Organic farming made easier and cheaper


While Delaware may be years behind some states in realizing the importance of organic farming as both a niche market and a health conscious way to do business, it is catching on.

The Delaware Organic Food and Farming Association (DOFFA), in partnership with University of Delaware and Delaware State Cooperative Extension, recently presented a workshop and question-and-answer session on getting started in organic farming.

It was the second workshop of its kind they have offered. After holding one in Kent County, they had numerous requests for a workshop in Sussex. And about 70 people came out last week on a cold November night — mostly small farmers who were interested in what it means to be certified organic and how to get there.

Gordon Johnson, extension agriculture agent from the University of Delaware, presented a basic overall idea of what it means to be organic, what the benefits are and how to make the transition to organic. He emphasized that the most important thing in organic farming is building up the organic matter in the soil and realizing that organic farming creates a whole system of farming. He also stressed that all farmers have to find the system that works for their farm.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all. Each farm is unique. You have to develop a system that fits your farm. Organic farming is more individualistic,” he explained.

Johnson also noted that all the different components are intertwined into the eco-system. This means that lots of planning has to go into what people farm, as well as into what plants can go next to each other and growing plants that don’t attract certain pests so the need for pesticides can be eliminated.

Along with those considerations goes the notion of livestock produced with minimal stress and suffering, using renewable resources, creating diversity in the soil so it maintains its own health and maintaining healthy land for the future, among other things.

“There’s a lot of thought that has to go into it,” said Johnson. “It’s not just no pesticides and no fertilizers or switching to organic pest control rather than conventional. We are trying to create systems here.”

Other speakers at the Nov. 20 workshop included Carolyn Donald, secretary of DOFFA and owner of The Farm, one of five certified organic farms in Delaware. She spoke about ways to market organics and how important it is for farmers to know their audience and what makes them tick.

“Who is your customer?” she asked. “Where do they shop? What do they read?”

She also added that people have to be farming for the right reasons.

“You have to like what you do,” she emphasized. “Like what you do, and people will respond to it.”

The workshop also offered speakers on what it is that inspectors look for when farms are working to get certified, what inspectors look for on certified organic farms, food safety and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP.

EQIP is a governmental program through the Farm Bill of 2008 that allocates $5 million dollars for Delaware farmers. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 (the 2008 Farm Bill) clarifies EQIP’s purposes to include forest management and energy conservation, as well as practices related to organic production and fuels management.

One thrust of the program is a cost-share program to help develop and carry out plans for organic systems, wherein farmers can get as much as 90 percent of their costs funded, up to $20,000 per year or $80,000 in any six-year period.

The Delaware Department of Agriculture also has money available to help farms get certified as organic – up to 75 percent of their certification costs, up to $750. Cost is one of the many things that inhibit farmers from pursuing going organic. The initial certification applications can also be daunting, but representatives from the University of Delaware Extension Agency can help farmers who are interested but need guidance.

DOFFA’s annual educational meeting will be held Saturday, Jan. 10, 2009, at the UD Paradee Center in Dover. Sessions will include “composting as a business for small farms, “Agricultural Ecosystems,” “Organic Poultry Production” and “Weed Management for Organic Produce.” A workshop titled “Profiting from a Few Acres,” sponsored by Delaware State, will be held Feb. 20 and 21 at the Dover Sheraton. Admission is free.

For more information, visit the National Organic Program online at www.ams.usda.gov/nop or the Delaware Organic Food and Farming Association at delawareorganics.com.