Tilth program helps growers transition to organics
After seven years of weaning his operation off synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, hazelnut grower Rob Hilles is ready to make the leap into organic production.
While he’s managed to eliminate conventional inputs, Hilles said he still has a lot to learn about composting techniques and other organic methods.
“Everybody trying to do this needs as much help as they can get,” said Hilles, who farms near Corvallis, Ore.
To that end, Hilles has joined the Transitioning Farmer Network, a program organized by Oregon Tilth, an organic certifier.
“The network will help me become better connected to other people who are in the same pursuit I’m in,” Hilles said.
Jim Bronec, who grows squash, pumpkins, corn and seed crops near Canby, Ore., is also joining the group despite making the switch to organic production more than a decade ago.
Bronec said he wants to hone his knowledge of nutrient cycling and make the best use of cover crops.
He’s also hoping to get ideas for additional crops that would be marketable and improve his rotation.
“It sounds like there will be a lot of resources to tap in to,” Bronec said.
Oregon Tilth has launched the program because farmers shifting into organic production often fear added documentation and other uncertainties, said Sarah Brown, the group’s education director.
Growers must confront agronomic challenges, like dealing with weeds without conventional herbicides, she said.
“You don’t have the same arsenal to choose from,” Brown said.
Soil fertility is another common concern, as growing cover crops for nitrogen is more time consuming than applying urea or another synthetic source, she said.
Nitrogen from organic sources, like manure and compost, takes longer to become available to crops.
Blood meal or fish fertilizer can provide a more readily available source of nitrogen, but they’re also expensive, Brown said.
“There is definitely a period of intense investment into the farm,” she said.
Another hurdle is the three-year transition period required by federal organic regulations, Brown said.
Farmers can’t use any prohibited substances during that time, but they also can’t label their crops as organic and receive higher prices, she said.
“They see additional costs and they’re not sure the market is going to pay enough to compensate for those costs,” said Lauren Gwin, associate director of Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems.
OSU extension staff will be providing technical support to the Transitioning Farmer Network.
In some cases, farmers deal with the transition by shifting a portion of their operation to organic to see how it works, said Gwin.
It’s also important for them to set up realistic plans to determine if they will have enough cash flow during the transition, she said.
By seeing how the growers in the network adapt to such problems, OSU extension agents will gain valuable insights, Gwin said.
“It’s going to help us identify challenges facing other producers,” she said. “To watch the farmers moving through it will give us another viewpoint.”
To pay for the program, Oregon Tilth has raised about $20,000 from the Farm Aid nonprofit group and United Natural Foods Inc., a specialty distributor.
Oregon Tilth will also dedicate staff time to the project and is seeking another $70,000 in pending grant requests.
The money is used to contract with OSU staff, travel, webinars and meetings. The program is free for farmers but the signup deadline is April 10.