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Planning the Transition to Organic Food Production in Texas

Planning the transition to organic food production in Texas is required to overcome the main obstacle –– the low organic matter content of most soils in Texas. Combining all production practices in a progressive, sustainable way can make organic production a natural final step in the process without the need for drastic changes in farming practices during transitioning. Producers will however have to progressively implement sustainable and nature-friendly practices that are focussed on building up soil health in fields that they wish to certify as organic in the future.


Therefore, if you’re considering switching to organic food production in Texas, we encourage you to read our article on the benefits, drawbacks, and economics of organic farming in Texas. Armed with this knowledge, you can determine whether you have what it takes to become an organic farmer. Organic production takes time to become profitable if sustainability isn’t incorporated over time. In this way, a sudden transition to organic production can be expensive if it isn’t thoroughly planned.


Changing from conventional to organic production might initially be financially challenging. However, by adopting specific production processes ahead of time to increase soil health, you can reduce the transition period and the duration of negative effects, and start to get resources in place beforehand. At the same time, it gives the producer time to put in place certain practices that will help the process and limit financial obstacles.


The biggest challenge concerning transitioning to organic production is the structures that need to be put in place as well as the planning. Planning well ahead of transitioning will give you, the producer, enough time to streamline your plan, while certain practices are modified to shorten and make the transitional phase of organic certification more fluid.


What is organic food production?


Organic farming was developed and used by farmers to feed their families in ancient times. These farmers adhere to farming methods that follow nature and its components and were thus the pioneers of organic farming, not the USDA. 


Nevertheless, modern organic farming does not imply that we are returning to the methods of our predecessors. Rather, it can be thought of as involving methods that combine current biological understanding and managerial decisions in our farming practices. As a result, sustainability will progressively increase over time. Production practices that are driven by sustainability will increase the balance in the ecosystem in which a producer operates. Rather than fighting nature in our efforts to feed people, we work with nature so that it aids us in our efforts to produce crops organically.


The USDA defines organic crop production as “a production system that is managed in response to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” This is a pretty broad and ambiguous description, so let’s discuss the specific components that make organic crop production work and how you can start planning to transition to organic farming while scaling down on conventional inputs. 


Getting practices in line with organic production


Getting farming practices progressively more in line with organic production will benefit a conventional farmer tremendously. Doing so will make the transition process easier and smoother, with the immense advantages of healthy soil and a more naturally controlled ecosystem. 

Increase soil health


Organic farming is built on the foundations of soil health. Plants require nutrients for development and production, and healthy soil can provide them with these. A healthy plant with abundant natural resources for growth will grow and produce an abundant yield, and the healthy plant will be better able to deter and repel insect attacks.


Soil health is the building block of regenerative organic farming and can be increased by supplying the soil with energy on which soil-borne organisms feed – this is called soil organic matter (SOM). The number of live organisms in healthy soil is staggering. To give you an idea of numbers, we will tabulate the number of microbes per group present in a natural prairie or turfgrass field. These studies were conducted by David A. Zuberer, a microbiologist at Texas A&M University, and can therefore be seen as representative of Texas.


Table 1. Numbers of microbes in healthy soil


Microbial group No./gram of soil
Bacteria 100,000,000–1,000,000,000
Fungi 100,000–1,000,000
Algae and cyanobacteria 1000–1,000,000
Protozoa 1000–100,000
  • Sylvia, Fuhrmann, Hartel and Zuberer, 1998.


These are staggering numbers, but looking at their potential contribution to the biomass of the soil is even more astonishing, as can be seen below in Table 2.


Table 2. Microbial biomass in typical fertile soils


Microbial group Wet weight lbs/acre lbs/1000 sq ft
Bacteria 300–3000 12
Actinomycetes 300–3000 17
Fungi 500–5000 35
Protozoa 50–200 8
Algae 10–1,500 3

** Data from Nelson, 1997b.


It’s thus evident that if you start working in this field, you will kill a lot of these microbes through cultivation and planting. However, even the dead microbes will still contribute to the carbon content of the soil on which the living microbes feed. Due to cultivation and planting, some carbon might volatilize into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, increasing microbial activity will require the producer to supply the carbon needed as food for a growing microbe population.

Increase soil organic matter (SOM)


Most soils in Texas contain less than 1% organic matter, the feeding material for healthy soils. For this reason, building up soil health might be a challenge and requires consistent effort and planning. On the other hand, it reiterates the fact that planning organic production is needed for Texas soils that are low in organic matter. The low organic matter is mainly due to tillage and conventional production methods that are detrimental to soil health. 


However, the benefits for soil health that come with adding organic material are not many. Organic material must be decomposed into humus or organic matter before it is of any value. In other words, 10 lbs of organic material will only yield 1 lb of soil organic matter after it has decomposed into stable humus. Therefore, composting and adding stable humus to soil, as well as on top of the soil, definitely has benefits. Working with raw organic material, on the contrary, might have negative effects on the growth and production of a follow-up crop if not selected carefully.


To increase SOM and thus soil health, a combination of humus or organic matter should be used and crop rotation should be implemented.


1. Adding decomposed organic material to soil


Adding composted humus to soil is another option – adding only a small amount will lead to a significant increase in soil health. Adding organic material and raw manure to the soil is not advisable since it has not yet decomposed. Organic matter on the other hand is decomposed organic material that has become resistant to further decomposition; only a small percentage is mineralized by microbes to feed plant roots with nutrients. 


2. Plant cover crops in a crop rotation


It’s interesting to note that a cover crop’s total biomass can be divided into the following: two-thirds above ground and one-third below ground, in the form of root biomass. If the cover crop yields 10706 lbs/acre of biomass above ground, then it is logical to conclude that the root biomass will be in the region of 3568 lbs/acre, delivered mostly into the topsoil. With a deep-rooted crop such as alfalfa, the organic material distribution will be deeper because of the deeper root system.


If it takes 10 lbs of organic material to create 1 lb of organic matter, as indicated previously,  by extrapolating our previous example, we can work out that the root biomass will deliver organic matter at a rate of 356 lbs/acre. This will enhance soil fertility, especially if it is planted over a longer period of time than a year. It is therefore clear that soil health can be increased by planting cover crops. 


Although the annual increase is small, it’s enough to increase soil health. The real picture of increasing soil carbon content and soil health through large steps are explained in detail in this article. However, increasing soil organic matter in large steps can be costly due to the direct costs as well as the low yields if the follow-up crop is not carefully selected.


3. Introduce progressively reduced tillage or no-till


Tillage is a costly endeavor and averts the soil’s physical, biological and chemical properties. Furthermore, tillage breaks up soil structure, which leads to reduced infiltration and, in turn, may cause runoff and even soil erosion. On the other hand, tillage causes increased CO2 and nutrient emissions from soil, as well as the unnecessary fast decomposition of SOM.


Building up soil health requires us to adapt tillage operations to what is feasible and necessary due to the detrimental effect of tillage on soil health and financial resources. The Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension services published a comprehensive article on the best management practices for conservation and reduced tillage, which can be used to work out the ideal strategy for your field. Not all fields are the same and what may apply to one field won’t necessarily work in the next field.


Start with a soil tillage system and continually adapt the system as time goes by to improve soil health that will benefit all components. The main aim should be to work towards organic production and certification.


4. Use mulches on bare and planted soil


After planting, the spaces between rows should be covered by a mulch. This helps to reduce moisture loss, increase water infiltration, decrease nutrient volatilization, and supply the soil with organic material, increasing soil health and fertility. A thinly spread humus mulch will supply crops with an abundance of nutrients for growth while increasing soil health.


5. Start composting excess organic material


An unlimited supply of decomposed and stable organic matter called humus can always be used on any farm, but it’s essential for a farm with organic fields. Get into the habit of making compost to supply your farming operation with an abundance of decomposed humus. By following this practice, the need for additional organic fertilizer will decrease and you can progressively move toward organic production.


Start a system of crop rotation


The disadvantages of monoculture practices in agricultural production are widely known and we addressed a few of them when we looked at methods to increase soil health. However, there are a wide array of reasons why crop rotation is important, aside from the influence it has on soil health. Planting different crops on a field also creates diversity and pests, with insect infestations being limited as a result of the alternative crops that are not natural hosts. 


Implement or step up integrated pest management


Start implementing sustainable integrated pest management and conduct regular scouting of the crops planted, keep records, and make both of these approaches part of standard practice on the farm. Eventually, the records will provide a basis on which to build cultural and biological control efforts in the future, creating a handy management tool.


1, Use pest control only as a last resort


Only use chemical control as a last resort after everything has been done to control the pest through cultural and biological control methods.


2. Weed control around fields


Weeds growing around a field create a place where pests can flourish and overwinter. By keeping the area around fields weed-free, these pests are prevented from hiding and multiplying, minimizing the risk of and even preventing future infestations.


3. Create buffer areas between conventional and future organic fields


Creating these buffer zones will give you a buffer area that will prevent not only contamination from outside but also generate a buffer zone for pests that may want to attack the planted crop. At the same time, you will meet the buffer zone requirements as set out by the TDA and USDA even before transitioning.


Become educated in organic production and certification requirements


Organic production requires a sound knowledge of not only the biological aspects of farming but also of the standards set out by the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), as well as those stated by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). Therefore, it’s advised to visit and learn from certified organic farmers while finding out everything about organic farming and certification before starting the transitioning phase. 


Develop an organic systems plan (OSP) to ensure continued progressive sustainability


Developing a business plan for your future sustainable production efforts will help you keep you on track. What’s more, holding onto evidence of these sustainable efforts will motivate you to do even more. Keeping records on everything, especially inputs and yield, will enhance sound managerial decisions and is part of organic production.


Resources are available for developing a business plan for organic production. Using these aids early on your journey to becoming certified will help a lot in practical implementation, and will ease the transition process later on. This plan will act as the basis for the OSP that you’ll need during transitioning and certification. Templates can be downloaded here, and details about creating the OSP can be found on this website.


Organizations that offer educational support


Many organizations exist that can help in your journey to become certified organic. Some organizations are made up of other sustainable or organic farmers, while others are TDA and USDA programs.



Identifying a certifying agency early


The services of a certifying agent are required before transitioning to organic production. Contacting the certification agency will allow you to manage and navigate certification details before the transition period. The TDA offers a certification service, with links to certifying agents on their website.


The reason why organic farming is seen as such a difficult venture is that we are used to “quick fix” conventional production. Organic production and certification is a shift in mindset from conventional to sustainable production that is slower in pace. During this time, we have the opportunity to arm ourselves with knowledge and plan our future production activities in line with sustainable approaches to becoming organic producers.


Building up soil health and using biological and cultural pest control before transitioning to organic production has numerous advantages. It will ease the transition period, as you will already have relatively healthy soil and the structures necessary for organic production. 


Planning the transition to organic production is easier on small farms integrated with livestock and even poultry. Livestock and poultry can be incorporated effectively into organic crop production.