices such as crop rotation, cover cropping, green manuring, and liming. In organic crop production, manure is commonly applied to the field as raw manure (fresh or dried). Manure is great for enhancing the physical condition of soil while building soil organic matter that serves as a slow-release reservoir of plant nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients. The timing of manure application is very important to ensure that the manure benefits the plants and soil. Manure, if applied and managed correctly, can be a great means of enhancing soil and crop quality, but there are some important aspects of soil health and food safety to consider when using it in an organic farm system. The National Organic Program (NOP) Rule requires that manure, either be composted or that the operator observes a minimum interval between the application of manure and harvest of crops for human consumption. The NOP Rule provides a strong incentive to use composted manure and places stringent restrictions on un-composted manure.
Composting is the decomposition of organic matter through a controlled microbiological process. Composting transforms raw organic materials (e.g., plant or animal materials) into a biologically stable, humic substance that makes excellent soil amendments. The use of compost has long been considered a defining feature of organic farming systems in building long-term soil fertility, soil structure, and soil biology by feeding the soil with a variety of natural amendments. While fewer nutrients are immediately available for crop growth, compost’s real agronomic value lies in the gradual release of nutrients that are slowly, converted from stable organic compounds into available nutrients. In addition to adding nutrients to the soil, compost can improve long-term soil health. Organic farmers are strongly encouraged to use compost because it reduces human, plant, and animal pathogens; destroys weed seeds; decomposes organic matter; and makes nutrients more available to plants.
Insect pest management presents a challenge to organic farmers. Insects are highly mobile and well adapted to farm production systems and insect pest control tactics. No single tactic, employed alone, is likely to give satisfactory control of chronic insect pests. Certified organic farmers can use a wide range of practices to create an integrated pest management approach that complies with the standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). According to the National Organic Standards, insect pest problems may be controlled through cultural, mechanical, or physical methods; augmentation or introduction of predators or parasites of the insect pest species; development of habitat for natural enemies of insect pests; and non-synthetic controls, such as lures, traps, and repellents. When these practices are insufficient to prevent or control insect crop pests, a biological, botanical, or chemical material or substance included on the National List of non-synthetic and synthetic substances is allowed for use in organic crop production to prevent, suppress, or control insect pests. The conditions for using these materials must be documented in the organic system plan.
All species of plants, wild and cultivated a like, are susceptible to disease. The occurrence and prevalence of plant diseases vary from season to season, depending on the presence of the pathogen, environmental conditions, and the crops and varieties grown. Some plant varieties are particularly subject to outbreaks of diseases; others are more resistant to them. Plant diseases create challenging problems in commercial agriculture and pose real economic threats to organic farming systems. Plant pathogens are constantly changing and mutating, resulting in new strains and new challenges to growers. Also, given the local, regional, and international movement of seed, plant material, and farming equipment, new and introduced pathogens periodically enter the organic farming system to cause new disease problems. Disease management is complicated by the presence of multiple types of pathogens. For any one crop the grower must deal with a variety of fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes. If a plant pathogen is present, the severity of the disease it causes will be determined by the level of infestation, by environmental conditions, and the susceptibility of the crop. Organic farmers rely primarily on preventive, cultural, and integrated methods of disease management and to some extent biological and chemical control measures too. It is unlikely that all diseases can be avoided by utilizing any one of these management strategies alone. However, the damage of many plant diseases can be greatly reduced by the integration of these practices.
Weed management continues to be one of the biggest challenges for organic field crop producers. Weeds can be considered a significant problem because they tend to decrease crop yields by increasing competition for water, sunlight, and nutrients while serving as host plants for pests and diseases. Farmers who wish to become organically certified are restricted from using synthetic herbicides for weed control under the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 and the National Organic Program (NOP), Section 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Part 205, also known as the NOP Final Rule. They meet this challenge by selecting from a wide range of acceptable techniques and strategies, all with the goal of achieving economically acceptable weed control and crop yields. The primary weed control strategies for organic systems are cultural and mechanical, focusing on prevention, crop rotation, crop competition, and cultivation. Organic weed management is a holistic system involving an entirely different approach to managing a farming system. The organic farmer is not interested in eliminating all weeds but wants to keep the weeds at a threshold that is both economical and manageable. A farmer who manages weeds organically must be intimately familiar with the type of weeds and their growth habits to determine which control methods to employ.