Michelle Wander, University of Illinois
Susan Andrews, USDA - Natural Resource Conservation Service
This article reviews the conservation goals for organic farming systems and considers how well organic certification standards line up with the Natural Resources Conservation Services's programs (EQIP, transition payments) and objectives. It provides research results from an Integrated Organic Program study evaluating organic transiton strategies and compares measured trends in soil organic matter with ranks produced by NRCS tools (soil conditioning index and soil and water eligibility tools) developed to estimate conservation outcomes. It introduces the new Conservation Management tool that will be used to implement the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Introduction: Goals and Approach of Organic Standards and NRCS Programs
Implementation Varies by State
Organic Concerns About NRCS Enrollment Tools
Tool Performance in the Windsor Organic Research Trial
References and Citations
The National Organic Program (NOP) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) share the goal of natural resource protection. The NOP defines organic production as “production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Promotion of ecological balance and conservation of biodiversity are defining principles of organic agriculture. The NOP requires that organic producers must maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality, and minimize soil erosion. Organic growers comply with these requirements by implementing conservation practices, such as crop rotations, cover crops, grass waterways, and contour strips. Many also grow annual and perennial flowering plants (farmscaping) to provide food and habitat for pollinators, natural enemies of insect pests, and other beneficial organisms. Some also erect bird and bat houses to enhance biodiversity and improve pest control.
The NRCS is a Federal agency that pursues natural resource protection goals through the delivery of technical assistance to land owners and attempts to tailor this information to address client needs. The institution administers federal conservation programs that provide cost share and technical assistance for conservation implementation, and, in some cases, financial incentives. Participation in NRCS programs is voluntary and only people managing private lands are eligible. Resource concerns of the agency include: soil quality, water quantity and quality, air quality, production animal and wildlife management, and plant health and suitability. The NRCS maintains conservation practice standards that describe the purpose and minimum quality criteria for over 150 land management practices as varied as Aquaculture Ponds, Channel Stabilization, Pest Management, Residue and Tillage Management, Conservation Rotation, and Cover Crops. The NRCS standards and practice criteria are fully compatible with organic farming systems and can be readily applied to, and adopted on, organic farms. National practice standards are reviewed and updated every five years (or sooner, if warranted by technology change).
Both the NOP and NRCS approaches appreciate the site-specific nature of farming and conservation concerns. NRCS programs vary across the country because state offices are asked to modify national standards to make them more applicable to their local conditions. States may also propose new standards, introduced as interim standards, that upon review may become national standards after three years. Job Sheets and Technical Notes provide specifics about how to implement practice standards.
Figure 1. Mulching of staked tomatoes. In addition to protecting the soil from erosion, this practice conserves water and reduces the need for irrigation. Figure credit: Michelle Wander, University of Illinois.
The NRCS programs and National Organic Program regulations both assess management practices, such as rotation, fertilizer additions, and tillage, as a way to evaluate stewardship. In some cases, NRCS uses producer records of practices to run models or evaluation tools that predict outcomes such as erosion, changes in organic matter, water quality, and biodiversity. Self-reporting of practices, with later field visits for verification, is also used. Organic farmers also depend on self-reporting of practices in the form of a farm management plan, called the Organic System Plan (OSP), that is a required part of their certification document. As a part of this document, organic farmers describe the practices they use to prevent runoff, manage water movement onto their farm, and prevent nutrients from leaving the farm. In addition, organic farmers are required to monitor their practices to demonstrate compliance, and maintain records of all inputs, activities, and transactions; these are examined at least annually during the certification inspection. For more on organic certification documents, see Organic Certification of Vegetable Operations.
The 2008 Farm Bill (The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) places increased emphasis on organic production and specialty crop areas: it calls to fully incorporate organic crop production into the conservation practice standards by providing for the appropriate range of conservation practices and resource mitigation measures available to producers involved with organic or specialty crop production or precision agriculture. Expanded support will come through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in the form of payments and technical assistance for conservation practices, and for transitioning an operation to organic production (Behar, 2008). One program will offer per acre payments for land transitioning from conventional to organic status. There will be a limit of $20,000 per year per producer and a total limit of $80,000 per producer for a five year period. Under the Farm Bill, the NRCS will provide technical services to organic and specialty crop producers. Rules for advising reimbursments are expected in late 2008 or 2009. Additional opportunities may come from 2008 Farm Bill allocations of 10% to new or disadvantaged farmers. Existing farmers wanting to change their operations to organic will not qualify as new farmers. In addition, a handful of states already have well established programs to support organic farmers. Programs typically include modest payments administered through resource conservation districts, as well as partnerships that support educational and peer-mentoring opportunities for farmers interested in converting their farms to organic production.
A program in Nebraska, for example, provides support through EQIP to help farmers transition to organic production (Anonymous, 2008; Pope, 2008). Incentive payments vary across the state, and differ for irrigated vs. dryland, and cropland vs. rangeland sites. In Perkins County, for example, first time organic growers are offered incentive payments of $50 per acre. Perkins County farmer Mike Wyatt made the transition with help from an EQIP organic transition contract and as a consequence of this he noticed environmental improvements on his farm. According to Wyatt, “the soil seems healthier and has more water holding capacity." Nebraska incentive rates now vary, but continue to give farmers encouragement while providing a safety net to growers learning a new farming system. Nebraska NRCS worked with the Organic Farming Statewide Project through a public-private partnership to educate Nebraska farmers and ranchers about transition to organic production. According to NRCS agent Claudia Stevenson in Grant, Nebraska, this combination of education and assistance works.
In Minnesota, NRCS is also helping farmers switch to organic practices using a similar combination of modest transition incentive payments, using EQIP funds, for the three years that it takes to convert land from conventional to certified organic management. Transitioning farmers also benefit from programs supplied by local non-profit organizations. For example, the Land Stewardship Project supports a Farm Beginnings course to help new farmers succeed. Many graduates of Farm Beginnings programs go into organic production. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture offers programs to help farmers improve their management and record keeping skills to be profitable, while meeting the requirements for organic certification.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that $22 million in federal funds are available for organic certification cost share assistance through the National Organic Certification Cost–Share Program, authorized by the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (7 U.S.C. §6523). Funds will be allocated in proportion to the number of organic producers and handlers within each state. The states in turn, will reimburse each eligible producer or handler up to 75 percent of its organic certification costs, not to exceed $750/operation/year. States must apply to participate in the program.
The Conservation Security Program (CSP) was first introduced in the 2002 Farm Bill. Working lands provisions provided an opportunity to reward land managers already implementing conservation practices with "green payments". The initial roll out of the CSP program caused some concern by organic farming groups that felt the program was biased against organic growers because the initial enrollment tool, called the Soil Conditioning Index (SCI), tracked tillage disturbance as a primary factor in reducing soil quality. Many producers who farm organically or live in the warmer climates have had difficulty meeting the minimum criteria for eligibility despite their strong conservation efforts. NRCS has followed up by placing greater emphasis on soil building activities, such a cover crops, mulching, compost additions and by providing expanded training for field agents evaluating practices and giving credit for improving soil biodiversity, which aides nutrient cycling, breaks pest cycles and contributes to increase soil structure, by giving credit for reduced pesticide use and diverse rotations.
Efforts to improve new tools and evaluate performance on organic farms are underway as NRCS works to implement the revised Conservation Stewardship Program contained in the 2008 Farm Bill. The 2008 Farm Bill made many improvements that should be attractive to organic farmers. One key difference is that it seeks to reward producers who have historically used good stewardship practices as well as provide iincentives for those who want to do more. It is no longer watershed based and considers the managment of the farm as a whole, not just individual fields. The new Conservation Stewarship Program will include a crosswalk to help organic and specialty crop producers access the program, as well as outreach and technical assistance to organic and specialty crop producers. It also includes a mandate for NRCS to establish a standard of care for soil, water, and biodiversity that will be predicted based on management practices. NRCS must now establish quality criteria to establish the minimum treatment level necessary to adequately address identified resource concerns for a particular land area. These criteria are described in NRCS’s Field Office Technical Guide. While there are a set of national criteria, each state may add to the criteria to make them more relevant to local conditions.
The NRCS is working to develop and validate tools used to decide which farms—including organic farms—are eligible for program participation. This section reviews some tools that have been used and introduces the new CMT. New tools will build on existing resources including the Soil Conditioning Index (SCI), which evaluates management practices and their influence on soil status. The SCI is currently embedded in RUSLE2 (Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation 2). RUSLE2 a detailed process model that predicts long-term, average-annual erosion by water. The SCI focuses on organic matter and is computed with a weighted function:
SCI = (Organic Matter x 0.4) + (Field Operations x 0.4) + (Erosion x 0.2)
Organic Matter accounts for organic material additions, biomass produced, and decomposition;
Field Operations represents physical disturbance from field operations; and
Erosion is the estimated loss of soil material by sheet, rill, irrigation and/or wind erosion.
When the SCI score is negative, soil organic matter is predicted to be decreasing; for zero or positive SCI scores, soil organic matter is predicted to be stable or increasing. For the history of this tool see Zobeck et al. (2007).
The SCI is estimated for a particular field by running the RUSLE2 model. Users provide information about the soil type and location of the field. Evaluations by NRCS suggest that tool failures often result from problems with model calibration or simple user error. NRCS is working on new expert systems, including the Soil and Water Eligibility Tool (SWET) and products derived from this tool. SWET evaluates management practices based on their contribution to each soil function or water quality concern. The soil properties that SWET scores include organic matter, nutrient cycling, soil habitat, physical stability, and moisture management. The water quality properties SWET scores are sediment, salinity, and surface and groundwater pesticides, nitrogen, and phosphorus. A new conservation compliance tool that is based on SWET is now under development and will be used to determine eligibility for future NRCS programs. Fig. 2 shows the entry screen for this prototype tool. An expert system will be used to determine what practices meet the standards of care established for soil and water resources. Assumptions about practice impacts on soils predict outcomes for soil (organic matter, nutrient cycling, soil physical condition, soil biotic habitat, and soil moisture salinity management) and water quality (leached N, P, and pesticides; sediment loss). Initial validation efforts have compared tool results with measured soil quality data from medium- and long-term research plots (Wienhold et al., 2007; Zobeck et al. 2007).
Figure 2. Screen shot from the SWET tool. The NRCS has already adapted this and incorporated it into a new Conservation Management Tool (CMT).
Table 1 shows the results from an evaluation of NRCS tools (SWET and SCI) and compares them with the soil organic carbon (SOC) concentrations actually measured in the surface soils of replicated research plots in an organic transition experiment in Champaign, IL. Three transitional cropping systems (intensive vegetable, row crop, and perennial pasture or ley), each with three approaches to fertility (crop and cover crop residues only, and residues supplemented with either manure or compost additions), were compared during 2003–2005. For all treatment combinations, the SOC levels increased slightly during the study compared to baseline samples taken at the beginning of transition.
|SWET2||SCI3||Year 3 SOC|
|VEG||44||no||-0.46||no||2.45 ± 0.72|
|VEG + manure||52||no||0.86||yes||2.36 ± 0.80|
|VEG + compost||52||no||2.80||yes||2.39 ± 0.63|
|ROW||64||yes||-0.12||no||2.17 ± 0.41|
|ROW + manure||72||yes||1.60||yes||2.28 ± 0.58|
|ROW + compost||72||yes||3.60||yes||2.37 ± 0.40|
|LEY||101||yes||0.98||yes||2.50 ± 0.31|
|LEY + manure||109||yes||2.40||yes||2.55 ± 0.38|
|LEY + compost||109||yes||3.70||yes||2.24 ± 0.63|
The SWET scores in Table 1 suggest the more-intensively managed vegetable cropping system would degrade soil and water quality, and thus be ineligible for CSP participation. Measurements of SOC suggest this prediction would be false at this site. SWET scores tended to be lower for scenarios without organic matter additions but not enough to change eligibility status based on SWET. Manure and compost addition made a bigger difference in the SCI predictions. Negative SCI scores for the vegetable and row cropped systems without supplemental manure or compost additions predicted a decline in soil organic matter that would have made them CSP ineligible. SOC measured indicate organic matter levels held even where cover crops were the sole source of fertility. In our comparison, both SWET and SCI appeared to overvalue the benefits of supplemental organic matter (particularly compost) additions and the use of perennial pasture and undervalue the benefits of cover crops, particularly in the vegetable cropping system.
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.