Converting Your Farm to Organic for Profit and Pleasure—Chapter 1: What is Organic Agriculture?

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Agriculture first published their definition of “organic agriculture” as part of the National Organic Program, which was authorized by the 1990 farm bill. The definition was developed and recommended to the USDA by the first National Organic Standards Board, appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture in 1991 and I was a member of this board for the first 3 years. That definition is as follows:

“Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it was an attempt to put a basic concept of organic agriculture into a short, concise paragraph. So what does it mean and how is it applied to farms and ranches in the Northern Great Plains? In a series of articles here on my blog, I will attempt to explain this definition, and the many rules of organic certification that accompany it, to be applied on the farms in our region. My intention is to introduce each principle in a step-by-step manner and provide tips and suggestions that will help reduce the risk and maximize your opportunities for success.

To give you an example of what lies ahead, I will be dividing organic agricultural systems into main underlying principles. We will then discuss them, one by one, and suggest ways they may be implemented on individual farms located in the Northern Great Plains.

In my mind there are two overarching principles that make organic systems function both sustainably and generally: rotations and soil building. Although both of these principles have many components, which we will be discussing individually, all the components are inter-related and contribute to the success of the whole. In order for an organic system to work without the aid of synthetic chemicals, it must mimic, as much as possible, what we see in the native prairie, some of which still surrounds us. If we study the short grass prairie that remains in our region, we will see that it is both sustainable and regenerative, having evolved and adapted to climate change over bygone millennia. Chemical-based agriculture, on the other hand is a recent phenomenon, which is neither regenerative nor sustainable. On the contrary, it is based on an artificial system of expensive off-farm inputs that attempt to replace the nutrients taken from the soil and control weeds common to a monoculture system.

The next articles will cover the two main principles of sustainable, regenerative organic agriculture, which are:

  1. Crop rotations
  2. Soil building

I look forward to exploring, in-depth, the benefits of organic agriculture over the next several weeks.