18, 2007: Organic farming is catching on in ways
that few outside the organic farming community would have
imagined only ten years ago. In our own area, organic farmland
planted with corn and soybeans has increased 440 percent and
180 percent, respectively, from 1997 to 2005 (NASS 2007).
With an unprecedented number of farms in transition or already
growing organically, we thought it would be interesting to
find out what NewFarm.org readers are doing to manage the
pesky problem of weeds. Since initiating the survey in mid-March,
we have received almost 600 responses from a variety of growers
around the country. The results reveal a fascinating story
about weed management practices, challenges and farmers’
Approximately 85 percent of the respondents indicated that
they were farming organically or in transition to organic
production. Although this sampling does not represent the
entire farming community, it indicates that NewFarm.org readers
are no strangers to innovative and alternative farming practices.
More than 60 percent of the respondents indicated that farming
was their primary occupation. We were impressed with this
response, given the tendency of farmers to be employed off
More than 64 percent of the respondents were between 40 and
59 years of age, indicating the likelihood that organic farming
is coming to be accepted by more seasoned farmers. However,
when compared to the respondents who stated that they were
farming conventionally (with chemicals), the organic farmers
tended to be slightly younger and were more likely to be female.
Respondents reported farming almost 110,000 acres combined,
with farms ranging in size from a quarter of an acre to more
than 6,000 acres, with an average farm size of about 200 acres
(and a median of 35 acres).
Foods you grow
A variety of diverse cropping systems were represented, with
65 percent of respondents indicating they grow vegetables,
41 percent growing fruits, 19 percent growing feed grains
and 15 percent growing food grains. Many respondents also
reported dairying, poultry and meat production and processed
goods / value-added production as components of their farming
Practices you use
Successful organic farming isn’t achieved simply by
input replacement, but rather requires a whole-systems approach.
This is clearly borne out in the survey results as 85 percent
of respondents indicated that they use at least three practices,
and on average identified six highly integrated strategies
to manage weeds on their farms. Hand weeding, probably the
most labor intensive practice mentioned, was also the most
common. Many successful farmers, like Anne and Eric Nordell
of Beech Grove
Farm in Trout Run, Pennsylvania, will put in extra effort
with different management practices such as fallowing fields
with summer cover crops and stale seed bedding for the primary
purpose of reducing the labor required for hand weeding.
Mechanical control practices were listed as the second most
common strategy among respondents. Almost half the respondents
reported using between-row cultivation, many of them listing
cultivator types representing a range in size and style. There
is a certain art to cultivation, a practice which can quickly
turn ugly if you’re not paying attention. Klaas and
Mary-Howell Martens do a great job of explaining some of the
intricacies of cultivation in their three-part article Look,
Ma! No Weeds: Early Season Weed Control. Other physical
weed-control strategies include mulching, flame weeding and
stale seed bedding.
Experienced organic farmers know that cultural practices,
tactics that increase crops' ability to compete against weeds,
are the foundation of successful organic weed-management programs.
Cultural practices were also very common among respondents.
Over half of those surveyed use cover crops as a weed management
tool, and approximately 40 percent have diverse rotations
in place to help manage weed populations. Between 20 percent
and 40 percent of respondents stated that they adjust seeding
rates and row width, manage fertility wisely and alter planting
dates to give crop plants a competitive advantage. The most
common weed-management practice not listed above, but mentioned
by 6 percent of respondents, was animal grazing.
Challenges you face
“Lack of time,” reported by 68 percent of farmers
surveyed, was the top challenge to effective weed management.
This is a serious issue that deserves some attention. As growers,
we should strive to formulate weed management plans with as
much focus on efficiency as on effectiveness. There’s
nothing worse than having a perfect window of opportunity
for cultivation and just not having enough hours in the day.
“Weather conditions” was the next major obstacle,
cited by almost half of participants. Successful weed management
is often highly dependent on the timing of practices, particularly
for organic farmers. Poor weather can delay or prevent some
management practices from occurring. Furthermore, early-season
mechanical controls like rotary hoeing and tine cultivation
are adversely affected by rainfall after they have been applied
because moisture at the wrong time can prevent seedling desiccation,
allowing them to re-root.
Farmers also had issues with equipment, with more than 25
percent of respondents reporting that “lack of equipment”
and “high expenses for equipment” were challenges
to successful weed management. Other constraints and challenges
specifically mentioned included a lack of knowledge and expertise
in the area of weed management and also labor-related issues,
from high labor costs to a lack of skilled labor.
Your attitudes toward organic weed
As part of the survey, we asked respondents to indicate whether
or not they agreed with a series of statements in order to
better gauge farmers’ attitudes toward farming and weed
management. A strong sense of passion was reflected, with
a large percentage of respondents agreeing with the statement
that: “Farming is not just a job for me; it is a way
of life.” The second strongest response was in agreement
with the statement: “I am concerned that the use of
chemicals in farming is a health risk to me and my family.”
There was not strong consensus with regard to the statement:
“Weed management is my number one production constraint.”
More people either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement
than strongly disagreed or disagreed, indicating that weed
management is the top production constraint faced by approximately
50 percent of the responding farmers. Most respondents disagreed
with the statement: “Organic weed management practices
cannot be as effective as conventional, chemical-based ones.”
With regard to farmers’ attitudes toward the effect
of farming system on the environment, respondents strongly
disagreed with the statement: “Organic farming is no
better for the environment than conventional farming.”
Previous surveys of farmers using organic and sustainable
practices have yielded similar results. One of the most illuminating
Results of the Third Biennial National Organic Farmers’
Survey, published by the Organic Farming Research Foundation
(OFRF) in 1999. Although the fourth survey was published in
2004, the 1999 survey is particularly interesting because
it asked farmers what they considered to be research priorities
and about their weed management practices.
Sending a clear message to researchers and program funding
directors, responding farmers ranked weed management to be
their first research priority. The top three practices, “mechanical
tillage,” “weeding by hand or with hand implements,”
and “crop rotation,” were listed as being used
by 75 percent of the respondents frequently or regularly.
It was also clear from the OFRF survey that organic farmers
use a multitude of different weed management practices and
are hungry for more information.
In the eight years since the OFRF survey, we can see that
there are still some weed management challenges to overcome.
Our 600 respondents tell us that organic weed management can
be effective, and that although weeds are a serious production
constraint for many, effective strategies can be developed
through the integration of multiple tactics.
We thank all of the participating farmers for their time
and thoughtful responses to our survey.