When choosing land on which to grow organic crops, there's much more to consider than simply National Organic Program (NOP) organic land policy, such as taxes, soil quality, ease of access, water availability, and more. Still, NOP standards offer a good place to start, because what NOP requires of land can make the difference between a quicker or slower certification process.
Any field or farm parcel on which harvested crops are grown with the intention of selling, labeling, or representing as organic, must adhere to the land requirements below. Note, to read the rules in full, see § 205.202 through § 205.206 in Subpart C—Organic Production and Handling Requirements within the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.
Basic NOP Land Requirements
If you're planning on growing and selling organic crops on your farmland, the land must meet the following two basic requirements:
- The land must be free from all prohibited substances on the National List for at least three years before the harvest of a crop. For example, say you use a prohibited substance on your land, then grow wheat on the land the following year. You can't sell or market that wheat as organic.
- All land must have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones in order to prevent any unintended applications of prohibited substances. This rule is important as your land may be sitting right next to land that is not under organic management.
Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrient Management Rules
Beyond the basics, producers of organic crops must manage their soil and crop nutrients within the scope of NOP policy. The following are some of these NOP rules:
- Your tillage and cultivation practices must maintain or improve the physical, chemical, and biological condition of the soil.
- Soil erosion must be minimized.
- Non-chemical methods of soil management, such as crop rotation, cover crops, and the application of plant and animal materials should be implemented.
- When using plant and animal materials such as raw manure to improve soil conditions, you must do so in such a way that there is no crop, soil, or water contamination.
- Any composted plant and animal materials used must be produced via the process set forth by NOP in their composting section - § 205.203.
- To maintain or improve soil organic matter, producers may use crop nutrient or soil amendment allowed by the National List of synthetic substances, a mined substance of low solubility, a mined substance of high solubility if the substance is in compliance with the National List of nonsynthetic materials, ash from the burning of a plant or animal material so long as the ash has not been treated or combined with a prohibited substance on the National List or plant or animal material that has been chemically altered so long as it's good to go on the National List. As you can see, it pays to keep up with the National List.
- Producers may not use sewage sludge on the land.
Seeds and Planting Stock Standards
NOP has various seed and stock rules in place that must be followed in order to keep your land compliant. NOP seed rules are somewhat complicated because while you're supposed to use organic seeds on your land, there are exceptions to the rule.
When it comes to planting stock used for organic crops, the organic stock is recommended by NOP, but like an organic seed, you don't absolutely have to use organic stock if none is available and if you've made a good faith effort to locate organic stock. If you cannot find commercially available plant stock you're allowed to use nonorganically produced planting stock to produce a perennial organic crop, but only after the stock has been maintained under a system of organic management for a period of one year or more.
One of the most important rules to pay attention to here is that only organically produced seeds can be used if you're producing edible sprouts.
NOP Crop Rotation Rules
As an organic producer, you need to implement a crop rotation plan including but not limited to sod, cover crops, green manure crops, and catch crops. Crop rotation on the organic farm must apply to the operation for maintaining or improving soil organic matter content, pest management, management of deficient or excess plant nutrients, and help to control erosion.
Pest and Disease Management Standards
A proper integrated pest management (IPM) system is important on the organic farm and is another NOP land requirement. Producers need a good IPM in order to control and help prevent crop pests, weeds, and diseases. NOP allows the following pest and disease practices:
- Crop rotation and soil and crop nutrient management practices.
- Sanitation measures that remove disease vectors, weed seeds, and habitat for pest organisms.
- Cultural practices that enhance crop health. This may include choosing the right selection of plant species for your area and choosing plant varieties with built-in resistance to prevalent pests, weeds, and diseases.
- Mechanical or physical pest control such as the introduction of predators or parasites of the pest species, proper development of the habitat for natural enemies of pests and nonsynthetic controls such as lures, traps, and repellents.
- Mulching with fully biodegradable materials, mowing, synthetic mulches, livestock grazing, hand weeding and mechanical cultivation such as flame, heat, or electrical means are all allowed for weed control.
- Application of nonsynthetic biological, botanical, or mineral inputs.
Important: Biological or botanical substance or a substance included on the National List of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production can be used if all methods above fail to control pests, weeds or disease so long as you document why such methods are needed in your organic system plan.