organic transition process


Many factors encourage farmers to start the transition process: increased energy costs, lower profits from conventional farming techniques, development of new cultivation systems,
increasing environmental awareness of consumers and producers, new and stronger market
for alternative farming and processing products.
Despite the fact that they often receive lower yields and profits, especially in the conversion
period, many farmers persist respecting the economic and environmental benefits over a
longer period of time. The economic benefit of this method of production is that in addition
to higher product prices, significant savings are achieved in alternative, ecological methods
of production. On organic farms, the consumption of matter and part of the energy comes
from the resources of the farms themselves (fertilizers, alternative plant protection products, solar energy, wind energy).
Conversion to farm management on ecological principles leads to a whole series of ecological changes in the system. As the use of synthetic agrochemicals is reduced or completely
eliminated, nutrients and biomass are recycled within the system,

 and the structure and
functions on the farm are also changing. The whole process and mutual relations are transformed, starting from the basic structure of the soil, the content of organic matter, as well as
the diversity and activities of soil organisms. Major changes also occur in the activities and
interrelationships between populations of weeds, insects, and pathogens, as well as in the
balance between beneficial and harmful organisms. Finally, the dynamics and circulation of
matter, energy efficiency and productivity on the farm are greatly influenced. Tracking and
measuring changes that occur during the conversion process can help the farmer assess the
success of the conversion process.
The farmer who chooses organic methods for his production, must from the very start create
the best agronomic conditions and pursue marketing and communication strategies aimed
at the promotion of his products and of his human and natural resources as well.
Some of the technical solutions proposed at this stage in order to attain objectives are investments that the operator makes to maintain and replenish soil fertility and improve his
enterprise’s specific equipment and organization. At this stage, the operator has to face high
costs and high risks because the change in cultivation techniques might entail lower yields
and consequently lower income. Moreover, he is aware that the products of the first conversion year cannot be certified and that it is not easy to place them on the market and obtain
the reasonable price. Nevertheless, he has to comply with the production rules laid down in
regulations since the very start.
Conversion is, therefore, a challenging technical phase that may prove decisive for final success. The regulations in all European countries governing organic farming requires any farm
wishing to adopt organic methods to comply with a conversion phase. Two years’ conversion period is required before sowing annual herbaceous crops and three years’ conversion
period before harvesting perennial crops. The certification body can lengthen or shorten
this period, based on the history of the farm supported by documentation. In no case may
conversion last less than one year. Often the conversion phase ends on completion of the
cultivation cycle following notification.
From a technical point of view, conversion is the period when a holding, formerly managed
with conventional methods, lays the foundations for a correct and profitable application of
organic farming methods. Thus interpreted, conversion involves times that can hardly match
the ones laid down in the regulations and required by the certification body. Different holdings certainly require different times. Therefore, we can define as “bureaucratic conversion”
the one that allows products to be marketed as from organic farming and “agronomic conversion” the one aiming at optimizing organic methods on the farm from a technical and
economical point of view.
Briefly, an operator subjected to a certification system will have to profit from contributions and marketing opportunities offered by a product that has been certified. However,
he should be aware that conversion will not end with certification but will continue, in a
constant endeavour to find more and more effective agronomic practices that may produce
good and healthy products in a well-balanced ecosystem.
2.1. Conversion process
Area to be converted
The farmer must carefully assess potentials and drawbacks of the holding, in order to define
times and modes for “agronomic conversion”.

 The regulation contemplates the possibility
for a holding to convert only one portion of its agricultural area, but prohibits parallel production, that is growing the same crop varieties and rearing the same animal species with
different methods. This is one point that deserves careful evaluation, if the farmer’s region
has not introduced more restrictive rules. The option of running a holding with both conventional and in-conversion fields entails a number of drawbacks for management, marketing
and control system, which often carry some risk. Actually many operators choose to limit
risks in order to verify the feasibility of the organic method before fully switching to organic.
If partial conversion is chosen, the areas dedicated to organic farming should not be too
small, because long rotations would excessively subdivide fields, the productions obtained
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would be too small to check market response and it would be too difficult to rationalize
work to improve efficiency. Also the decision to convert marginal areas to organic farming
and maintain the most fertile fields conventional is very risky. Marginal and neglected fields
are often loaded with weeds and it can be big problem into the future. The several specific
conditions of holding and territory to be taken into consideration for a careful assessment of
technical options and implementation times are many, and all potentially decisive.
2.2. Conversion planning
The purpose of a conversion plan is to guide operators in the first conversion years towards
the minimum goals to be achieved. A conversion plan conveys a picture of the holding, analyzing and cross-examining all acquired data with the objective of defining the technical
solutions to be adopted.
When organizing work, discussing with operators and advisors, defining actions, it is essential to underline that organic farming is a method and not just replacing the chemical fertilizers and active principles used up to that moment with the substances listed in annexes of
regulation. If this concept is not well understood, failure is most likely to occur. Converting a
holding to organic farming means setting off to improve the organic fertility of the soil and
the equilibrium of the ecosystem on the farm. Once attained, these objectives can produce
valid and profitable results.
The elements assessed in order to determine conversion modes and times, are the “picture”
of the initial situation on the farm. This picture may come handy also later on, when evaluating the work done. For this reason, it is important to give precise descriptions and carefully
estimate the influence that these elements may have on immediate and future results and
consequently on priority of action and investment.
The elements to be carefully evaluated are:
Field history – it is important to gather, for each field, exhaustive information about agronomic practices, problems and yields, namely:
• rotations and crop sequences in the last four, five years;
• type of fertilizers, herbicides, soil disinfecting products, application rates and methods;
• soil tillage;
• the most problematic weeds and correlation with crops and pedoclimatic circumstances;
• main diseases;
• any other specific problem historically recorded;
• average yields of crops;
• varieties utilized and their adaptation to microclimate.
The evaluation of the above data will help the farmer to define agronomic options and consequently will help him to elaborate an appropriate cultivation plan (rotations, crop sequence,
crop location, cultivation techniques) that may prevent the occurrence of problems.
Initial soil properties –

 The farmer’s experience is always the most important factor to rely
on. Then, soil tests may be useful to identify some problems that deserve careful consideration because they may be the cause of unsuccessful crops or ineffective fertilizers. Initial
soil tests are also important because they are a reference for the farmer and enable him to
assess work done and goals attained, especially as far as organic matter is concerned. If no
soils tests are available on the farm, and not even the percentage of organic matter is known,
it is necessary to have the soil tested, otherwise it will be difficult to calculate the humic balance for a good fertilizing plan. Balance of humus is a strategic data that enables the farmer
to calibrate cultivation plan and fertilization rates to soil potentials, thus successfully practicing the organic farming method.
Social-environmental situation - A farmer tackling conversion should know the environment
where the holding is located and other organic holdings in the area, because in this way he
would be able to exchange information and receive useful hints and would not feel a pioneer. He should also gather information about points of sale or agents that sell outputs or
supply services of interest to organic farmers and he should become acquainted with traders
who may buy his products. 

It is also useful for the growers who are not self-reliant to know
third-party operators or processors in the area, their equipment, expertise and willingness
to perform any operations that may be needed.
Farmer’s awareness and know-how – These elements play a key role in the definition of
times and methods for introducing innovations on the farm and of technical support needed.
They are crucial when the farmer has to choose whether to convert the whole farm, or just
a part of it and spread the potential risk over a longer time.
The farmer’s motivation is a determining factor for success both when switching to organic
farming and when adopting innovative solutions that disrupt habits and convictions. Obviously, if a farmer is not persuaded with, or has not fully “digested”, a proposed initiative, this
initiative is not likely to succeed. This is true also for the persons in charge of operations,
especially outside the farm such as third-party processors, who rather pursue their own interests than the farm’s.

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