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Transition from an Agronomist's Point of View

by Jean Duval, agronomist, MSc., Soil Science

Here are a few reflections on transition from my work as an agronomist specialized in organic agriculture in Québec over the last 15 years.

GETTING AWAY FROM THE INPUT MODE

One thing I noticed often with farmers doing a transition is the time it takes to change their way of thinking about farming. At first, they’re all worried about how they will replace the inputs that they were using as conventional farmers.

As they progress into transition and organic farming, they tend to see things more from a system or global approach, and getting into the PREVENTION mode (e.g. What will I change in my system to avoid this problem?) For field crops, this translates often into adopting a different rotation or waiting for the right moment to go into the field. Inputs are still needed, but they become the addition to good farming practices, not the essence of farming.

The thing is that I can tell a farmer about this when he starts his transition, but most of the time, he’s not ready to hear it. He has to realize it himself...and it takes time to do this personal transition.

DON’T EXPECT RECIPES

Advising transitional farmers is not always easy. They often expect an agronomist to know everything or to have quick and easy solutions. Of course, I can provide info and a few tricks to help but for several aspects, but each farmer has to develop his own feel and experience for organic farming practices. Every farm and every farmer are different.

Mechanical weed control in grains – blind harrowing - is a good example. In Quebec, we have very nice technical bulletins describing tools, appropriate stages of weed and crop, speed, etc. for using them. Nevertheless, you have to get off the tractor, get down on your knees and check it yourself: Have I affected the weeds enough? Am I damaging the crop? There is no recipe. You have to develop a feel for it and decide how many chances you can take considering all the factors (weather, soil conditions, crop stages, etc.)

As far as fertilization goes, it’s the same thing. There are no recipes. Composted manure may be good in one case, not necessary in another depending on the weed pressure, the type of soil, the type of manure, the crop, etc. I can help a lot more with my advice on fertilization.

DEVELOP TOLERANCE

We each have our own level of tolerance to problems like weeds and pests and other situations that can compromise yields or crop quality. In organic farming, I think it’s especially important to become tolerant, otherwise you can get very unhappy. A farmer that wants perfectly clean fields in organic can achieve it but that will often require extra effort. And you have to ask yourself whether this is desirable and necessary? As farming is a long-term economic activity, you have to find a balance between what can and cannot be tolerated. For example, pulling wild mustard plants by hand in a grain field may well be feasible and desirable in a field that has a small population of this weed, but a total waste of time in a field that has a heavy population. So, I tell farmers to assume that they cannot control everything and to find out what they can tolerate without compromising the profitability of their operation. After a few years into organic, this becomes clearer to them.

YOU CAN’T AVOID THE BASICS

Don’t forget the basics. To have good working soil you need the correct pH, good drainage and enough organic matter. Organic matter is usually not a problem in organic farming. Some farmers think that because they use organic methods – i.e., no poison – suddenly everything should go well as far as soil processes go. Wrong. THERE IS NO MIRACLE. The good little critters don’t like swimming in an acid bath all year. Things won’t solve themselves because you’re organic or become organic.

This attitude – let it be - is more common with beginning farmers (often second career farmers) than conventional farmers doing a transition, but it is also an attitude I see sometimes with experienced farmers. In the case of beginning farmers, often they think that because they were lucky enough to buy a piece of land that has received no chemicals for many years, it will necessarily be fertile. My advice is beware of abandoned farmland, it was not abandoned for nothing.

Most soils in Québec need frequent liming and artificial drainage to be productive.

Artificial drainage can be an important investment. It can make the difference between success and failure in field crops. Remember that in organic agriculture, your crop is very dependent on mineralization. If there is not enough oxygen or a high water table in the soil, mineralization is slowed down. Liming is a necessary expense in most soils in our humid climate because calcium is leached and exported with the crops. Also, bacteria and earthworms thrive at pH around 6.5 or a little more.

STARTING SMALL, YES; UNDER-EQUIPPED, NO

I’m not talking about large equipment like a combine, but of smaller pieces of equipment that may make life easier. For example, for mechanical weed control in field crops, I often see people saying they will buy a rotary hoe first and then eventually a finger weeder, or other way around. The thing is, you may need both, especially if you have large acreage and limited time. It may pay to consider the extra investment and get properly equipped. And if you cannot afford the investment right now, it is always possible to find second-hand equipment or be creative and make your own.

WHERE TO START

If you’re going to grow field crops, the first thing to work on is designing a good rotation, even if it’s going to change eventually. To design your rotation, if you have no animals, or not enough animals to supply enough manure for the fields, you first need to know if you have access to manure or not. That will determine if you can grow heavy feeders like corn and sunflower. If you have no access to manure, it will limit your rotation. If you can include hay in your rotation, do it, because it is good for the soil, the fertility, and to reduce perennial weeds pressure. If you don’t want to include hay, at least be ready to sacrifice a year to a full-season legume green manure once in a while. If you have animals, I advise starting the transition in the fields before the livestock.

BE PREPARED TO EXPERIMENT, BUT WISELY

Many organic farmers try new methods or modify equipment every year. I’m always surprised to learn of new things farmers I’ve known for many years try or have tried. Organic farmers are a very creative bunch! Necessity is the mother of invention. This is very positive and I encourage it; however, I should give a warning about experiments. On-farm trials are often done in a way that we cannot conclude anything with certainty. This can lead to a situation where one rejects a practice that if experimented with properly would have been shown to be beneficial. There are often too many experiments or too many factors involved. That’s where I think the help from an agronomist or a researcher can become valuable. It’s better to do one well thought-out experiment than many small improvised ones.

My final advice is: STAY INFORMED. Whether it is by attending conferences, joining an organization, surfing the internet, or hiring an agronomist, make sure that you stay up to date with new information that you and your farm may benefit from. And I think this is true for someone in transition as well as for someone who’s been farming organically for many years.

For more information about transitioning from experts such as Jean Duval, order Gaining Ground: Making a Successful Transition to Organic Farming from the publications page.