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Transitioning to Organic? You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

A tour of the Rodale Institute Midwest Organic Center showcases a trial of corn planted in 30” vs. 60” rows. Rodale research director Carl Rosier (pictured at right) leads the tour.

BY KRISTINE LANG

Over the past several months, I have had the honor of visiting a wide variety of farms across Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri. I have observed a common thread among the farmers that I meet that is characterized by a passion for their land, creativity and a willingness to try something different. What I have also observed is that these same farms each look very different from one another. The combination of a farmer’s local knowledge and a farm that is unique in time and space is what makes each day exciting for me as an Extension Scientist. With this diversity of farms and unique needs in mind, Rodale Institute has built an organic crop consulting model that is flexible to fit the unique needs of every farm.


Typically, my first interaction with farmers is through an email or a phone call after they have found us through the website, a webinar, or after reading the latest Acres U.S.A. column. Recently, I met a potential client while walking along my local nature trail. In true Midwest fashion, I found myself visiting with a random bicyclist along the trail. As we talked, I learned that this person had recently purchased a nearby farm, and the light bulb went off for both of us — we scheduled a time for me to visit their soon-to-be organic vegetable farm. If chance meetings in the countryside were my primary means of meeting potential clients, I realize that I would have to log many more walking miles, but my point is this: I never know where the next farmer conversation will come from, but I’m always grateful when it happens.

After the initial contact, I always schedule a phone or video call with each person as soon as possible. My goal during this first visit is to do minimal talking and maximum listening — I want to understand what motivates a farmer to transition to organic or improve their current organic farm. I’ve heard responses ranging from deep-seeded passion for soil health, the desire to create a more economically viable farm for children to stay on the land, or the insightful response, “I realized that my potential customer is my wife and her friends — and they all care about the health of their families.” The discussion always dives deep into the details of the farm operation, including crop rotation, equipment, market opportunities … the list goes on, but I find it’s important for me to understand the drivers for transition to organic so I can provide assistance that is in line with their values and helps them to meet their farm goals.

The listening session I just described kicks off an ongoing conversation about their farm — that continues, based on the farmer’s needs and preferences, through phone calls, texts, emails and on-farm visits. Every farmer I work with is the expert on their farm, and my goal is to provide an alternative perspective based on my own experiences and the findings of the scientific community, including Rodale Institute’s excellent research team. For example, if a farmer is looking to implement no-till soybean production, I usually ask if they have considered how to change their crop rotation so that cereal rye can be established earlier in the fall to optimize tillering. I often find that when folks are frustrated with cereal rye establishment it can be tied back to when it was planted.

In my work, I also emphasize the importance of formulating a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C; especially when it comes to planting cover crops or addressing weed management. We may make a flawless Plan A, but Mother Nature could decide to give us non-stop rain or withhold moisture altogether — now what? Thank goodness we discussed having those alternative tools and plans at the ready! As an applied scientist, I also encourage on-farm experimentation that can help improve the farm’s operation. For example, I realize that organic seed sources may be new to people, and I always encourage farmers to try multiple organic seed sources and track performance during the transition years so that they can start to identify their “go-to sources” as they ramp up organic production. And, if we come up with novel research questions, I am always eager to ask our research team to help answer them while assuming the risk on one of Rodale Institute’s farms.

Making the choice to transition to organic production can feel overwhelming, and in the Midwest, it may also feel very lonely. It can be many miles between organic farms, and I personally understand the social pressure that coffee-shop talk can hold. The goal of my consulting approach goes beyond answering phone calls or walking through fields with a farmer. I want to ensure that they are truly welcomed into the vibrant, supportive network that is the organic community by making sure they have multiple mentors, organizations and an organic champion they can turn to to for ideas and support. There are many Midwest organic farmers and countless organizations to provide support to a farmer during their organic farming career, and I am grateful that our Rodale Institute team can work alongside these community members to support farmers on their organic journey.

If you are curious about how certified organic production would fit into your farm system, please contact us at consulting@RodaleInstitute.org or (610) 683-1416. Currently our services are FREE to Pennsylvania and Midwest farmers. Pricing for all other out-of-state clients is available upon request. More information about the Rodale Institute OCC Program is available at rodaleinstitute.org/consulting.

Kristine Lang has served as an Extension Scientist at Rodale Institute’s Midwest Organic Center. Rodale Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach. Rodale Institute’s mission states that, through organic leadership, we improve the health and well-being of people and the planet. Rodale Institute is growing the organic movement through rigorous, solutions-based research, farmer training, and consumer education. Learn more at RodaleInstitute.org.