Going organic - what you need to know

Page last updated: Monday, 8 May 2017 - 2:14pm

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Organic farming is a popular pursuit especially for small landholders interested in sustainable production.

Organics is a complex concept and becoming accredited is a rigorous process. Before you decide whether it’s for you, find out more about what being an organic farmer entails such as how to get started, converting an existing system and food safety and quality assurance.

If you’re planning on running an agricultural enterprise, whether it is cattle, sheep, fruit or vegetables, you may wish to use organic farming practices.

What is organics?

An organic system aims to be sustainable.

Emphasis is placed on the use of renewable resources, conservation of energy, soil and water resources and the maintenance of environmental quality.

The production cycle is as closed as possible with careful use of external inputs permitted by organic certification standards.

The basic aims of organic farming are to achieve optimum quantities of produce of high nutritional quality without the use of artificial fertilisers or synthetic chemicals.

Getting started

Suitable land and a high level of motivation and commitment are essential for a grower looking to start or convert to organic production. Once the decision has been made to go organic, it is time to start planning.

A conversion plan consists of a thorough farm audit, to establish the current situation, followed by a step-by-step action plan that outlines what changes will be needed in order to comply with the organic standards.

The action plan will include gathering information on:

  • soil fertility improvement
  • rotation design, cultivation and tillage
  • weed, pest and disease control
  • livestock requirements and farm infrastructure
  • labour requirements
  • financial implications, marketing requirements and risk assessment.

Compiling this information to produce an organic management plan is a useful way to define the system you plan to implement and highlight which aspects may require further consideration.

The conversion period

Converting a farming system to organic production requires adopting a long-term perspective based on a biological approach to farm management decisions and developing a plan to accommodate the impacts of changing management practices regarding soil fertility, plant nutrition, animal health and pest, disease and weed control.

For this reason, certifiers recognise a conversion period may take three or more years to achieve a functioning biologically based farming system.

Organic standards require that a farming enterprise must undergo a 12-month supervision period by an accredited certifying agency to ensure a workable conversion plan is in place.

After the first year, the property enters the organic ‘in conversion’ period, when produce sold in the organic marketplace can be labelled accordingly.

A property ‘in conversion’ is defined in organic standards as:

“A production system that has adhered to the standard for at least one year, and has been certified as such, but has not qualified as organic for various reasons. These include reasons such as the conversion system has not been operated within the requirements for the specified period (usually three years); the farm does not meet quality standards, such as soil structure considered appropriate and necessary for organic farms; or the organic management plan has not been sufficiently developed.”

After three years of adherence to organic standards, a property typically progresses from ‘in-conversion’ to full ‘organic’ status.