Transition to organic

Rodale Institute has been synonymous with organic farming for decades. We’ve watched organic grow from a fringe movement to a multi-billion-dollar industry. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with participation from the organic community, adopted federal uniform National Organic Program (NOP) Standards for organic production in 2002.

There are several considerations in the argument for transitioning to organic agriculture. From an environmental standpoint, organic agriculture builds life in the soil while avoiding the use of toxic chemicals that can accumulate in soil, water, food and people. Non-organic farming relies on dwindling fossil fuel resources, while organic farmers build their own fertility into their systems, which improve over time and do not rely on outside inputs.

From an economic point of view, organic farming has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of agriculture for more than two decades—by 20 to 24 percent annually since 1990—and allows farmers to reap up to three times the profit margins of non-organically raised meat and produce.

According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and farmer interviews, obstacles to adoption by farmers include high managerial costs and risks of shifting to a new way of farming, limited awareness of organic farming systems, lack of marketing and infrastructure and inability to capture marketing economies and the fear of additional paperwork. By breaking the process into manageable steps, the transition from non-organic to organic management can be both profitable and rewarding.

Organic agriculture considers the farm as a complete, fully integrated and dynamic ecosystem—which includes you—with the ultimate goal being to minimize or eliminate costly outside inputs. While some fertilizers—and even some naturally occurring pesticides and herbicides—may be allowable in some instances in organic production, it’s much cheaper to build fertility as well as pest and disease resistance into the system.

•    Build fertility by adding organic matter such as compost, crop residues and animal manures to your soil and by augmenting your cash crops with cover crops that improve the biological, chemical and physical makeup of your soil.
•    Manage pests and diseases by increasing the diversity of species on your farm.
•    Focus on renewable resources, soil and water conservation, and management practices that maintain and enhance ecological balance and improve soil quality.
•    Increase biodiversity both in the farm system itself and in the surrounding environment.
•    Use cover crops and green manures in a crop rotation scheme that recycles nutrients, builds soil quality and disrupts pest cycles.
•    Minimal use of external, off-farm inputs coupled with the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as well as growth hormones and antibiotics for livestock.

Organic farming is not simply the substitution of approved input materials. It is the replacement of a treatment approach with a process approach to create a balanced system of plant and animal interactions.

Conversion to an organic production system from a conventional system requires a three-year transition period before crops are considered organically certified. During the transition period, growers may experience reduced yields followed by a return to yields near or equal to conventional production. This “transition effect” has been attributed to time required for necessary changes in chemical, physical and biological properties of soil, which may take more than one year. These changes enhance nutrient cycling, enrich soil life and restore soil organic matter and water holding capacity. Pest and disease pressure can also spike during the early part of the transition.

Pests and Diseases

In general, improving soil quality and encouraging beneficial organisms will help reduce pest populations and prevent disease. Crop rotation, cultivation, cover crops, mulches, diversification of crops, resistant varieties and insect traps are among the recommendations during the transition period to bring pest and disease populations down to economically manageable levels, and to enrich soil life and increase crop yields prior to certification.


One of the big mental shifts required for making the transition to organic production is how you think about weeds on your farm. While organic farmers surveyed consistently list weeds as one of their biggest challenges, we know from our research that crop plants will tolerate some level of weed pressure before yields are adversely affected.

Weeds can even have some beneficial qualities: They add organic matter to the soil when they are turned under, they keep the ground covered and they contribute to the richness of the root zone where an abundance of beneficial microbial activity takes place. Too many weeds, of course, can choke your crop plants by robbing them of water, nutrients, sunlight and space. It’s still important to manage weeds before they go to seed.


In 1990, in response to widespread demand from the organic sector, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, charging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with creating a federal system for organic certification. After prolonged debate, the National Organic Program Standards were finally implemented in 2002. Once the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) went into effect, all products labeled as “organic” were required to carry the USDA Certified Organic label. Farmers who generate less than $5,000 in sales annually are exempt from certification but still must follow the NOP standards in order to market their products as organic.

The NOP standards require organic producers to:

• Manage soil fertility through the use of rotations, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials or low-solubility natural minerals. These practices must either maintain or improve soil organic matter content, manage deficient and excess plant nutrients, and control erosion.
• Use preventive practices to manage crop pests, weeds and disease.
• Provide livestock with access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight as is appropriate for the type of animal and the local climate.
• Feed livestock 100% organically grown feed and provide ruminant livestock access to open pasture.

A period of three years is required for the transition from conventional to organic production, during which time products may be marketed as transitional or conventional but not as certified organic. This time is calculated from the date of application of the last prohibited material or practice to the date of harvest of the first organic crop. Land where no prohibited materials have been used for three or more years can be put directly into certified organic production.


The centerpiece of your application for certification is your Organic System Plan. This might include an Organic Livestock Plan (for livestock producers) and an Organic Handling Plan (for on-farm or off-farm handling, processing or retailing). Your Organic System Plan should include details about the crop rotation you intend to follow (including cover crops). It should include a conservation plan detailing how you plan to improve your soil and manage runoff and erosion, and it must address how you’ll control pests, diseases and weeds organically.

The audit trail involves meticulous recordkeeping and documentation to show that you are following your plan, monitoring your results and not using any prohibited substances. Once these systems are in place, an inspector employed by your certifier will schedule a farm visit, which usually lasts about three to five hours. Following the visit, the inspector submits a report to the certifying agency, where a committee will review your application.

Once you are certified, you are still required to maintain a system plan, keep good records and have your soil tested regularly. Water used for irrigation, washing, or livestock is also subject to testing for contaminants. You can expect a visit from an inspector at least once a year.

Finding a Certifier

Many of the agencies that offered certification prior to implementation of the National Organic Program Standards—such as California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Oregon Tilth—are now sanctioned by the National Organic Program to continue in this role. Since 2002, all certifiers have been governed by uniform standards adopted by the USDA.

Regions of operation and areas of expertise vary widely among certifiers, as do fee schedules—some charge by farm size, others by the number of farm visits, and others as a percentage of gross sales—so it’s prudent to do your homework before choosing a certifier.

The Farm Bill provides funding to Pennsylvania for an organic “cost share” program which provides up to $750 per scope per farm. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture administers this program. For more information, please visit or contact Kyle Heffner at 717-836-3973 or

To Certify or Not To Certify

Growers who sell most of their crops directly to the end consumer—via a farm stand, farmers market or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)—may consider organic certification unnecessary because their customers know them and trust their farming practices. Keep in mind, however, that if you intend to label your product as organic or sell any of your product through a third party—such as a grocery retailer—certification is imperative to ensure customer confidence (and a grocer can’t label your product as “organic” unless it is certified).

One of the strongest arguments for uniform federal organic standards was that consumers would be able to rest assured that “organic” meant something specific. A federal standard also makes organic interstate commerce a lot less of a headache.

Our Organic Transition Course digs deeper into growing, marketing and certifying {LEARN MORE}


Jeff Moyer
Farm Director
Phone: 610-683-1420

Dr. Gladis Zinati
Interim Research Director
Phone: 610-683-1402

Darlene Livingston
Executive Director
Pennsylvania Farm Link, Inc.

Jared Grissinger
Division Chief for Economic Development
PA Department of Agriculture
Phone: 717-705-9513

This material is based upon work supported by Pennsylvania Farm Link and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of Pennsylvania Farm Link or the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

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