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Transitioning from Conventional to Organic Crop Production and Certification in Texas

The transition from conventional to organic crop production should be the last step in a process of progressively increasing sustainability. Certification requires a three-year transition period and can be achieved by establishing sustainability over time, as described in one of our previous articles. The three-year transition period can be thought of as the final step toward certification, and it is aided by a certification entity. The USDA offers the Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTCEP), which is valuable in this regard.


Before competing in the Olympics, an athlete must first learn, practice, and train to become the best sportsperson in their country. For an aspiring organic farmer, the formal transition period is comparable to the Olympics. In other words, a prospective organic producer is required to put in almost the same amount of effort and dedication as a fully certified organic producer. As a result, everything necessary for the success of organic farming should ideally be in place before beginning the transition period. The intensity of surprises or challenging obstacles might be mitigated during the shift by following the steps described in the article concerning planning the transition to organic production.


What is expected during the transition period?


During the transition period, a prospective organic producer must follow the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) crop requirements. Additionally, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), acting as a certified entity, will guide and assist prospective producers during this period. Finally, a producer may apply for organic certification after the transition period has been concluded, given that all organic requirements have been met for three years.


Producers can apply for organic certification just for the fields they wish to certify. However, these fields must have been managed according to the regulations of the NOP for 36 months. It is possible for a producer to expedite the transition period if he can prove that no prohibited substances have been used for three years on the fields in question. An example of this could be when a legume cover crop, like alfalfa, has been planted in a field, and no prohibited substances have been used for three years. Records will be required to verify the farming practices on the fields that the producer wishes to include as part of the transition period: this is evidence that no prohibited substances were used on said fields.

Accordingly, recordkeeping is essential during the transition period and for organic farming in general. Therefore, keep records of farming practices and inputs used. Keep all receipts of inputs and develop a system whereby all actions performed on the fields are clearly detailed with the dates on which they were performed. Harvesting records and dates are important, and sales receipts of produce should be kept. Sample record forms can be obtained from accredited certifiers or the National Centre of Appropriate Technology (NCAT) Sustainable Agriculture project. 

Transitioning to organic farming and obtaining certification is not as tough as most conventional farmers may believe. It is necessary to engage in a mental shift away from non-sustainable conventional practices and toward regenerative organic farming concepts. Hereafter, everything will become clearer for the future, with a focus on long-term sustainability rather than short-term financial gain. Transitioning and obtaining certification is not difficult and is simple to comprehend.


Steps to follow during the transition to obtain certification


In order to become certified at the end of the transition phase, there are five steps you need to follow. We will discuss what needs to be done to stay compliant. Certain amendments are allowed as discussed in this article.

1. Develop an organic systems plan (OSP)


An OSP details how your organic production will comply with TDA and USDA organic requirements. It also includes the way crop production will be handled in regard to crop rotation, weeding, cover crops, etc. OSP templates can be downloaded here and guidelines for completion are available on the USDA website.

2. Implement your OSP and have it reviewed 


Deciding on the content of your OSP should be done in consultation with a certifying entity to ensure that your plan meets the standards set out. The TDA or a certifying agent will review your OSP to ensure that it meets the standards for organic production.

3. Receive inspection


An accredited agent will conduct a physical inspection of your farm to ensure that your operations abide by the OSP based on the USDA requirements for organic production. These inspections will be done during the transition period and thereafter on an annual basis to ensure that all USDA standards continue to be adhered to.

4. Have a certifying agent review the report made by the inspection agent 


The certifying agent will compare your actual production practices with your OSP. During this stage, guidance may also be given by the certification authority.

5. Receive a decision from the certifying agent 


By sticking to your OSP and therefore the USDA’s organic standards, a certifying agent will issue an organic certificate of compliance on an annual basis. During the transition phase, annual inspections are also required to ensure continuous compliance to ensure organic certification after three years.


More information on the transition period and certification can be obtained from the TDA and USDA websites.


Additional aspects to consider during the transition period


Certain aspects, questions, and considerations should be addressed before and during the transition phase. We shall discuss them below in no specific order.


1. Become familiar with Texas state and USDA regulations


The first action when planning to become an organic producer should be to acquire a thorough knowledge about organic certification and what is expected during the transition period. Information on these topics can be found on the Texas Department of Agriculture’s website or on the USDA’s National Organic Program website.


2. Evaluate farm resources


  • Are your on-farm storage facilities able to accommodate segregation and storage of conventional and organic produce?
  • Would the organic operation include livestock and would this livestock be included in the transition process? When would the livestock transitioning take place, now or later?
  • Would your own livestock be used or would you use livestock in partnership with another farmer?
  • What would the additional costs be concerning labor and alternative equipment?


3. What fields should be included in your transition?


It is important to take note that not all fields on a farm need to be transitioned at the same time for organic certification. Fields with the highest level of soil health can be selected first and the others after their soil health have been built up to an acceptable level.


Financial assistance during the transition period


Because of the predicted financial difficulties, many prospective organic farmers are hesitant to make the switch to organic farming. There are, however, a number of USDA and private programs available in Texas that can help with financial and educational aid throughout the process. Making use of these programs can be beneficial to mitigate financial difficulties during the transition process.


During the transition stage, a shift in marketing is required, with a particular focus on the product’s nutritional value and flavor. Your products may potentially generate a bigger profit than during conventional production while establishing a solid foundation for future organic marketing. You can’t use the organic label during the transition phase, but there are other labels you can use to distinguish your products from conventionally cultivated produce. Making use of these alternative labels will support you in your marketing drive.


During the transition period, you will be required to comply with the rules for organic farming as advocated by the TDA and USDA. During this time, a producer must adhere to the steps outlined in the OSP. Any changes to the plan or its actual implementation should be discussed with the certifying agent ahead of time in order to obtain their approval.


Marketing your farm products on the basis of superior quality can be achieved and should be a high priority so that you can increase the product’s price without organic certification. Other labeling options are available that can distinguish your products as being superior in comparison to conventionally raised produce.