Farmers who want to transition to organic production must change their practices, or adopt new farming strategies in common management areas, regardless of what they produce. These include building and maintaining soil health, responsibly incorporating tillage, managing pests, and not using synthetic chemical products. It is known that organic production is more management intensive, because it integrates multiple aspects of a production system. For example, crop rotation and cover cropping improve soil health and help manage weeds, insect pests, and diseases. Many organic cropping practices can be integrated into your system to reduce problems and risks before the transition. Some organic cropping systems practices including:

  • crop rotation
  • cover cropping
  • addition of organic fertility sources
  • disease prevention
  • integrated pest and weed management
  • conservation tillage
  • soil management
  • incorporation of biodiversity

Photo Credit: Dr. Danielle Treadwell, UF/IFAS Organic and Sustainable Crop Extension Specialist

Healthy Soil

The backbone of all farming systems is healthy soil. Successful organic cropping systems build and manage healthy soils over the long run with cover crops, crop rotations, and other methods. These practices feed your crops and the soil organisms. The motto in organic systems is “feed the soil so the soil feeds the plants” because, in organic systems, the primary source of nutrients is the soil itself. As soil organic matter builds up, so do populations of important soil organisms. Most organic farms rely on tillage for weed control and bed preparation. Adding organic matter through cover crops and manure applications, along with other soil-building practices, can offset the damage caused by tillage and help maintain healthy soils.

  • Improved soil structure, aeration, water infiltration and drainage
  • Improved nutrient availability from decomposing organic materials
  • Reduced nutrient loss through leaching, soil erosion and runoff

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is at the core of any successful organic farming system. As the primary management tool for all aspects of the farming system, a well-planned rotation is more than the sum of its parts, as it addresses the connections between all those factors. Each crop is grouped into a plant family. Crops in the same plant family can harbor the same kinds of insect pests, diseases, and nutrient requirements. When the same plant family is planted in the exact location repeatedly, pest populations can build up and decrease the crop’s productivity. In addition, fertility issues can arise from planting the same crops in the same area over again. Since different crops have varying nutrient requirements, crop rotation can help prevent the loss of soil nutrients. Some key points that a successful rotation include:

  • The use of cover crops to provide fertility, control weeds and provide habitat for beneficial insects.
  • Have a diversity of plant species to encourage natural predators, discourage pest and disease buildup, and minimize economic and environmental risk.
  • Provides a balance between soil conservation and crop production by adding organic matter to the soil to both supply nutrients and improve soil quality properties, such as water infiltration and waterholding capacity.
  • Provides weed control by alternating between warm and cool-season plants, and by including weed-inhibiting plants (such as rye and sorghum).

Photo Credit: UF/IFAS Osecola County

Cover Crops

Sunn Hemp used as a cover crop.  Photo Credit: DeAnthony Price, UF/IFAS

Cover crops are an alternative way to improve soil health and manage soil fertility in agricultural systems. Cover crops can provide a living mulch or be incorporated into the soil as green manure. Organic matter added through cover crops and soil amendments improves soil structure, water infiltration, water holding capacity, and resistance to erosion. Sometimes, one crop can cover multiple needs. Florida’s sandy soils tend to have low soil fertility and low water and nutrient retention because of their low organic content. Cover crops increase soil fertility by adding organic matter. Farmers can grow cover crops between crop cycles (such as vegetables) or be inter-cropped among crops (such as ground cover in orchards). Even though cover crops have many benefits, improper selection of cover crop types can create challenges. Some may be too weedy, woody, and/or tall, interfering with crop production. Others may harbor pests and diseases. Some of these challenges can be avoided by cultural practices such as mowing, but the easiest way to prevent unwanted effects is to select cover crops that best fit your cropping system.

Cover crops are grown to:

  • Prevent soil erosion
  • Recycle and restore nutrients
  • Decrease weed populations
  • Improve soil structure
  • Reduce harmful nematode populations
  • Create additional income
  • Provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds
  • Provide mulch cover for row middles
  • Retain and harvest residual nutrients that would be leached in the off-season

Key Transition Strategies for Building Healthy Soils

  • Get your soil tested. This will give you baseline information. Contact your local extension office for more information on how to take and interpret a soil test.
  • Determine strategies for building soil health. Include some combination of cover crops, animal manures, composting, and/or tillage strategies.
  • Start building soil organic matter with cover crops, perennial crop phases, and/or compost/manure before your transition.
  • Research different varieties of cover crops that will work in your area. Regional differences will impact what cover crops will grow and when they can be planted.
  • Start small. Convert smaller sections of your operation into organic at a time.

For more information, Please contact your County Extension Office.