The decision to transition a conventional operation to organic is deeply personal. Organic certification requires resources, like time and money, and perseverance in the face of the challenges that you will inevitably encounter along the way.
Is transitioning to organic the right step for your operation? Asking yourself the questions below will help guide you decide.
Do you want to help create a healthier, more sustainable environment?
Organic agriculture is all about creating a healthy, sustainable environment. It doesn’t matter if you are a crop producer, a dairy farmer, or a packaging facility. The goal of all organic operations, at their core, is to create conditions that foster and preserve a healthy environment.
But why are organic operations often more environmentally friendly than conventional operations? A big reason is the inputs used by conventional and organic operators.
Organic operations abstain from the use of inputs that might harm the environment. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances provides a comprehensive guide to what substances organic operations can and cannot use. Under current regulations organic farmers must abstain from the use of:
- (most) Synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers
- Genetically modified seeds and other GMOs
- Antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones (for livestock/poultry)
- Sewage sludge
Abstaining from the use of these prohibited substances leads to products that are free of synthetics and also leads to healthier soil on organic farms. Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farming because the goal of organic agriculture is to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. Doing this leads to soil that better:
- Regulates water
- Resists erosion
- Sequesters carbon
- Encourages biological diversity
- Cycles nutrients
Organic operators also work hard to ensure that the mechanical practices used do not cause unnecessary harm or strain to the environment. They avoid over-tilling fields to conserve biological diversity, and they keep soil covered throughout the year through the strategic use of cover crops and crop rotation.
Would you like to maximize your earning potential?
Thanks to the Internet, it is easier than ever for consumers to learn where their food comes from and what is in it. Knowledgeable consumers increasingly seek out organic foods and products. Some consumers want food that is ethically and sustainably produced. Some want foods that are free of GMOs. Still others seek out organic products due to health concerns or dietary restrictions.
The varied reasons for purchasing organic products means that the organic market continues to grow both in size and in value. Since 2006, the organic market has tripled in value. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, organic products accounted for 6% of all food sales in the US.
Because of skyrocketing demand, organic products command premium prices. This, paired with production costs that might be lower due to the use of fewer synthetic inputs, means organic operators can see a significant increase in profits after the transition period.
Do you have the resources to transition to organic?
Transitioning from a conventional operation to an organic operation requires time, money, and fortitude. Lacking one of these essential resources could easily up-end your transition to organic. Before beginning your transition, it’s important to take stock of the resources at your disposal.
The first essential resource is time.
Transitioning to organic can be time consuming, even under the best circumstances. If you operate a conventional farm, you are required to undergo a 36-month/3-year transition period to ensure your land is free of prohibited substances. For this reason, farmers close to retirement might elect to continue operating conventionally.
Operators must also invest time in learning about the organic certification process and how to effectively manage an organic operation. For many, successfully transitioning to organic is only possible through extensive reading, mentorship, professional conferences, etc.
If you do not have the time to invest in the transition period or in continuing education, now might not be the right time to transition your operation to organic.
The second essential resource is money.
Certification costs can accrue quickly. While many operators in the US are eligible for cost-share programs that could cover as much as 75% of their certification costs, operations outside the US often lack access to these cost-share programs.
Additionally, many operators find their operations are less productive during the transition period. This is particularly true for farmers, whose fields must find a new ecological equilibrium. Because they cannot yet label their products as organic, transitioning operators are unable to command premium prices for their products at a time when they are often producing less. For some, this creates a financial strain.
Prior to transitioning, take stock of your financial situation to ensure you have the monetary resources to complete the transition process.
The third (and possibly most important) resource is fortitude.
You will face challenges as you transition your conventional operation to organic. How you respond to those challenges will determine if you will be able to successfully transition your operation.
Before beginning your organic transition, you should:
- Be willing to ask for help. Seek out mentorship opportunities from local organic operators, your chosen certification agency, or a non-profit organization. The Transition to Organic Partnership Program provides mentorship to transitioning operators in the United States.
- Have an open mind. Transitioning to organic will require you to adopt new practices. You might find that what works for some people doesn’t work for you. That’s okay! Be open to different possibilities and opportunity, always remembering that every operation is unique and requires unique solutions to unique problems.
- Embrace learning opportunities. The transition to organic has a steep learning curve. Before you begin your transition, seek out as much information as you can from as many sources as you can. Remember that you might need to consult multiple sources in order to find the answer to a single question.
Learn more about organic agriculture and the organic certification process.
- Organic Certification Process: All operators seeking initial organic certification must complete a similar six step process regardless of which certification agency they partner with. The certification process can feel intimidating at first, but knowing what to expect can help alleviate much of the stress you might initially feel.
- Organic System Plan: Everyone seeking organic certification–whether applying for the first time or the seventeenth time–must submit an updated Organic System Plan (OSP). But what is an OSP? And more importantly, how will it help you?
- Healthy Soil: Cultivating healthy soil requires establishing ecological balance and increasing biological diversity. But how can you establish healthy soil on your farm?
Every operator’s path to organic certification is different. Learn more about about the different paths to organic certification in our “Operator Spotlight” series.
- Bessette Creek Farm: Through traditional organic farming methods like the use of cover crops and crop rotation, Bessette Creek Farm improved the quality of their soil, reduced their water usage, and now better retains moisture in their soil even during the driest months of the year.
- Ryan Albinger and Parallel Production: He initially transitioned his entire operation to organic. However, as Ryan Albinger’s farm grew, he decided to use parallel organic and conventional production methods. Albinger argues such an approach offers economic and social benefits.
- Jack Geiger: The farm crisis of the 1980s forced Jack Geiger’s family to consider farming methods that required fewer and less expensive inputs. They naturally turned to organics.
- Variety Coffee: Variety Coffee has a simple mission: provide customers with the freshest, highest quality coffee possible. The Brooklyn based coffee roster and chain of cafes does this by sourcing coffee beans from around the world, focusing on acquiring beans that reflect growing seasons of different coffee producing regions.