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.


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 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

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

Keyline Design Transforms Farm Water Management

What you will read in this article is an excerpt from my book, Water for Any Farm. It is an introduction to my more than 25 years of on-the-ground experience working with and deviating from the Yeomans’ keyline plan. From the backyard of my parents’ house in the suburbs of Massachusetts to 10,000-acre ranches, from permafrost mountainsides just shy of the Arctic Circle to equatorial boulder fields of East Africa, from areas with three hundred inches of rain per year to those with less than three, in all of these places I have personally installed systems based on the keyline design methodology and its modified forms.

What you will read in this is tried and true. It is intended to give a sufficient background to any landowner so that they can optimize their water resource for higher site productivity and greater drought resistance, and, just as importantly, so they can know deep in their heart that they have helped to make one little piece of earth a little more life-filled, livable, and green.

The Basic Keyline Design

This is not intended to be a replacement for all of the available information on the keyline design system. It is merely intended to be a description of the various farm and ranch-scale water management systems at our disposal in the United States, including the basics of keyline design. For those interested in learning more about any of the systems we discuss, that information can be sought out in-depth elsewhere.

Arguably P. A. Yeomans’ most significant discovery with the development of the keyline design system was the magic of landscape geometry. By knowing the locations of the keypoints and keylines on a piece of land, you can employ some ridiculously simple techniques to synchronize with the basic geometric shape of the land and radically change how that land interacts with water. It all starts with what Yeomans referred to as Keyline Pattern Cultivation. In his own words:

The objective of the pattern in Keyline pattern cultivation is to direct the shallow overland flow, which results from rainfall run off, to remain evenly spread and not follow its natural flow path to concentrate in the valley shapes. The same technique also provides the means for evenly spreading the water in the system of “hillside” irrigation named “Keyline Pattern irrigation.” It is the Keyline pattern cultivation that can convert what is commonly called “wild flooding” into fully controlled irrigation.

Yeomans, Water for Every Farm

The Primary Valley Cultivation Pattern

“Keyline pattern cultivation of a primary valley is done parallel to and on the lower side of the Keyline or any other approximately contour guide line in the valley area below the Keyline”(WFEF, 47).

Figure 6.1
Figure 6.2a

Simple! Simple, but brilliant. In order to keep things as simple as possible, let’s look at a relatively simple (for the United States) landform on a topographical map. Figure 6.1 is a topographical map with the keypoint in each of two primary valleys marked with an asterisk. Beginning at the keypoint, the keyline of each primary valley is marked in bold. The keyline is the reference line from which the valley cultivation pattern is derived. All fieldwork in the valley is done parallel to and downward from the keyline. The dotted lines in Figure 6.2a represent the path that one’s equipment would take in that primary valley whether it be a plow, a mower, or hay baler. Notice, though, that this pattern only goes as far as where the side walls of the primary valleys become steeper and the mouth of the valley opens outward (the turning outward of your wrists in the breadbowl demonstration). This is the extent of the primary valley cultivation. Be sure to look closely at the contour lines in the valley in relation to the cultivation lines. As cultivation proceeds in parallel below the keyline, the tractor begins to make lines that start at a higher elevation in the valley center then gradually drop in elevation as they go toward the ridge. When cultivating a valley below and parallel to the keyline, the tool marks, furrows, and wheel-tracks all cause the valley water to drift toward the ridge instead of following their former path directly downslope to the valley floor. Later on in a grazing system, the pathway of animals moving through the paddocks follows and reinforces this pattern as well.

From now into the future, all activity on the land helps to cause water to drift from the valleys to the ridges. This is the way we divide up any overland water flow in the primary valley and get it to spread out toward the ridge. As it drifts toward the ridge, it is soaking into the ground and distributing water to areas whose shapes have already caused water to migrate to the valleys. Keyline pattern cultivation has just reversed the general trend of water in the landscape. Instead of water flowing downhill off the ridges and moving into the valleys, keyline patterning brings water from the valleys back out onto the ridges. Well, at least that’s what Yeoman’s says they’re supposed to do.

As one can see in Figure 6.2a, the Keyline cultivation pattern doesn’t really work for the primary valley on the right. The left (western) leg of the uppermost parallel below the keyline actually pitches toward the center of the primary valley and not toward the ridge like Yeoman’s said it would. I know of hundreds of people attempting to set up the keyline cultivation pattern on their property who have encountered situations like this, and one of the first things people think to themselves is, “Have I done something wrong?”

Hmm . . . maybe we have! Maybe what we thought was the keypoint was actually the wrong spot. What if we “adjusted” things by choosing another location as the possible keypoint?

Figure 6.2b

In order to see what such a change might do, in Figure 6.2b we deliberately moved both originally marked keypoints, generated a new keyline and then drew some parallels below the keyline to see what this would do (remember . . . whether you’re sketching on a paper map or a computer, changing the location of a line at this stage is quite affordable. Once you start to lay out new field cultivation patterns, install terraces or move fences, things get more expensive). When we began to make parallel passes with equipment below the new keyline in each primary valley, surface water will indeed follow the cultivation pattern and move from higher in the primary valley out toward the ridges just like Yeoman’s said. Choosing a slightly different location for the “keypoint” (understanding that this location might be some place other than an actual geographic keypoint) is one of the simplest adjustments that one Figure 6.2b can do to help adjust a system where the landform does not actually behave according to “keyline geometry.” Primary Valley cultivation isn’t the be-all and end-all of keyline pattern cultivation, however. There are also primary ridges to consider.

The Primary Ridge Cultivation Pattern

“The general pattern of primary ridge cultivation is parallel upwards from a selected contour…” (WFEF, 49).

Once again, simple and brilliant. Let’s turn now to Figure 6.3 and leave out the valley cultivation pattern for now.

Figure 6.3

When selecting a contour line as the reference line for ridge cultivation, according to Yeomans, one can pick any contour line as the reference line. In order to have the cultivation pattern cover as much of the landscape as possible, though, one can choose the lowest practical elevation contour line on any given property.

Figure 6.3a

In Figure 6.3a, this reference contour is marked in bold. The dotted lines in Figure 6.3a represent the tractor path for keyline pattern cultivation of a ridge. Upon examination of the relationship between the contour lines and the cultivation path, one can now see that by cultivating parallel and upward from the reference contour, any water striking the ridge will encounter rip lines, furrows, wheel tracks, etc., and that will cause the water to drift toward the ridge.

However, anyone who can read a contour map can clearly see that there’s a problem. Although the pattern on the westernmost primary ridge of fig 6.3a looks as if it will work just fine, the same is not true for the other two primary ridges. On the primary ridge in the middle and most noticeably on the primary ridge on the right (east), the parallel lines clearly show that any water following the Keyline ridge cultivation pattern would travel at such a steep slope that it would likely cause erosion on those ridges.

One of the reasons for following the Figure 6.3a keyline cultivation pattern is to prevent valley erosion. “Wild flooding,” Yeoman’s called it. Replacing wild flooding in a valley in order to create it on the ridge is pointless. Figure 6.3a plainly shows us that not any old contour line on a ridge can be used as the reference line. We will have to “adjust.”

Figure 6.3b

Figure 6.3b is just one such adjustment. On the middle primary ridge, the “ridge reference contour” (solid, bold) was moved up one contour line. On the right hand ridge we moved up two contour lines. As once can see, this appears to have corrected the problem on the middle ridge, but it has not solved the problem on the right hand ridge at all.

As a matter of fact, none of the contour lines on the right hand ridge will serve as a “ridge reference contour” for the keyline cultivation pattern. That ridge simply does not obey keyline geometry. Yeoman’s repeatedly reminds us that keeling geometry is universally applicable. Other authors note that when a landform doesn’t obey keyline geometry these “landscape anomalies” can be ignored and the system “adjusted.” Without being judgmental or self-righteous, I would like to point out that most of the problems that landowners have had with Keyline Design has everything to do with the fact that in the majority of situations, the “simple” Keyline cultivation pattern does not work on a complex landscape. It needs adjustment. The adjustments are what this book is all about.

When we do have a simple enough land-form that it does obey Keyline geometry, we can then combine primary valley cultivation with primary ridge cultivation.

The combination of the primary valley cultivation pattern with the primary ridge cultivation pattern shows a complete system in which the use of the land itself causes water to spread to the ridges rather than drift to the valleys. This is shown in Figure 6.4.

Figure 6.4

We can see a couple of things in the combined diagram. For one, as one proceeds upward and parallel to the ridge guide contour, eventually equipment turns on the ridge become too tight. (red asterisk in upper middle ridge) At this point, either the equipment operator needs to move uphill back to a wider turning radius, or a new ridge reference contour line is chosen from which to cultivate parallel lines farther up.

We can see a couple of things in the combined diagram. For one, as one proceeds upward and parallel to the ridge guide contour, eventually equipment turns on the ridge become too tight. At this point, either the equipment operator moves uphill back to a wider turn radius, or a new uphill contour guideline is chosen from which to cultivate parallel lines farther up.

The same is true in the valleys. As the equipment works parallel to the keyline and lower in elevation, the turns become tighter and tighter. This can proceed until the operator makes a smoother curve in the valley bottom, or until a new reference contour is chosen from which to parallel downward (see red asterisks in both primary valleys).

What can be seen in both ridge and valley cultivation is that crescent-shaped spots of uncultivated land “appear.” In Water for Every Farm, Yeomans shows this pattern in diagrams but fails to suggest what to do with these “odd spots.” (Are these perhaps more landscape anomalies?) Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designers’ Manual uses the same graphics as Water for Every Farm and also fails to address how to approach these areas. These irregular shapes on crests of primary ridges and in the bottoms of primary valleys were significant influences in the development of the Master Line System.

One of the main objectives of keyline pattern cultivation is to influence the shallow overland flow of runoff water so that it remains evenly spread across the landscape instead of following its natural path straight down the slope to the valley floor. Remember, of course, that before any human patterning, water will flow from the high spots to the low spots. Water striking the ridges will flow downhill to concentrate in the valleys. Ridges functionally receive less than the actual rainfall amount because the water flows away to the valleys, and valleys receive more than the actual rainfall amount since they receive some of the water that originally fell on the ridges but flowed down the slopes to lower elevations. This flow is not all in the form of channeled flow. In areas with light rains and on more gentle slopes, the majority of the water movement in the landscape may be by sheet flow.

Water falls evenly on the land and soaks into the top layers of soil. Gravity, constantly at work, suggests that this water move to lower elevations. The incessant pull of gravity is part of what brings water deeper into the soil. If the pore space between soil particles is large (sand and gravel), most of the rain will be pulled straight down toward the center of the earth, especially on flatter landscapes. No sheet flow occurs.

Rills and runoff streams won’t happen. With smaller pore spaces in the soil, water is not pulled toward the center of the earth fast enough to counter the effects of slope and the entire sheet of water, oftentimes just barely below the surface of the ground, is pulled downhill toward the center of the valley. Slowly, this body of water migrates away from the ridges toward the valleys.

This principal can be illustrated with a simple experiment. Take a kitchen sponge and saturate it with water. Wring it out a little so that it doesn’t drip. Next, place it on a tilted surface such as a cutting board or cookie-baking sheet with one side propped up. At first no water will trickle out of the sponge, but, eventually, gravity will begin to pull the water from the sponge. The water will begin to flow out from the lower side of the sponge and travel down the board.

The flow of water moving within the sponge itself is sheet flow. It is this shallow surface and subsurface flow that the keyline cultivation pattern is masterful at directing. When all farming activities follow the basic keyline patterning, all wheel tracks, cultivating furrows, and subsoiler lines follow the keyline cultivation pattern, all sheet flow is nudged toward the ridges. In flatter landscapes with sandier soil, in regions where the rainfall comes in smaller, gentler rains, the keyline pattern cultivation may be all that is needed to effectively keep all rainwater on the ridges long enough to allow it to soak in deeply and remain as a resource for increased crop yields.

In places where larger rain events are the norm, such as areas that receive their rain via thunderstorms of various sizes, simple keyline cultivation may not be enough to significantly influence sheet flow. In areas with heavier, clay soils, even in flat country, keyline patterning alone may also not be enough. The patterning will still have an effect, but rainwater will pile up on the soil surface faster than it can soak into the soil. The surplus water not soaked into the soil will eventually overwhelm the cultivation ridges and resume its surface flow overland directly to the valley floor. Some water still drifts toward the ridges, induced by the keyline cultivation patterning, but much will be lost as it overwhelms the system that is undersized for that particular rainfall type, soil type, and slope.

Some other circumstances that were not addressed by Yeomans at all, which are extremely important in the United States and Canada, are rainfall on frozen ground, rapid snowmelt, and rain on snow events. When these occur, subsoiler rip lines and tiny surface furrows are totally inadequate to capture all of the available water, if they’re even able to capture any. In many places (this has happened at New Forest Farm in Wisconsin several times, on multiple occasions some years!) this water may be the only water a site gets for the entire season. The loss of this precious resource is entirely preventable with the introduction of a simple yet powerful tool.

Mark Shepard is a Wisconsin-based permaculture designer, agroforester and ecological farming consultant. He and his family have transformed a typical 140-acre row-crop dairy farm into a permaculture-based perennial-agricultural ecosystem using oak savannah, successional brushland and Eastern woodlands as ecological models. The result is one of the first and finest farm-scale models of permaculture in the United States. He is the author of Restoration Agriculture and his new book for Acres U.S.A. on water management, Water for Any Farm, is now available. A technical manual to accompany Water for Any Farm is scheduled for release later this year.

Mark Shepard Teaches Permaculture

Mark Shepard’s intensive course “Practical Permaculture and Agroforestry for Farmers” is now available on Eco-Ag U Online. Join Mark Shepard as he shares real permaculture knowledge he’s gained over a lifetime of study and through the implementation of these systems on his own family’s farm. Not just a theory class, you’ll hear real-world advice and tips on these innovative farming systems. Whether you “go all the way,” as Mark is doing, or simply introduce some new crops and diversity into your traditional farm or small acreage, this online workshop is certain to provide the roadmap you’ll need. View course details and free preview here.

What Does Certified Organic Mean?


A friend told me how upset she was to discover that when she buys Certified Organic foods, the quality (or authenticity) isn’t always the same as our (no longer Certified) product. In essence, I told her that not all organics are created equal due to variables at many levels.

Farms are as individualized as people. In the arena of natural farming systems, people’s personal beliefs influence how operations are run. Some farmers avoid the use of plastic mulch, greenhouses and plug trays in their system because they wish to use as little plastic as possible on principle.

Although all organic growers seek to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, some practice a complete avoidance, using no-till practices and relying on hand tools. While open-pollinated and heirloom plant varieties have a place in almost all gardens, some choose to limit themselves to such varieties exclusively, while others may include some hybrids.

A final example of differing opinions in the organic ranks is the paper pot debate. Over the past year their acceptability has been questioned. The paper pots (produced by Small Farm Works) are made out of recycled, biodegradable paper, but are held together by a synthetic binder, a polymer. Although their use was scheduled to be prohibited beginning in 2019, it may be permitted in cases where growers feel they need them. However, some growers will not use them no matter the official ruling. All of these options are within the limits of “Certified Organic.”


In the U.S., Certified Organic isn’t what it used to be. Organic certification used to be dealt with on a state-by-state (or certifier-by-certifier) basis. The basic concept was common to all, but depending on where a farm was seeking certification, rules could be somewhat different. Due to possible difficulties in transporting product across state lines or using it in processed foods destined for anywhere, standardization is given as the reason for the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-sanctioned set of rules that are uniform across the country.

Some suspect the rules were developed to offer an advantage to larger industrial farms. Suspicions seem to have been confirmed. Organic mega-farms, previously unheard of, are now prevalent. We now see huge “organic” monocultures, factory farms milking 10,000-20,000 head and organic eggs and poultry coming out of confinement operations and organic CAFOs.


Even with rules in place, wiggle room seems to allow for un-organic behavior. In factory milking operations, conventional cattle can be continuously “transitioned” to organic production when the operations do not raise their own calves for milk production. Instead, they purchase cheaper, conventional cattle raised on medicated milk replacer, which commonly includes antibiotics and other banned substances. Once weaned, these calves are fed GMO grains and non-organic hay. Approximately one year before freshening, they are switched to organic practices. This is despite there being Origin of Livestock Standards in place. And this is not the only setback for true organic animal husbandry. The removal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices — which outlined rules for the living conditions/care, transportation and slaughtering of Certified Organic animals — means, for example, that organic poultry no longer require access to the outdoors. This would have seemed fairly elemental at one time.

Another strongly protested amendment to the National Organic Program that recently came to pass is the use of hydroponics. Growth in isolation in massive hydroponic operations means no enhancing of the natural environment through soil building, carbon sequestering or other elements held dear by many in organic agriculture. In fact, as of 2021, the European Union will no longer accept produce labeled “organic” that has been produced hydroponically. However, European hydroponic producers who use approved organic inputs will still be able to export their produce to the U.S. labeled as organic.

This all spells incredible competition and extreme disadvantages for small-scale organic operations whose certification, in theory, has the same weight as that of “big organic.”


Are all of these seemingly incongruous “organic” practices really permissible according to the certification rules? Maybe yes, maybe no. Not all organic certifiers have the same motives, values or aims. In some cases, multi-million-dollar business enterprises (the certifiers) are now certifying multi-billion-dollar corporate agribusinesses (the farms). And the USDA has allowed the interpretation of organic regulations to be left to the certifier, some of whom are very understanding about the difficulties of maintaining an organic operation on such a large scale.

The Cornucopia Institute, an agricultural watchdog, will soon put out another of its “report and scorecard” assessments — this time concerning organic certifiers. They aim to tell us which organizations are certifying operations that are authentically organic and which are giving true organic farmers unfair competition (and organic consumers essentially fraudulent products) by certifying agribusiness operations and enabling them to possess the Certified Organic label.

Additionally, the Organic Farmers Association (OFA, membership of Certified Organic farmers only) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC) are both voicing the concerns, on a national level, of those involved in organic agriculture — concerns ranging from organic integrity to the ability of farmers to maintain their livelihoods. And the Real Organic Project, whose mission is to inform the public on true organic farming values and practices, is working to create an add-on label for Certified Organic to help with transparency.


These days, there is an ever-growing number of certification programs available to farmers. With a seal of certification, your customers can know at once what your brand of farming stands for. But first you must know: What are the standards, values and requirements of the principle “natural” farming systems out there today that offer certification?

USDA National Organic Program (Certified Organic)

For a farm operation to be Certified Organic, it must avoid synthetic chemical inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides), sewage sludge as a fertilizer and genetically modified (GMO) seed. Farmland must have been free of these synthetic chemicals for (generally) three years prior to certification.

There are a number of practices advocated in organic farming, including crop rotation and the accompanying use of farm maps, the use of cover crops and green manures, intercropping and companion planting, management that decreases the use of and dependence on fossil fuels, the fostering of natural predators to control insect populations, and more. Soil and water quality have always been important in organic agriculture, and its practitioners stress soil-building practices, erosion prevention and well-timed fertilization.

There has also been an increasing emphasis on carbon sequestration and the farming practices that encourage this, especially since 2000, as these mechanisms are becoming better understood. Beyond crop production, the care of livestock is also clearly defined regarding housing space, appropriate feed and the avoidance of antibiotics and growth agents, among other things. Yearly certification renewal and farm visits are part of certification. It is a third-party certification system and certification rates are sufficiently high to maintain such a system.

Many believe that the ethos of organics has changed and continues to change since the establishment of the NOP/NOSB. There have been attempts to water down the rules of organics from the very beginning of the NOP. Some attempts have been successfully rejected, such as the inclusion of “the Big Three” in Certified Organic farming practices — GMOs, sewage sludge and irradiation, which were included in the standards published in 1997.

Other truly non-organic practices that are now permitted in Certified Organic operations are the use of hydroponics (not much soil building or carbon sequestering happening there) and the removal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) from the rules for organic certification. The OLPP outlined rules for the living conditions/care, transportation and slaughter of Certified Organic animals. For example, they specified that organic poultry must have access to the outdoors.

Certified Naturally Grown

The Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) program was founded in 2002 in response to the creation of the NOP. It is very much a grassroots program; its creation was due to dissatisfaction with the appropriation of the Certified Organic label by the USDA. CNG certification is sought by a number of farmers who previously had been Certified Organic. The CNG program offers a growing system with production standards based on the NOP standards but with simpler, less costly administration (and that old, holistic feel). It is especially attractive to farmers who sell locally and focus on direct-to-consumer sales. Yearly inspections for certification can be conducted by CNG or non-CNG farmers, extension agents, master gardeners or even customers (though other CNG farmers are considered ideal). This program certifies produce and livestock operations, as well as apiaries, and CNG farms are subject to random pesticide residue testing.

Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)

Regenerative Organic agriculture is what one might call uber-organics. While many of the natural farming practices hope to work with nature or employ some of nature’s tactics in farming, Regenerative Organics designs its systems to mimic nature heavily. It aims to improve the resources it relies on (soil, water, air) rather than to deplete them. Increasing soil fertility and farm biodiversity (with an increase in the reliance on perennials over annuals), as well as seed and crop vitality, are amon the objectives. It seeks to keep farming and farming solutions low-cost.

However, Regenerative Organics really stands apart from other certifications in that it seems to be equally about food production and carbon sequestration; it aims to reverse climate change by transforming agriculture into a carbon sink instead of a source of carbon in the environment. Regenerative Organics is often seen as borrowing from/integrating agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture, holistic management and other ecological agriculture practices.
The term “Regenerative Organic agriculture” was coined by Robert Rodale in the ’80s, and the Rodale Institute (headquartered in Pennsylvania) is known as a pioneer of regenerative practices. There are many other organizations at its forefront, including Kiss the Ground (California), the Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm, California), the Land Institute (Kansas), and the Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia), to name a few, as well as many advocates, including Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association (Massachusetts) and Mark Shepard of New Forest Farms (Wisconsin).

A certification program for Regenerative Organics was introduced in 2018. Its “three pillars” for certifiable systems are soil health, animal welfare and social fairness. The USDA Certified Organic Standard is the baseline for the certification standards; additionally, it is required that those seeking certification first work with various existing certifiers in the arena of all three pillars. Then, once ROC-specific guidelines for each pillar are also met, farms are eligible for ROC Bronze, Silver or Gold certification. ROC is overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.

Demeter Biodynamic Certification (Demeter USA)

Demeter USA is the only certifier for biodynamic farms/products in the United States, with produce labeled simply “Biodynamic” or “Demeter.” It is part of Demeter International, which was formed in 1928 and is the oldest ecological certification organization in the world. It requires all of its members to follow NOP standards, but has additional qualifications that make its program much more extensive and stringent. Demeter Certification has stricter requirements regarding imported fertility on farms; a greater emphasis for on-farm solutions of disease, pest, and weed problems; and also has more stringent requirements regarding on-farm water conservation and biodiversity. Biodynamics has always stressed the importance of local food production and distribution systems. Regarding animal breeds and plant varieties, it demands greater use of traditional strains and the development of regional types. Other hallmarks of biodynamic farming are the use of an astrological sowing/planting calendar and specific herbal and mineral additives for compost and field preparations.

Fair for Life Certified (Fair Trade Certified by IMO)

In the past, Fair Trade certification was available only to farmers in certain geographic locations and for limited farm products; no U.S. grower would have been eligible for certification. This changed with the creation of the Fair for Life Certified program, conducted by the Institute for Marketecology (IMO). Developed in 2006, it expanded the Fair Trade system to include a greater number of products for certification, production types, and countries. It is concerned with domestic and regional trade.

Unlike traditional Fair Trade systems, the IMO Fair Trade system believes that even in “developed countries” there can be labor laws that offer only limited protection to farm workers, that institutional and governmental support to maintain local agriculture/industry may be unbalanced or insufficient, and that some marginalized communities may need support in the face of concentration and internationalization. In other words, farmers within any country may be at a socio-economic disadvantage. IMO (founded in 1989) joined with Ecocert Organic Certifiers of France in 1991. “Fair for Life” works through cooperatives and develops community betterment projects as part of their system (trademarks of Fair Trade).

Furthermore, IMO places particular emphasis on organic production, making their partnership with Ecocert all the more significat. Though they do accept and begin certification with all systems of production, their yearly improvements and recommendations are to continually move all non-organic producers towards organics.

Non-GMO Project Verified

Non-GMO Project verification is just as simple as it sounds. Products labeled as such do not contain genetically modified organisms. This means they do not contain plants whose genetic makeup could not occur naturally. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have a genetic code that has had some amount of DNA inserted into it that could not occur there by normal plant reproductive means (a combination of genes that could not occur in nature). In addition to processed products, farmers can have produce certified, as well as animal products such as eggs and meat, which would be a certification of non-GMO feed. It provides third-party verification, of course.

Leah Smith works on Nodding Thistle, her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan. After graduating from Michigan State University, she returned to the farm to continue with the farming life and to devote time to writing.

Wild Farm Alliance Supports Connections Between Farmer, Ecosystems & Community

By Barbara Berst Adams

Wild Farm Alliance reports that 37 percent of the Earth’s land is dedicated to agriculture, making farmland a top priority for Earth regeneration and wildlife conservation. While they assist farmers, they also connect with them for the purpose of learning from them. And that’s valuable to farmers, because we have to be careful that non-farming certifiers and agricultural advisors do not become too distant from farming itself. Often farmers are the ones on the forefront of continual discovery and innovation by being constantly engaged in their operations.

Each time we plant borders for beneficial insects or erect homes for raptors as rodent control, we’re offering something to wild nature in exchange for it being our ally as we nurture domesticated crops. Sometimes, as with Nettles Farm on Lummi Island in Washington State, nature’s bounty makes its way into the farm’s offerings.

Nettles Farm is surrounded by the sea and natural woodlands. Wild rose petals, wild plums and even edible seaweeds find their way into the foods of the chefs they supply at the famous Willows Inn.

Meanwhile, more and more information is surfacing on the huge potential agriculture has toward climate and natural resource restoration. But both farmers and wild nature are vulnerable, and like any good partnership, the union can truly sustain itself when each partner receives ongoing symbiotic support from the other. This article focuses on how eco-farmers are affected by growing desires and expectations to support ecosystems while earning a living at the same time, along with how I’ve seen an organization called Wild Farm Alliance assist them.

Even if it initially appears a future farm and wild nature partnership would be symbiotic eventually, the transition time to reach that state needs to be financially and labor-wise feasible. Farms can’t support nature if they go out of business in their attempts to do so and sell out to development or corporate agriculture. And because consumer demand fuels the farm with its financial support and policy voting, consumer understanding of the process farms must go through to reach and maintain higher states of sustainable regeneration is also intrinsic to the partnership.

man with hedgerows
Photo courtesy of Wild Farm Alliance. Hedgerows can provide a multitude of benefits including pollinator, beneficial insect and wildlife habitat, dust and wind protection and increased diversity.

Transitioning to Organic: Strategies for Success

By Gary F. Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand

With conventional prices for corn, beans, wheat and dairy really low right now and both prices and demand for organic products high, a lot of growers are thinking about transitioning to organic.

For most growers, one of the biggest deterrents to going organic is the 36-month-long process of transition, during which time you can use only organic-approved inputs and practices, but the crops, milk or other farm goods produced can’t be sold as “organic” and receive the price premium.

In my opinion, chasing profits is not the right reason to go organic, and there is more to it than not adding prohibited inputs and getting paid more for your crops. Being a successful organic farmer requires a different mind-set, and the best time to figure out your approach to organic farming and set yourself up for success is during the transition period.

Before Transitioning to Organic 

If you’re considering transitioning to organic, the first thing you should do is sit down and think about why and then think about how. If your answer to why is that you are doing it for the money, maybe it’s not for you.

Being an organic farmer is not an easy get-rich-quick scheme. You have to have the right mind-set to be a successful organic farmer. This is a different way to farm. If you’re doing this because you think it’s right and it’s the best path for the future of your farm, you’re on the right track.

Organic farming takes more knowledge; it takes new and different tools, and it takes a better understanding of soils. You need to manage the nutrients you are putting on, but you also need to thoroughly understand the role of the soil’s physical structure and its biology. These become your new focus.

As part of having the right mind-set, you should never accept the argument that your crops will yield less than conventional and have more insect and disease problems. As you transition to organic, you transition from crop-protection chemicals to disease-prevention techniques.

grass field
Healthy, mineralized soils produce healthy, high-yielding crops, and it’s your job to figure out how to pull that off on your farm.

As a first step, I highly recommend that you visit a successful organic farm to see what their operation is like and examine the management tools they use. What is their soil mineralization program? Do they have livestock or use manure? What is their crop rotation, and what tillage techniques do they use? Are there disease and insect problems? If so, how do they control them?

Take a look at their soils and spend a little time digging into them, looking at soil structure, residue decay and biology. Are there earthworms? What type of soils do they have? You’ll find that most successful organic farms have higher organic matter and loamier soils. It’s very difficult to farm organically on sand or on heavy clay.

Two of the biggest changes you’ll have to make as you switch from conventional to organic production are weed control techniques and nitrogen management. Here, too, you can learn a lot from observing the successes of other farms. What are their weed control tools? How do they manage tillage? When and how do they plant?

Plowing might be the easy way to bury things, but it’s not the best for soil structure and soil life. If you’re going to farm organically you can do this once in a while but certainly not yearly. When you decide to plow you have made the decision to start over! You tear soil aggregates apart, tip things over and have a large biology kill-off. It’s acceptable to do now and then, but it’s not sustainable.

Changing how you think about nitrogen is key to becoming a successful organic farmer. Nitrogen is the only nutrient you can grow, but you have to learn how, what works and what doesn’t work. This involves learning at what stage of maturity you work in a cover crop and which varieties you use in each situation — it’s not just counting nitrogen credits from legumes. Feeding crops is like feeding dairy cows. What kinds of feed would you give a cow to get 100 pounds of milk?

It’s not all legumes, but it is highly digestible, which means not feeding too many complex carbons. Feeding a crop that requires a lot of soluble nutrients — like corn — works the same way as feeding a highly productive dairy cow, meaning you need a lot of soluble nutrients including nitrogen.

You can feed a legume crop such as soybeans like you are going to feed a dry cow, with more complex carbons in the ration. A legume will fix its own nitrogen, so you can plant after working in a more mature cover crop and the soybeans will be fine. Growing cover crops or leaving straw and corn stalks (stubble) on the field is good for building organic matter but can tie up nutrients and starve the next crop of nitrogen. On the plus side, it also starves the weeds, making for better weed control in soybeans, which is always a challenge.

You have to learn how to manage when you need nitrogen and when you want to limit it in order to get the most success in building organic matter and biology to get the most out of your soils.

Another thing to keep in mind as you look around at successful organic farms is whether the farm imports or exports nutrients. What leaves the farm in terms of minerals and organic matter (in the form of crops, milk and other farm goods)?

Selling hay is hard on soils because it takes out lots of minerals and removes a lot of organic matter. On the farm I manage with my son and daughter, we refuse to sell hay unless the farm that buys it returns manure to our fields. I don’t want to deplete my soils of the organic matter and minerals that keep my yields high and reduce my pest problems.

Make sure you’re setting yourself up for success when you transition to organic. As you consider transitioning, another thing to think about is the history of the farm. Not every farm is suited to be organic. Old dairy farms tend to transition well, especially if the farmer had to buy feed or overused fertilizers or manure. There will be a lot of extra nutrients and organic matter in the soil from the added manure and minerals.

Grain farms also tend to have good potential for success because grains remove the least amount of minerals and organic matter from the soil — but the downside of grain farms is that there is not much crop variety, a lot of chemical use and bare ground between the rows, which means that soil structure and biology can be a problem on this type of farm.

If a farm has been heavily tilled and had a lot of nutrients removed, or has poor soil structure and a lot of disease and weed problems, it is probably one that will take more work to transition to successful, high productivity organic farming. Having good mineral levels in the soil and using plants and biology to keep nutrients cycling is a good way to keep your organic farm successful.

On-Farm Intensive with Zimmer Ag

Learn about soil health in person with Gary Zimmer

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive – starting in summer 2021 – is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. 

Learn more here!

5 Strategies for Transitioning to Organic 

There are several different strategies for setting yourself up for a bumper crop in your first year of organic production. Below is a short discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of each of the five strategies I see as the most common or most practical approaches to transitioning land.

1. Change the materials used, but keep farming as you have been

I see this as the highest risk of all of the strategies for transitioning land to organic. Many farmers adopt the thinking that they need to keep on growing a cash crop like they always have during the transition, and rather than focus on building soils they focus on making as much money as they can from their transitional crop. But farming organically does not mean input substitution.

You’re not looking for organic nitrogen sources, organic insecticides, herbicides or fungicides; you are setting yourself up so you don’t need them. There are some organic pesticides available and more coming out, and while there may be times when these tools are helpful, you don’t want to depend on them. Also, you are not in a numbers game. If you were putting on 200 units of nitrogen conventionally you aren’t going to find or be able to afford 200 organic units of N, even from manure. It’s a totally different program.

The other side to this strategy is the value of the crop. Yes, you can grow a farm-identified cash crop that you market as non-GMO or transitional organic in order to get a slightly higher price — and take advantage of the USDA-backed insurance for transitional crops — but what have you really changed about your mind-set or your farming system?

If the focus isn’t on building soils, this is a risky strategy. Have you added a cover crop and minerals to the rotation as well? How are you managing weeds? You could moldboard plow once or twice to try to get the weed seed bank down, but that isn’t a long-term strategy. If you don’t change how you farm, you are going to run into some big obstacles down the road.

2. Accelerate the system.

Focus on building soils and don’t worry about getting a good return off of the transitional acres. This strategy really sets you up for success and a bumper crop once your land is organic, but it works best if you’re only transitioning part of the farm rather than your whole operation.

Most farmers can’t afford not to harvest any crops from their whole farm for two growing seasons in order to focus on soil-building. But if you are in a situation where you’re taking on new acres that you want to transition, or are transitioning just a part of your farm, spending two years growing cover crops and working them back into the soil, adding minerals, and really focusing on building soil health and organic matter as quickly as possible really sets you up for a great crop with a great return once the transition phase is over.

Because our farm is already organic, if we add acres we spend the two transition years remineralizing, growing cover crops and working them back into the ground, and focus on fixing the soil so when it is certified we can have a few years of high-yielding, profitable crops with very few pest problems. If corn makes us the most money, I’m not going to grow it in transitional years; I’m going to save it for when it’s organic as I do need a rotation. I have used this method on several new pieces of land, and I have had really great success and seen remarkable improvements in soil quality after just two years of soil-building.

3. Grow cover crops like rye for seed

Growing a cover crop for seed during transition, such as oats or rye, is another strategy for building soils and reducing weed and pest problems. You don’t have to worry about selling the crop at the lower transitional price — you just use the seed you grew for all of your cover crop seed on your farm.

This method has several advantages: no worries about marketing; you can apply lower cost organic approved soil correctives such as chicken manure to build fertility and organic matter slowly, since only the seed is harvested and the straw is worked back into the soil; you can reduce the weed seed bank and lower weed pressure by harvesting the seed crop before the weeds have gone to seed; and you can add plant diversity by planting a mixed cover crop after the rye or oats is harvested.

This is a method of transition that we are using currently on a farm that we are transitioning. Right now the farm is in year 2 of transition after having been a conventional corn/corn/bean farm for many years. Besides applying 1 ton/acre of poultry manure, we also applied 1,000 lbs/acre of rock phosphate and 1,000 lbs/acre of Sulfur Plus (a calcium/sulfur blend with potassium and trace elements in it).

Having tested the soil before making any changes to this farm, we are now retesting to see what further inputs are needed.

Our yields were about 35 bushels/acre of rye seed the first year and 4 bales of straw/acre. This year, the yield was 52 bushels/acre of rye seed and 8 bales of straw/acre. We use the straw to bed our livestock and later apply 2 tons/acre of composted dairy manure to return the carbon that came off in the straw. The rye seed is put through a seed cleaner and then planted as the fall cover crop following corn removal across other parts of this organic farm.

4. Grow an alfalfa or forage crop during transition

Growing two years of alfalfa during transition can really help reduce the weed seed bank and add nitrogen to your soil, with the caveat being that minerals must be returned to the soil during the transition years. If you’re going to sell the transitional alfalfa off the farm, it is absolutely essential that you replace the minerals and organic matter you’re removing, preferably by adding animal manure.

Keep in mind that if you’re just replacing what is removed, you are only maintaining the nutrient levels in the soil. I want to build soils as much as possible during the transition, so I will test the soils before transition starts and add the nutrients that are short. Growing and selling alfalfa makes remineralization more difficult because you are hauling a lot of nutrients off of the farm.

That said, this method of transition works well if you want to grow a bumper crop of corn your first organic year and you let the alfalfa get about 12 inches tall and then work it back into the soil before planting the corn.

You’ll have an absolutely beautiful, weed-free and high-yielding corn crop that first year. As long as the weather cooperates, you’ll think organic is really easy and wonder why everyone isn’t doing it! You can’t expect every year after that to be quite so easy, but it sure does make that first year fun.

5. Grazing cattle on the transitional acres

Taking the two transition years to build soil health and plant diversity while grazing is another good strategy for transitioning to organic. It’s important to focus on growing a high-quality diverse pasture and adding some minerals so that you’re building soil nutrients and organic matter. As long as you manage the grazing well and mow if need be to prevent weeds from going to seed, this can be an easy way to set yourself up for success.

If you’re just starting down the road toward transitioning to organic, consider doing just a part of the farm at a time rather than going all in. This not only helps you learn what works best on your farm, but also allows you to really focus on getting land ready for organic production while you still have an income. It will take you some time to find the best crops and methods for your farm.

Always start with a good detailed soil test so you know what minerals are needed to balance the soil. As organic farmers we can use any mineral anyone else does just from different sources (such as manure and rock phosphate for P rather than MAP or DAP). Biology and plants are also essential to recycle and get these nutrients crop-available.

Organic is a system of farming that can produce yields just as high as conventional farming with healthy plants and few pest and disease problems, but you need to learn the principles of how to play the game. As I stated in the beginning, if you are just after the higher prices you may be disappointed with your results. Are you willing to do what is necessary for success?

This article appeared in the October 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand are the authors of Advancing Biological Farming, a sequel to Gary’s earlier book, The Biological Farmer, both published by Acres U.S.A. Gary is also an organic dairy farmer, an accomplished speaker, a sought-after farm consultant and president of Midwestern BioAg, a biological farming products and services company.

Leilani has written extensively about biological farming and runs training courses for farmers and farming consultants on the principles of biological farming at Midwestern BioAg where she serves as vice president of education initiatives.

Learn in the field with Gary Zimmer!

2021 On-Farm Intensive logo

From July 19-20, 2021, visit Gary Zimmer’s Otter Creek Organic Farm in Lone Rock, Wisconsin. Dive into a two-day educational experience from the father of biological farming himself. Learn about soil health, cover crops and more. Farm owners, operators and managers will walk away with practical knowledge to improve their operations. Learn more here.

The Acres U.S.A. On-Farm Intensive is held in partnership with experienced farm consultants Gary Zimmer and Leilani Zimmer-Durand at their famous Otter Creek Farm near Lone Rock, Wisconsin. This two-day educational experience will help farmers, growers and land owners maximize their land’s potential. Learn more here!

Community Land Trusts: Gateway to Farmland

By Stephanie Hiller 

The Oakland Institute, a policy think tank in Oakland, California, reports that huge pension funds, university endowments, banks, sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds and new exchange-traded companies have invested an estimated $25 billion in U.S. farmland, with no guarantee that the land will stay in agriculture. At the same time, farmland near cities is under pressure of development for housing and related services.

“No Farms No Food,” shouts the webpage of the American Farmland Trust. Every day we are losing almost 40 acres of good farm and ranch land in the United States. Once covered with cement, good soil is gone forever.

troy gardens
Troy Gardens is a 5-acre community farm in Madison, Wisconsin.

Even organic food, with its premiums, the fastest growing sector in agriculture, does not always produce enough income to pay the mortgage. Could community land trusts offer a solution?

A crisis is on the horizon of which most consumers are unaware. We are also losing farmers. Fifty-seven percent of farmers are over 60 and getting ready to retire; but who will farm their land? Many young people would like to take up farming and have, but finding affordable land is another matter. Due to escalating prices from development and real estate speculation, land remains out of reach for most young farmers. The fate of our farmland is the fate of our food. It is also to some extent the fate of the planet.

Originally created to preserve open space, land trusts have begun to stretch their reach to include and support agriculture. But farming requires more intensive management than wild, open spaces, and not all trusts are able to provide that oversight.

One type of trust has included agriculture from its inception — the community land trust (CLT). A CLT emphasizes affordable housing for low-income, underserved communities; but its focus on whole communities has led to increased planning for family gardens, CSAs, urban farms and even small businesses in the mix.

“The focus of all CLTs is on community owned land and community control of the development and use of that land,” said John Emmeus Davis, a long-time advocate of this type of trust in Appalachia, where he worked as an undergraduate student.

Increasingly CLTs are recognizing that people’s need for food is as fundamental as their need for shelter, and the work of providing both can provide jobs, sustenance and self-esteem.

“An interesting conversation is just beginning about the conservation of community,” and that includes “conservation of the working landscape, that is, forests and farms,” says Davis, one of the partners in Burlington Associates which “supports CLTs and other shared equity strategies.”

By shifting from the concept of private property to the idea of the commons, where property is held in trust for the whole community, the CLT suggests a way out of the land speculation and exploitation that makes some people rich while so many others are stuck in poverty. The CLT depends upon cooperative self-sufficiency and interdependence, which could be a lifesaver in the future we may be facing as federal support becomes less available to communities.

Fortunately the groundwork for such an emerging new lifestyle has been laid by great agrarians like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson and the important permaculture principle of working with nature instead of despite her. Local culture and cooperative business ownership has emerged as the antidote to a commodified world.

Cooperative ownership of community land trusts with the help of a local, public bank might be the next step, as the challenge will be, as it has always been, how to find the resources to access and secure the land.

In a CLT, the community owns and stewards the land, leasing it to families and/or farmers with a lifetime, 99-year lease that can be passed on to offspring or transferred to other farming families. Community members share responsibility for the land, and their democratically elected representatives compose one-third of the CLT’s board.

The land is never sold. It is held by the Trust, usually a tax-exempt nonprofit committed to maintaining the land and ensuring that it is used for its designated purpose (for example, organic farming), and that the lessee makes his payments. Any profits earned from the leases goes back into the Trust to keep it functioning and to buy more land.

Community Land Trust Roots

The first CLT in the United States sprang out of the civil rights movement in southwest Georgia in the 1960s. Robert Swann was the founder of the Institute for Community Economics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

His civil rights work in the South convinced him that African Americans would not be able to continue to fight for their rights unless they owned land. As tenant farmers, they had been discharged from their homes after standing up for voting rights.

Swann helped Shirley and Charles Sherrod to found New Communities on nearly 6,000 acres outside of Albany, Georgia. New Communities, often called the “first community land trust,” was modeled on the moshavim in Israel — agricultural settlements where the land is leased from the Jewish National Fund, houses are individually owned and agricultural production and marketing are done cooperatively.

new communities
New Communities is often called the first community land trust.

Swann later became the founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, now the Schumacher Center for New Economics in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

With his partner Susan Witt he organized the formation of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, which now includes residential properties.

“We hope to advance a broad social movement supporting community ownership of land by developing a culture of philanthropy — a land gift movement — to return land to the community commons,” says their website.

Land ownership is the cause of poverty, wrote Henry George in 1879 in his bestselling book Progress and Poverty, because landowners profit from their investment without doing any beneficial work for the community, while the workers receive no benefit from rising prices; the landowner’s “unearned income” as John Stuart Mill called it, is the source of economic inequality.

But it’s the community that actually creates the value of property, with its schools, roads, hospitals, restaurants and other businesses that make that location attractive. The idea of “the commons,” which is given to all of us to protect and share, has its origin in the colonies of New England, so it may not be coincidental that the Northeast has been fertile ground for this movement.

Susan Witt still lives in the 900-square foot garage that she and Robert bought for $10,000 from the newly formed Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires in the small town of Egremont, Massachusetts, outside Great Barrington. They share the 11-acre property with three other homes, a library and an orchard.

They renovated and repaired about 85 percent of the garage, spending approximately $125 per square foot; the building is now worth $112,500. “We have a great view. The market rate of the property might be $450,000, but that’s not value we created.” Her family is “not tempted to sell,” but if they did, “We’d get a fair return, not a speculative return.” The price does not include the land, which is permanently held by the CLT.

The trust owns three other properties: Forest Row, a neighborhood of 18 households near the center of Great Barrington; and the 17-acre Indian Line Farm, which runs a CSA and the newly acquired Bow Wow Farm. Unlike other CLTs, the CLT in the Southern Berkshires is not organized as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

Swann did not want to be bound by the rules governing charitable organizations that have a 501(c)(3) designation, believing (erroneously, according to CLT historian Davis) that low-income residents could be forced to leave if their incomes later rose past a certain level.

Not being a nonprofit limited the trust’s ability to accept donations of land or dollars. A solution was found when a second organization was formed in 2015 that can receive tax-deductible donations but does not own or manage the land. Witt is very excited about this dual organization, calling the arrangement “pretty beautiful … It means we have set up a vehicle for broad based land reform, with community control, allowing the community to purchase back its commons and redistribute access to people who are building that local economy including Main Street retail space.”

The model seems to be working. The town of Great Barrington was named the “Best Small Town in America” by the Smithsonian Institute in 2012.

This principle of localizing the economy in such a way that money flows back to the people who actually do the work of the community has become a rallying cry for a number of organizations seeking to transform society by changing the way business is done.

Inspired by the principles of permaculture, ecology and systems theory, these “new economic” systems taking shape in pockets across the country have an authentic, organic feel that reflects the work of great elder agro-statesmen like Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry to rebuild the culture of what Berry called “home economics” based on relationships among people with the land.

CLTs, though known principally for creating affordable housing, have always included farming and “any other human activity that occurs on the land,” said John Emmeus Davis, one of the cofounders of the Burlington CLT in Burlington, Vermont.

In 1983, the Bernie Sanders Administration seeded the Burlington CLT with a $200,000 grant, the first CLT to be initiated by a municipal government. The City then hired Davis to come to Burlington to help get it started. Now named the Champlain Housing Trust, it has grown to be the largest CLT in the country, managing a portfolio of nearly 3,000 permanently affordable homes and over 100,000 square feet of commercial space and nonprofit facilities.

Urban Farming

Somewhat paradoxically, it’s urban farming that has proven to be adaptable to the CLT model. Troy Gardens was a community garden on city-owned land for 15 years when in 1995 the state of Wisconsin put the 15-acre site on its list of surplus land, opening it to development. Concerned about losing this valued resource, neighbors got together with community organizations and the Madison Area Community Land Trust to protect it. MACLT purchased the property in 2001.

Now, the 31-acre Troy Gardens has 30 mixed-income homes, the community garden, a 5-acre farm and preserved prairie open space.

“People don’t only need housing, they also need food,” said Greg Rosenberg, former executive director of Troy Gardens. The model works well for mixed-use housing with farming.

athens land trust
The Community Agriculture Program strives to support Athens Land Trust’s commitment to neighborhood revitilzation by developing a sustainable local foods system in some of Athens’ most food insecure communities.

The farms may include a community garden that feeds the community and a commercial farm selling its produce at farmers’ markets or through community-supported agriculture, a model of buyer-supported agriculture that has become popular since the ’80s. In his essay on Troy Gardens, “The Accidental EcoVillage,” Rosenberg writes: “The real power and potential of the CLT model is that it leads us to think in more holistic terms … not figuring out the most financially profitable returns from the land, but which uses will benefit the community the most.”

Nancy Stangle, co-founder of the Athens Land Trust in Athens, Georgia, also uses the word “holistic” to describe her approach to land use. “Land is essentially the basis of our shelter and our housing, and it’s how we grow food but we tend not to think about it. We tend to not realize how important it is.”

Stangle came to Athens with her family in the 1990s to join in the creation of a co-housing project, the Kenney Ridge Community, a 132-acre parcel 5 miles from town and about an hour’s drive from the city of Athens. There were 25 families, each with 1 acre.

“Everyone had their own house and then shared resources. To me, that made a lot of sense.” They knew about conservation easements and protected about a third of the land. “Now we have protected over half of it. We haven’t had too much turnover … It’s like a big extended family. We have a weekly potluck at our community center, a community garden to raise food for ourselves, a lot of wonderful things. We love the land and we’re committed to stewardship.”

The Athens Community Land Trust came into being a few years after Kenney Ridge. Stangle was in Atlanta when her car broke down. The woman who gave her a ride into town took her to the office of the Atlanta Land Trust Collaborative; she told Stangle that she would never have been able to own a home in Atlanta without the land trust.

Just a few months later, Stangle and her partner Skipper StipeMaas founded the Athens Community Land Trust, in which she served as executive director until she retired.

The ACLT now holds conservation easements on 14,000 acres, according to Heather Benham, ACLT’s current Director. It stewards 60 properties for single-family homes and also owns 126 apartment units. It manages 6 acres for agriculture, 5 at Williams Farm, a few miles outside Athens, which they own, and another acre right in the city, where they run the West Broad Farmers’ Market for the sale of local produce. The Market is also the setting for community events with live music, activities for children, cooking demonstrations and more in the Hancock Corridor Community.

“The housing program is larger than the conservation program,” said Benham. “It’s a lot of work. We buy properties that have title problems, clean them up, find tenants and then we manage upkeep on the property.”

The ACLT manages all this with a staff of 18, seven of them interns from

Vista and the help of “strong relationships in the community.” The Board is made up of community members, one-third low-income residents, one-third farmers, ecologists and environmentalists and one-third developers and affordable housing planners.

“We work with the city government” (a city and county government combined) — “a relationship that has taken a long time to build up.”

The city is growing (it’s now about 120,000) and like all attractive places it is under pressure for development.

Students at the University of Georgia require housing; and when they graduate, they often want to stay.

“It’s kind of scary when you hear about how hectic they are to find properties. Five hundred different investors owning a share of this low income area!”

Asked where the Athens CLT gets its funding, Benham hesitates before answering. “About 60 percent is from federal funds — HUD, USDA and EPA programs.”

The Community Development Block Grant program that helped them during their early years, for example, was due to be eliminated.

Private foundations, memberships and individual donations make up the rest of the budget for Athens and other land trusts. The high cost of land will continue to be a challenge but in the midst of so many unknowns in today’s political climate, trusts will continue to provide innovative solutions to assist new farmers seeking access to land. We will look at those possibilities in a subsequent article.

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Rebirth of the Small Family Farm

The book “Rebirth of the Small Family Farm” is a concise handbook for starting a successful organic farm based on the community-supported agriculture concept. The authors, Bonnie and Bob Gregson, illustrate how they – two self-described “middle-aged novices” – made a decent living on less than 2 acres of land.

This is not just a theory book — it details specific tools, techniques and how-to information, which can be utilized by beginning and advanced farmers alike.

Front cover image for the book Rebirth of the Small Family Farm

The excerpt below comes from Chapter 3, titled, “Key Factors to Success.” The authors go into detail for each of the 10 identified factors, including having like-minded partners, organic growing, physical ability, ongoing education, direct marketing, location close to consumers, value-added products, and more.

From Chapter 3: Key Factors to Success

Small farms are a labor of love.

As one considers what to do to make a living on such a two-acre parcel, there are major factors to consider, a screen through which one’s dreams must pass. The ten key factors we have identified, and discussion of each, follow:

  1. Like-minded partners — mutual support is crucial.
  2. Organic growing — ethics and economics happily coincide.
  3. Keeping it small — a few acres are enough.
  4. A passion for growing — small farms are a labor of love.
  5. Physical ability — are you a willing worker?
  6. Ongoing education — knowledge is the key.
  7. Direct marketing — cut out the middlemen.
  8. Location close to consumers — nearby population is an asset.
  9. Value-added product(s) — two plus two can equal five.
  10. Off-season work options — have a backup skill.

Like-minded Partners

We believe it takes two like-minded, very supportive people to make most start-up enterprises work. And a small farm, like any small business, is indeed intense during the early years! It will require all the focus the partners can give.

That is not to say that it is impossible to do this with a family or one partner’s career and its related needs — but the partners must mutually understand, appreciate and fully support the motivation involved in operating the farm, and be prepared to sacrifice most other outside activities during the early years.

It is obvious to us that our coherent interests are in large measure responsible for our success. To be blunt with a personal subject, it is also obvious that this would not have been the case with our prior spouses; neither of our prior marriages would have withstood this activity level because the spouses did not have the same passion for walking/talking/working/reading about and thinking about growing things, and, quite understandably, could not have supported or substantially contributed to the overall effort. And neither of us could likewise contribute to their passionate endeavors.

Remember, we said that this is a great life and very fulfilling, but probably only if this is where your passion lies. It is crucial to identify personal life passions in advance. Dragging a partner into an intense field of endeavor into which he/she does not fit may be fatal to the relationship.

Organic Growing

Small farms should grow crops organically. The more we read and discover, the more we see the long-term disaster that chemical farming is, both for the consumer and especially the farmer, and we also see how feasible it is to grow mixed crops better organically. (We have closely followed the debate on this topic for many years, and have experienced it ourselves, so do not make the previous statement lightly.)

Over 70,000 chemical poisons have reportedly been used in recent years in various phases of agriculture; most are still in use. No one knows how any of the 70,000 or their by-products interact with each other in the various soil-groundwater-air combinations, let alone how they impact the 100,000 or more living entities found in each teaspoon of topsoil. Or what impacts chemical combinations have on humans. There is no way a rational, dispassionate observer can assume toxic agricultural chemistry is benign to humans; after all, it is designed to kill living entities.

Farm workers and farm families have many horror stories about their personal experiences with those toxic chemicals. Many such persons are killed and damaged around the world every year. Those poisons plus synthetic chemical fertilizers are also a huge expense to farmers. Fortunately, they can be replaced by much cheaper homemade items, especially on the small farm where chickens and other farm animals can play a substantial role.

Save Money and Build Healthy Soil

So why would anyone use expensive products that are undeniably dangerous to the applicator, to the eater of the produce, and to all nature, if they are not necessary?

Because well established multi-billion-dollar financial and bureaucratic institutions are dependent on their sales and use, that’s why. They have created a dependency and a mindset that seemed to make sense for awhile after World War II, but is now known to be dangerous and unnecessary in almost all cases. And they focus on symptoms instead of the real problems.

These powerful institutions are stridently promoting their chemicals and “silver bullet” procedures at all levels, and have the financial power to strongly influence the political and educational system.

If the buggy whip industry had enjoyed equivalent financial power early in this century, during the transition from horses to automobiles, it is not unreasonable to believe that every new car would still have a federally-mandated buggy whip as standard equipment!

Many farms, both large and small, have decades of successful organic production of a wide array of crops. Good crop rotations, feeding the soil with natural amendments and compost, and good choice of varieties replace toxic chemistry and serve everyone better in the long run.

Productivity of Organic Farms

It is sometimes said, even recently, that chemical farming is dramatically more productive than organic. That is utterly false. For a two-year sample study of 28 farms, see the article by Klepper et al in the February 1977 American Journal of Agricultural Economics, showing approximately equal performance in Midwestern commodity crops.

Another myth alleges that organic produce is usually small, ugly and blemished. It can be — but won’t if well grown and properly cared for. Another myth is that pests run rampant through organic fields. The truth is that healthy soil grows healthy, pest-resistant plants, and encourages a natural balance of so-called pest and predator.

Some organically grown produce actually tastes better, too, especially carrots, beets, potatoes and walnuts. Good organic farmers grow beautiful, high-yielding, tasty produce.

If you need further reasons for using the best of the old-fashioned ways, consider this: organic produce is also a market niche commanding a higher price and increased consumer interest/loyalty.

Chickens and Other Farm Animals Belong in the Scheme

As a corollary, we think organic farming almost has to include raising truly free-range chickens, birds that have complete access to varied outdoor areas.

True free-ranging chickens convert various leftovers, crop residue, general forage, and purchased feed into terrific input for the compost pile; they devour most weeds, weed seeds and bugs they find; they aerate and till the soil in a healthy way (as long as they aren’t left in the same place too long); and they provide eggs, or meat, that, again, is notably better than what you can find at the grocery store.

Our eggs are a real draw to our farm stand because they are so fresh, with an orange, upright yolk that tastes appreciably better than the “factory” eggs from stressed, caged chickens. It is usually impossible to find grocery store eggs from free-running chickens, despite the clever — but meaningless — marketing words like “range,” “ranch,” “naturally nested,” and “freerange”that adorn many commercial egg cartons. Farm stand eggs will be, at most, several days old; those in the grocery store may be several months old.

Ethical Considerations

People are also beginning to have ethical concerns about how production animals are treated; many like to know they are patronizing a farm that lets chickens and other farm animals freely run in a congenial setting.

Final Note About Organics

Replacing synthesized agricultural inputs with meticulously defined organic inputs is a huge step in the right direction. But it is only one step. We firmly believe that it is equally important to use diversity, intercropping, companion planting, “friend strips” (habitat left for insects), cover cropping, crop rotations, wind breaks, runoff collection, and integrated livestock techniques to achieve the robust balance of life in and above the soil that enhances all agricultural activity. People and communities also count in the equation: ethical, caring attitudes should be a hallmark of everything we do when we call ourselves “organic growers.”

Up next: “3. Keeping It Small.”

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About the Bonnie and Bob Gregson

Bob and Bonnie Gregson

Bonnie grew up in Seattle, attended Colorado Woman’s College on an academic scholarship, but left to get married. She then spent time in construction management and a 12-year career in medical clinical management.

Bob was raised in Pasco, WA, in wheat country, graduated from West Point in 1964 and served in the Army for 6 years. He left the military and obtained an MBA at Dartmouth College, then spent 16 years in management positions with several large and small companies. Bob is past chair of the King County Agriculture Commission, serves on the advisory council to the dean of the College of Agriculture at Washington State University, and is a board member of the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network.

Bob and Bonnie left corporate management careers for farming in the late 1980s, were married in 1988, and farmed for 14 years. Their prime interests continue to be growing edibles in the most earth-friendly manner, enjoying and participating in the development of their grandchildren, and “maturing” gracefully.