The operator, who chooses organic methods for his production, must create from the very beginning 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 should make to maintain and replenish soil fertility and to improve his enterprise’s specific equipment and organization.
During the conversion phase, the operator has to face several challenges like high costs and high risks, because the change in cultivation techniques might entail lower yields and consequently lower income. Moreover, he must be 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 right remuneration. Nevertheless, he has to comply with the production rules laid down in Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 from the very beginning.
Conversion is, therefore, a challenging technical phase that may prove decisive for final success. The main issue an operator is confronted with is: organic farming requirements vis-à-vis budget resources.
The Regulation Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 governing organic farming requires any farm wishing to adopt organic methods to comply with a conversion phase. A two-year conversion period is required before sowing annual herbaceous crops and a three-year conversion period before harvesting perennial crops.
The Inspection 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. No certificates are issued during the conversion period.
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 Regulation and required by the Inspection 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 an Inspection System will have to profit from contributions and marketing opportunities offered by a product that has been certified because it is wholesome. 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.
Area to be converted
The operator, and the advisor assisting him, 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 operator’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 inspection system, which often are not offset by the limitation of 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 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 not convincing. At first, this option can be justified, due to a desire to verify feasibility. However, once verified valid, the organic method must be extended to the whole area of the holding, or must be stopped altogether, if not technically and economically viable.
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.
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 the work, discussing with operators and advisors or 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 IIA and IIB of Community 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 weigh 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 or five years;
- types of fertilizers, herbicides, soil disinfecting products and other active principles used, application rates and methods;
- soil tillage;
- 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 operator 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 pedologic situation – First of all, it is to be underlined that the operator’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 operator and enable him to assess work done and goals attained, especially as far as organic matter is concerned. If no soil 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.
Humic balance is a strategic datum that enables the operator to calibrate cultivation plan and fertilization rates to soil potentials, thus successfully practising the organic farming method.
· Social-environmental situation - An operator 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.
· Operator’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 operator 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 operator’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 an operator 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. In addition, it should be noted that it is really difficult to repropose solutions that did not produce satisfactory results for any reason whatsoever, also independent of method.
It is, therefore, essential that all technical solutions be exhaustively explained to the operator, with details of expected results and possible problems.
· Equipment present on the farm and willingness to invest – The time required for implementing agronomic options depends not only on the operator’s conviction, as stated above, but also on the availability of the necessary inputs and equipment on the farm and in the territory. Also the operator’s willingness to invest money on the farm has an influence on implementation times.
From the following examples it clearly appears that if specific equipment is missing on the farm, the operator should choose alternative solutions to prevent failure.
The operator should not:
- plan piling up organic matter compost, if no adequate space and no turning tools are available;
- plan the use of fertilizers, if no suitable harrows are available for incorporation into the soil;
- buy powder fertilizers, if no cylindric spreader is available;
- include green manure crops in rotations, if no choppers and no adequate implements for shallow ploughing-in are available.
Expert advisors will certainly suggest temporary alternative solutions that on the one hand will convince the operator that the operations are practicable and are worth investing money, and on the other hand will not excessively delay important technical decisions.
· Constraints – Some restraints of organizational or environmental nature may heavily affect technical options and may require even more careful consideration of actions to be taken to attain objectives. The ones most frequently found are:
- environmental and political restraints: motorways or pollution sources in the vicinity, no services available in the area;
Regional policies, definition of priority areas where organic farming is promoted, no premiums awarded by Regional Plans to key crops, measures not implemented, undifferentiated premiums to simpler and less controlled farming;
- former obligations: acceptance of less restrictive agri-environmental measures and impossibility to pass to more restrictive ones; contracts in force; rented land;
- family disputes about options, entailing lack of serenity in options and higher competitiveness regarding production results;
- short-term or expiring rents, which reduce certainty about land possession and do not allow long-term investments and access to Community premiums.
Definition of a conversion plan
All the information gathered will, after due consideration, help the operator to define a conversion plan that will include the technical solutions that he deems best for his holding, namely:
· Fertilization: evenly balanced, organic, based on humic balance
· Rotation, satisfying: a) agronomic requirements- soil fertility and health;
- protection against erosion;
- weed control;
- pest and disease control;
b) economic requirements - market appreciation;
- premiums and incentives.
· Intercropping, to exploit the plants synergic action in relation to nutrients, pest and disease control, quality and environment.
· Selection of varieties, to adapt to the agricultural eco-system and obtain nutritional, organoleptic and technical qualities in the final product.
· Introduction of hedgerows and trees, to favour biodiversity, farm eco-system balance and landscape.
A conversion plan is also useful to highlight the fact that in organic farming no action is an end in itself, but always serves multifarious purposes. The actions will be effective only if the equilibrium of soil and eco-system is respected.
Conversion times and modes for an agricultural crop production are in fact correlated with a rotation plan, because to such a rotation plan the following operations are connected: humic balance and fertilization, selection of varieties and seed treatments, weed control, soil tillage, soil cover and intervention times. All these operations have in their turn various technical implications that are interlinked with the fertility of the soil.
During the plan´s implementation stage, all actions carried out (or derogations) and the consequent results must be accurately recorded. Only through careful examination of soil response it will be possible to check whether conversion is being complied with and the choice made was a good one, or some improvements and amendments are necessary in order to attain objectives.
Vincenzo Vizioli - 2003 ed. AIAB “Conversione al Biologico” pag.156
Vincenzo Vizioli - 2000 ed. Sol.Eco. "La conversione al metodo di agricoltura biologica" – riconversione produttiva del territorio Altotiberino GAL Alto Tevere pag. 56
AAVV - 1999 – ed CESAV Linee guida per la produzione di carne chianina secondo il metodo biologico cap. 5 "Le coltivazioni" pag. 85 – 101
Gabriel Guet – ed Edagricole “Agricoltura biologica mediterranea” pag. 527
AAVV – ed. Ed agricole “Linee guida per l’agricoltura biologica”