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’ attitudes.
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 the farm.
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 operations.
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
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
Your attitudes toward organic weed management
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 is Final
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
We thank all of the participating farmers for their time and thoughtful
responses to our survey.