Success of Organic Transition Sits on a 3-Legged Stool

By Bryce Irlbeck, B&B Irlbeck Farms

Becoming an organic producer does not happen overnight. Obtaining organic certification requires a 36-month period where a field has not had any prohibited substance or genetically modified crops on it. These 3 years known as the transition process can either set your organic operation up for success or struggles.

To help ensure success, we recommend growers think of transitioning as a 3-legged stool. While each leg — economics, agronomics, and management — are all key factors, if they’re not in balance with each other, the stool will collapse.

Transition Balance

Start with Economics

We focus on the economic leg of the stool first because it’s the foundation to long-term success. You need to understand how you’re positioned with your cash-flow and what your bank is willing support.

For example, alfalfa is a great crop to have in that 3-year transition period, but it is an investment. You may lose $150 to $200 on it in the first year and recoup year one losses in the second year to breakeven., but by the third year you’ll have added $100 of nitrogen to the soil and reduced the weed seed bank — a huge benefit to first year certified-organic corn.

While in the long run this will pay dividends in your organic operation, you have to be able to withstand that potential loss in the first year, which not all farmers can afford.

You’ll also have to consider your equipment capacity and whether you can or need to invest in equipment to effectively grow your planned transition and organic farm.

Understanding your risks and your crop insurance levels for corn and soybeans are also important factors for the economics of transitioning. If, for example, you grow wheat during transition, which is another attractive rotation crop, you’ll need to know the risks you may have with delivering to certain markets.

Balance with Agronomics & Management

Once you understand the economics of transitioning and what you can afford to do, you need to focus on balancing the agronomics and management aspects of the transition.

When balancing these remaining two legs, there are two goals you want to achieve:

  1. Building agronomic benefits for your first organic year
  2. Gaining familiarity with organic practices for the crops you will be growing

Building agronomic benefits in your fields includes controlling weeds, correcting soil nutrient imbalances, and doing what you can to prevent any future disasters, such as disease, to your organic crops.

With weeds, the status quo does not exist in organic production — you’re either moving forward or going backwards in controlling weeds and reducing their seedbank. In the beginning of managing organic (and transition) crops, you’re not going to be perfect at it, so you want to pick the right tools and practices that you can manage.

Weed management plays a critical role in selecting your transition crops as some crops (such as alfalfa) allow for better weed control versus others. For example, weed management with soybeans can be extremely challenging in transition or organic systems.

You also need to focus on getting your soil health in balance. This includes getting your soil’s nutrients to the right levels, which in turn can help prevent other agronomic issues. For example, soils low in calcium are typically harder and have more grass weeds because they like hard, compacted soils. By getting the soil in balance with the correct nutrients and rotation, you’re less likely to have poor crops and issues with weeds.

This leads into the second goal: being familiar with the crops you’re growing and understanding the agronomics and management of them. While alfalfa is a great crop agronomically for transitioning, many farmers can’t manage it because they don’t have the equipment and labor. Other crops to consider for transition include wheat, barley, field peas, and corn. In fact, getting a bit of experience with corn during transition may help you for your first organic year.

Both transition goals are critical because corn is likely going to be your most valuable crop and grown during your first organic year. A successful transition program will set the stage for the rest of your organic production. If you can be successful with organic corn, you’ll be profitable — being able to pay off any debts from your transition and be ready to continue moving forward. If you have a poor corn crop in the third year because you let weeds get out of control or you depleted the soil of nitrogen during transition, then you’re setting yourself up for a tough road ahead.

How Much Can You Manage?

One of the main challenges with transitioning is figuring out the management leg. It can be difficult to determine what you can and can’t manage getting into organics because things can get out of control a lot quicker than they do in conventional farming.

If you’re thinking about transitioning to organic and you’re trying to figure out how much you can manage, while balancing the economics and agronomics of organic production, AgriSecure can help. We’ll work with you to determine how many acres you can handle, what rotation to have in place, and walk you through the process of becoming organically certified. Contact us to set yourself up for a successful transition today.

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