The Inspector’s Notebook #11
Taking the fear out of farm maps

With the early bird deadline—it’s March 1—rapidly approaching it is time to finish up this year’s Organic Farm Plan and that means completing those dreaded field maps

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 2, 2005: If requesting organic certification for the first time, this is the time of year to develop your Organic Farm Plan. Request a questionnaire from your certifying agent and start by answering the questions. Sections in the questionnaire are grouped by topic, i.e., fertility management, crop management, records, maintenance of organic integrity (buffers, equipment, crop harvest, crop storage, and conventional farming practices for a split operation), and more. After you fill out the forms you will need to provide maps of all fields requested for certification.

Be clear on what fields, type of crops and acres of each crop you want certified. (If crop plans change due to weather events, etc., the number of acres, crops planted, and locations can be updated during the inspection.) Assign unique identification numbers to each field then use these numbers in your plans. I have seen some farmers give consecutive numbers to a set of fields at one farm, then give the same set of numbers to fields at another location. That creates problems. It makes it difficult to keep records of activities in individual fields.

To differentiate fields, farmers often use a letter code preceding the numbers. For example, my home farm fields start with the letters, JR (field numbers are JR1, JR2…). If I was renting fields from my neighbor, Bob Adams, those fields could be numbered BA1, BA2, etc.

In addition to field ID numbers, vegetable growers may need to assign bed numbers within a field to be able to record activities in individual beds.

Maps of all fields are required as part of your Organic Farm Plan. When inspecting, I use these maps with the field history sheets to verify that organic crops are being grown and to identify adjoining land uses (i.e., woodland, conventional crops) and needed buffers. Maps should include an accurate representation of field layout, field ID numbers, and adjoining land uses. Show wildlife areas and conservation practices that you are maintaining. Indicate neighbors’ residences, conventional fields or pastures, land in CRP or fallow, and other types of land uses. Your certifying agent and inspector will appreciate these details.

I have included some examples of farm maps that we developed as part of our Organic Farm Plan.

Map #1 FSA map, Winona County

Map # 1 is the FSA map, showing the larger fields and lay of the land in general.

NOTE: If you use Farm Service Agency (FSA) maps, be sure they are legible. Last year, I received beautiful color-coded maps from the FSA. Each field is delineated with yellow lines. These maps show woodlands, wetlands, section lines, a compass indicating “north” direction, as well as accurate field boundaries. I just had to write in my field numbers and some adjoining land uses.

Map #2: Template map of the Wiscoy Organic Produce--vegetable production
Because we use beds in the “vegetable garden,” we also use a more detailed “bed map,” as shown in Map #2. We copy this template map and use a new copy each year to keep track of the crops planted, as some beds are double cropped and/or cover cropped in the course of the growing season. Numbering the beds also helps us keep track of where and when compost is applied and other activities.
Map #3 Wiscoy Organic Produce Facilities -- Map of garden, garage and home
Map #3 is a detailed map, showing post-harvest handling areas, such as where we dry garlic and onions, our greenhouses where we grow our seedlings, and other areas we use in the course of operating an organic vegetable farm.

While creating maps can be a daunting task, just remember to make sure everything is clearly identified and too much information is always better than not enough and both you and your certifier will be happy with the results.