The Inspector’s Notebook #13
Stopping the landslide

Jim Riddle shares his secrets for dealing with erosion problems

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

May 12, 2005: When inspecting organic fields and farms, I am always on the lookout for signs of soil erosion. The National Organic Program (NOP) states in several sections that production practices must provide erosion control. NOP §205.200 states that “production practices must maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality”; §205.203 states that “the producer must select and implement tillage and cultivation practices that….minimize soil erosion”; and §205.205 states that “producers must implement a crop rotation….that….provides erosion control.”

It is usually not too hard to see at least some evidence that the farmer is taking care to prevent soil erosion. There are a variety of ways to do this. Contour farming, strip cropping, terraces, and permanent waterways are all farming practices that minimize soil erosion.

Erosion can be caused by a number of factors. One of the most important is the lay of the land. Steeper areas, of course, have more potential for soil erosion than flat fields but all fields have the potential for erosion caused by spring snow melt or heavy rains. Crop rotations which include several years of row crops can increase the potential for soil erosion, especially if heavy spring rains come with the field still open for planting. Interplanting a cover crop during the last cultivation, or planting a winter cover crop after harvest in the fall, provides some protection from erosion while also improving soil organic matter content.

Farmers that maintain wildlife habitat areas—plant treelines, windbreaks, or firebreaks, repair creek banks or retention ponds—not only minimize erosion but also show that they are maintaining or improving the natural resources of the farm. It is important to mark these areas on your farm map to inform the certifying agent and the inspector that these areas exist on your farm. You may even explain in more detail what you are doing to maintain these areas.

Two of the questions in the Organic Farm Plan Questionnaire ask how you monitor the effectiveness of your soil conservation practices and how often you conduct this monitoring. Visual observation is the most common method a farmer uses to monitor erosion problems. While, a farmer should be on the lookout for soil erosion problems every time he or she goes to a field, this is especially true after a hard rain when erosion problems become more obvious. Making a notation of any problems in your activity log is an easy way to document your “monitoring” activities.

As an inspector, what do I do when I see soil erosion? The first thing I do is to listen to what you have to say about its cause. What are your field preparation, tillage, and cultivation practices? Are these contributing to the problem? Secondly, I will want to know how you plan to repair the erosion. If the farmer has already thought out a plan, it is usually a good sign that he or she is on top of the situation. I will also ask if the farmer has a conservation plan on file with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, or if the farm participates in any NRCS conservation programs. Finally, I will ask—what are your plans to prevent such erosion in the future?

If I see a problem, I will usually take a picture of the eroded area to include with my inspection report so that future inspectors can see if the area has been repaired. Depending on the situation, you may need to seed down a permanent waterway or extend an existing waterway. If soil erosion is commonly occurring from spring snow melt, you may consider winter cover cropping the offending field. If wind is the problem, treelines, windbreaks, or cover crops can be planted to minimize the loss of soil.

Erosion is not an inevitable result of farming. It can be prevented. Identify problems early and give some thought as to the cause and possible solutions, this will help guarantee you have healthy fertile fields for years to come and keep your certifier happy!