The Inspector’s Notebook #10
Planning the perfect rotation: Three part series on creating crop rotations

Part 3: Nine simple steps to your own rather complicated looking, field specific map of future planting

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).

February 10, 2005: We have discussed the requirements, principles, and objectives for soil building crop rotations in the two preceding Notebook articles. It’s time to discuss designing a crop rotation and give some examples.

Nine steps to designing a crop rotation

  1. Draw a map of your farm, with each field delineated. Assign a unique number to each field. Make several copies to work with and for subsequent years.
  2. If possible, divide your fields into relatively even acreages so that when crops are rotated to different fields, the total crop planted doesn’t vary much from year to year. In needed, keep 2 or 3 fields grouped together to equal another field.
  3. Divide your fields according to their specific characteristics, i.e., wet ground, low lying fields where late frost occurs, well drained soil, steep land, sandy soil, etc.
  4. Sort crops you want to grow with similar limitations, i.e., brassicas or greens planted in cooler fields, tomatoes and sweet corn in well-drained sunny locations.
  5. Plan the amount of acres you need for each crop.
  6. List any alternative crops, such as green manure, catch, or cover crops you might also grow.
  7. Use a field-history form supplied by your certifier or make a chart with “Field #1, Field #2, Field #3”, etc., as the 1st column and specific years as the remaining columns, i.e., “2002, 2003, 2004, 2005…” Make several copies so you can experiment on paper with different plans. Use a pencil so you can easily change the crops as you develop your plan. You will want to be able to add up the total acreage of each crop for each year.
  8. Establish your crop plan for next year by first writing in your most important crops in specific fields, keeping track of acreages. Then add in green manure and cover crops.
  9. Evaluate your plan. Refer back to the objectives, requirements, and tips discussed in the previous two articles to evaluate your crop rotation plan. Look both at the crop history for each field and the future rotation plan for the field. Does the plan for each field meet the crop rotation objectives? Does the plan for your entire farm meet the objectives? Are there fields that need to be on different rotation cycles due to their soil type, topography, etc.?

You may want to divide fields into groups, with a different crop rotation for each group. Vegetable growers can use this same method if fields are sub-divided into “beds”. Number each bed and follow the procedures outlined above. Group beds that follow the same rotation sequence together in your plan.

Here are some examples of common crop rotations used on organic farms.

  • Row crop farm: Corn - soybeans - small grain (oats, barley, wheat)/new seeding of legume such as alfalfa for hay – hay - corn; hay can be repeated for 1-4 years, depending on the quality of the stand and need for organic hay. The legume hay may be used as a plow-down the following spring for planting back to corn.
  • Row crop farm: Small grain/hay - hay/pasture - hay/pasture - hay/pasture - buckwheat - soybeans - small grain/hay.
  • Dairy farm: Corn - small grain/hay - hay/pasture - hay/pasture - hay/pasture - corn. Soybeans can be substituted for corn or added as a separate crop, if needed for a cash crop or used for feed. Hay fields may be used for fall pasture instead of taking a final cutting.
  • Dairy farm with relatively level fields: Corn - winter cover crop of rye/vetch - corn - small grain/new seeding of alfalfa - alfalfa hay - alfalfa hay - alfalfa hay - corn.
    • Produce farm: Sweet corn - winter cover crop of rye/hairy vetch – early potatoes followed by buckwheat cover crop – squash - oats/red clover plow-down - sweet corn.
  • Produce farm: Tomatoes or other heavy feeders - winter cover crop of rye/vetch - cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) - brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.) - winter cover crop of rye/vetch - greens (spinach, lettuces) or annual herbs - carrots or other root crops - winter cover crop of rye/vetch - peas, green beans, or edamame soybeans - winter cover crop of rye/vetch – tomatoes. Buckwheat can be planted between lettuce crops or after peas.

There are many variations for crop rotations, especially for vegetable growers. If you are a vegetable grower, you might want to divide your crops into heavy feeders (beets, brassicas, celery, corn, cucurbits, eggplant, kale, lettuce and other greens, kohlrabi, okra, radishes, spinach, and tomatoes); light feeders (carrots, garlic and other alliums, parsnips, peppers, potatoes, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, swiss chard and turnips); neutral (all beans – dry, green, lima, peanuts, peas, soybeans); and soil builders (rye, vetch, alfalfa, clover, buckwheat, and other plow-downs).

Good luck and Happy Rotation!