Certified organic farmers do an odd thing –
they pay people to visit their farms with a critical
eye to assure they are adhering to every aspect
of the USDA’s national organic standard.
The farmers should already be trying to produce,
harvest and market their organic crops, livestock
and related products by these rules. The on-farm
review of fields, facilities and records by an
approved inspector sent by the farmer’s
accredited organic certifier is the critical point
in confirming that the farmer and the farm meet
the organic standards – and can prove it
to anyone who needs to know.
The visits are pivotal for applying farmers to
become certified, and for certified farmers to
keep that certification. For the good of organics,
we want to help build the foundation for effective
inspection visits. We’ve asked Jim Riddle
to provide an inspector’s inside view to
help farmers understand an inspector’s role,
responsibilities and limitations.
In the months ahead, Riddle will elaborate on
many items to help farmers understand regulations
that apply to them, and how to document their
Jim Riddle has been on hundreds of farms in the
inspector role, and he’s been inspected
himself during his time as a farmer. His leadership
in bringing professional training to inspectors
helped to earn greater acceptance of organic farming
in the U.S. He serves as vice-chair of the National
Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA
on organic agriculture policies and regulations.
He has been an organic farmer, gardener, inspector,
educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer.
Jim Riddle serves as vice-chair of the USDA’s
National Organic Standards Board and organic policy
advisor for NewFarm.org. He was the founding chair
of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association
7, 2005: What is an adequate crop rotation? Prior
to inspection, I compare the stated crop rotation in the applicant’s
Organic Farm Plan with the field history records. This gives
me an indication if the farmer is following the crop rotation
plan. But while this is a first step, it is not enough to
simply change around the crops you plant; the crop rotation
must also accomplish several key goals.
According to the National Organic Program (NOP) §205.205,
the producer “must implement a crop rotation including,
but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and
cash crops” that “maintain or improve soil organic
matter content, provide pest management, manage deficient or
excess plant nutrients, and, provide erosion control.”
That’s a pretty tall order!
Organic Program defines crop rotation as “the
practice of alternating the annual crops grown on
a specific field in a planned pattern or sequence
so that crops of the same species or family are
not grown repeatedly without interruption on the
To evaluate whether a crop rotation complies with NOP requirements
I ask the following questions: Are there fields where the
same crops are being planted two or three years in a row?
Are soil building crops being planted? Is a legume used as
a plow-down or rye as a winter cover crop? How many years
does the crop rotation continue before the cycle is repeated?
Are there any pest problems? How is the farm’s weed
control? These answers help me determine how well the rotation
There is no one universal crop rotation system for all organic
farmers. Your specific rotation will depend on what crops
you want to grow and can market, your type of tillage, planting,
cultivation and harvest equipment, climate and the lay of
Due to variations in soil type, topography and micro-climate,
you may not even use the same crop rotation on all your fields.
You may find that including feed and forage crops, either
for your own livestock or for sale, greatly expands your crop
While plans will vary from farm to farm there some basic
considerations all growers should take before they head to
the fields. Here’s a checklist to help you design your
crop rotation plan:
||Alternate deep-rooted (alfalfa, sweet clover,
oil radish) with fibrous, shallow-rooted crops (grains,
||Alternate moisture demanding crops (corn) with crops
that use less moisture (barley).
||Alternate allelopathic crops (sunflowers, rye, barley,
and other small grains) with poor competitors (vegetables)
to help control weeds.
||Alternate crops that add organic matter (rye, vetch)
with crops that don’t (soybeans).
||Plant nitrogen fixers (legumes such as peas, soybeans,
alfalfa, clovers) followed by high nitrogen users (corn,
winter wheat, vegetables).
||Plant cover crops to avoid bare soil (during the winter
try rye/vetch, for summer – buckwheat, oil radish).
||Alternate warm season and cool season crops. By changing
tillage dates, you kill early germinating weeds one year
and late germinating and perennial weeds the next.
||Plant alternate families of crops, e.g. tomatoes, peppers,
potatoes, and eggplant are all in the nightshade family.
By planting crops in the different families, you break
up disease and pest cycles, and use different nutrients.
||Make sure you have adequate equipment and labor for
managing all of the crops in your rotation.
||Consider including livestock feeds in your rotation
(pasture, hay, forages, and grains).
All farmers set out to accomplish the same goals, improving
soil quality, breaking weed and pest cycles, growing marketable
plants, but to do this requires specialized plans unique to
each farm. In part two of the series we will look at planning
crop rotations for transitioning fields and the best way to
introduce new crops into a rotation.