The Inspector’s Notebook #8
Planning the perfect rotation: Three part series on creating crop rotations

Part 1: NOP requirements and the ten things you must consider before buying the season's first bag of seeds.

By Jim Riddle

Editor’s NOTE:

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 compliance.

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 He was the founding chair of the Independent Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA).

January 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.

For your information...
The National 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 same field."
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!

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 is working.

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 your land.

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 rotation options.

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, corn).
  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.