As a landowner concerned about the sustainability of your farmland, you may consider shifting to organic production. There are tenants interested in using organic methods, particularly as organic products often sell at higher prices.  However, tenants might be limited in their ability to use these methods due to a lack of tenure security, as well as a lack of resources for achieving organic certification.

It is also important to note at the outset that organic certification is not a guarantee of sustainability. In fact, some argue there are farm methods outset the realm of organic that create a more sustainable system. For instance, the use of no-till farming methods, which has the benefits of decreased soil erosion, less nutrient runoff, and carbon sequestration, can sometimes result in increased use of herbicides, an external input not allowed under organic farming regulations. It is, therefore, important to learn about the benefits of different farm practices and make an informed decision based on your own opinions.

Providing Secure Land Tenure

As discussed throughout this website, secure land tenure can provide your tenant with a greater stake in the long-term productivity of the operation and enhance their ability to take risks on sustainable practices that might result in a short-term yield decrease.  Secure tenure, however, becomes critical in relation to shifting to organic production.  It may take several years before the land is certified as organic and your farmer needs to know they will eventually reap the benefits of a higher price for the product. While three to five year lease terms may be adequate for farm operators to see results from cover crops and other practices, a tenure of 10 to 15 years may be more appropriate for transitioning to organic certification.

Additional Resources:

New Spirit Ventures

  • A non-profit organization in the upper midwest that works with landowners that are interested in leasing farmland to organic farm operators.
  • These lease terms are typically for 15 years with an option to purchase the property.

Assisting with Organic Certification

While using organic farm methods can help ensure the sustainability of the property, unless the farm is certified as organic under the National Organic Program (NOP) the products cannot be labeled as such.  This is an area, however, where a landowner with or without experience in farm management can still assist in promoting sustainable production by taking on the responsibilities for organic certification.  Sharing the costs of organic certification can include everything from initial research conducted to figure out what needs to happen on the farm to completing necessary paperwork and paying any needed legal fees.  The parties should decide who is responsible for the various aspects of certification and put this agreement in writing as a provision in the lease agreement.

The Basics of Organic Certification

There are required procedures that must be followed in order to become organic certified.  This can be a complicated process and consultation with a qualified professional may be needed.  Here, though, are the basics, with links provided to additional information.

  1. Select an Accredited Certifying Agent, complete the application, and develop an Organic System Plan (OSP).
  2. Review the OSP with the certifying agent for compliance with NOP standards.
  3. Conduct an inspection of the operation to ensure compliance.
  4. The certifying agent reviews the inspection report and makes a recommendation regarding certification.
  5. The certifying agent issues an organic certificate if the operation is in compliance.  A certificate may be issued with conditions for minor issues.

After the initial certification process operators must make annual updates to their OSPs and report these to their certifying agents.  Updates must also be reported if any changes are made in the operation’s OSP.

Additional Organic Lease Considerations

It may be prudent to address some additional concerns in leasing organic farmland. Both the tenant and the landowner have an interest in ensuring the continuation of organic certification once established. Therefore, it is important to address issues regarding contamination. Provisions can be drafted regarding the following issues:

  • Obtaining statements from seed suppliers verifying organic and/or non-GMO status.
  • Obtaining GMO test results for all relevant “events”or modifications, especially for corn, soy, canola, cotton, beets, and alfalfa.
  • Retaining copies and providing reports of test results, receipts, seed tags, and letters from seed suppliers.
  • Establishing buffers zones, windbreaks, and hedgerows to minimize GMO contamination.
  • The selection of fields in isolated areas for wind and pollinated crops.
  • Establishing contact with neighboring farm operators and requesting Bt corn refuges along borders.
  • The posting of “Organic Farm” signs.
  • Decisions regarding planting dates in relation to neighboring farms using GMO crops.
  • The cleaning of tractors and other equipment prior to use on organic land.
  • Keeping records and supplying reports regarding equipment cleaning.
  • GMO test samples prior to harvest and keep records and report contamination.
  • Cleaning of crop storage and transportation equipment prior to use.

Cost-sharing Programs

It is also worth mentioning that there is federal and state cost-sharing programs for organic certification.  The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP) is administered though the USDA and state agencies and makes up to 75 percent of the costs for certification reimbursable.  There is a $750 limit per year.  More information can be found by clicking NOCCSP.

There are specific regulations that must be followed in applying the USDA Organic Seal.

Additional Resources:

USDA, National Organic Program

  • This USDA site contains further information on organic certification, compliance and enforcement, labeling, and much more.

Rodale Institute

NOCCSP State Affiliate Agencies

  • This link provides a list of Organic Cost Share Program participants by state.

National Organic Program Handbook

  • The handbook is published four times per year and contains information for owners, managers, and certifiers of organic operations.
  • It is important to check back for updates to have the latest information.