Montana State University

New publication explores challenges of moving to organic agriculture

February 25, 2009 -- By Fabian Menalled MSU Extension Cropland Weeds Specialist

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Montana ranks first among U.S. states in the production of certified organic wheat, and second in organic production of all grains, peas, lentils and flax, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture. As of 2005, Montana had 145 USDA-certified organic pasture and cropland operations totaling 230,000 acres.

The growing popularity of organic production may reflect its good economic profile; Montana State University analysis indicates that, if properly managed, average net returns per acre for organic rotations could become favorable compared to conventional rotations. However, the transition to organic fields from conventional production can be challenging. Growers need to anticipate about 36-months in an organic system before crops could be certified as organic. This means that they need to prepare for potentially lower yields without receiving the increased prices received by established organic producers. This most often means that one or two crop harvests must be sold into transitional non-organic markets.

Montana dryland farmers face additional challenges because organic growers can only use a handful of approved herbicides and therefore rely more heavily on mechanical and cultural practices for weed control than conventional and no-tillage farmers. However, in our dryland ecosystems, excessive soil cultivation could lead to soil erosion. Achieving the two-fold goal of weed management and soil conservation requires an ecological approach to weed management that combines multiple weed control tactics with knowledge of the ecology of crop-weed competition and an understanding of the economic threshold for control.

No magical toolbox exists to guarantee a smooth transition from conventional to organic practices, but MSU faculty have summarized some of the economic, environmental and biological challenges of the transition to organic growing in a free fact sheet titled "From conventional to organic cropping: what to expect during the transition years." The publication explains that knowledge and access to appropriate technology are key factors in this process. This publication further provides some guidelines and references that may ease the pathway to organic agriculture.

The USDA National Organic Standards Board states that organic agriculture "is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on-farm management practices that restore, maintain, or enhance ecological harmony." In this context, "the primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people" and "the principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole."

To become a certified organic grower, crop producers need to comply with several regulations. For example, soil fertility and crop nutrients should be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowed synthetic materials.Crop pests, weeds and diseases should be controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, an approved biological, botanical or synthetic substance may be used. Also, land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop. Finally, the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited in organic production systems.

There are several ways to obtain a free copy of this Montguide (MT200901 AG). The publication is available free by contacting Fabian Menalled, the MSU Cropland Weed Specialist at (406) 994-4783 or, by visiting your local county or tribal MSU Extension office or by downloading from the Cropland Weed Management Website (, click on "Montguides and Technical Bulletins" and look for the title. It also is available through to MSU Extension Publications, PO Box 172040, Bozeman, MT 59717-2040.

Contact: Fabian Menalled (406) 994-4783 or