The USDA recently announced that organic farmers are eligible to enroll land utilized as conservation buffers in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP). Buffers include windbreaks, pollinator strips, riparian buffers, filter strips and field borders planted with native vegetation. Grass strips, wetlands restoration, and living snow fences are also eligible practices. These types of conservation practices promote biodiversity, encourage farmers not to grow crops on marginal lands, provide waterways and soils with protection from contaminants, and create wildlife habitat.
Buffers on organic farms are not a new idea. In fact, they are an accepted practice that honors the philosophy of organic farming principles. Conservation buffers are a natural way to provide protection to waterways, protect crops from insect and disease pressures, buffer against pesticide and herbicide drift, and enhance biodiversity. The CCRP program, which provides per acreage payments on enrolled lands, as well as cost-share payments to establish these buffer areas, will now allows organic farmers to receive financial benefits for these common practices, and encourage organic farmers to further enhance on-farm conservation measures.
The National Organic Program (NOP) recently confirmed the commitment organic farmers must make to conservation practices. Released in January 2016, the NOP’s Natural Resources and Biodiversity Guidance establishes that organic farmers are required to “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality” and must avoid any practices that diminish biodiversity. Practices which organic farmers must implement include: “protecting riparian areas; supporting native species and habitat; minimizing invasive species; maintaining air quality; promoting crop diversity and plant condition; and improving soil condition,” according to the Guidance documents.
In addition, certifying agencies must ensure that organic operators are implementing and maintaining production practices designed to enhance biodiversity and conservation. Farmers must monitor and document their conservation activities to maintain compliance.
Practices that can be used to meet obligations include many of those eligible for CCRP enrollment, such as the establishment of windbreaks, grass waterways, riparian buffers, enhancing wildlife habitat and restoration of wetlands. Others, such as reducing tillage, conserving water, and enhancing soil organic matter are common practices on organic farms. These practices may be covered under other available conservation assistance programs.
Conservation practices not only protect and enhance the environment. They can also contribute to food safety. Produce safety has been compromised by contamination from soil, water and air-borne pathogens. Conservation practices can provide a natural means of reducing the risk of produce contamination from contamination from domestic or wildlife sources, or contamination from soil or water runoff, by providing filter strips, shelterbelts and other buffers.
According to the recently released Wild Farm Alliance Handbook, “Co-Managing Farm Stewardship with Food Safety,” these conservation buffers are important tools in managing food safety risks for produce growers.
The WFA Handbook states that “barriers that filter or divert contaminated water, intercept fugitive dust and help control nonnative wildlife at the farm’s perimeter,” serve both as conservation and produce safety measures. Windbreaks and hedgerows, for example, can collect airborne contaminants and prevent them for settling into food production area.
Wildlife can be managed via exclusion fencing, maintaining wildlife corridors away from cropping areas, and monitoring crops — and excluding areas with signs of animal activity in the fields — from harvest, are means of promoting food safety and conservation.
Irrigation management techniques can reduce the risk of contamination. The rate of water application can decrease the likelihood of pathogen spread. Protecting water sources from contamination via filtration strips, using cover crops to protect from runoff and enhance organic manner in the soil, and following guidelines for manure application and crop production and harvesting are other methods to maintain produce safety while enhancing natural resources. Appropriately siting produce production away from livestock areas, use of vegetative buffers, and the establishment of wetlands areas can all reduce the chance of produce contamination.
Soil health is enhanced and pathogen pressures reduced when the soil organic matter supports a vibrant microbial population. Crop rotation and cover crops can enhance soil health, as well as serve other conservation and food safety purposes.
“The use of conservation crop rotation can also promote diverse soil microbial communities when organic matter is increased with high residue crops. Both cover crops and crop rotation can reduce dust and runoff that may contain pathogens from leaving the field,” according the WFA Handbook.
Producers, whether certified organic or not, are encouraged to incorporate conservation practices on their farms. All producers must comply with Food Safety Modernization Act regulations, taking precautions — including the use of conservation methods — to enhance produce safety and minimize pathogen risk. Organic farmers, many of whom have been routinely utilizing conservation methods as standard practice, can now benefit both from CCRP enrollment, and from the clarification that such practices are now a requirement under NOP regulations.
The CCRP will enroll up to 20,000 acres of organically certified land in this new initiative. The program, which began in March 2016, is offered via open enrollment, and any eligible lands are accepted into the program after application and approval. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers the program. Rental incentives for high-priority conservation practices are additionally available via CCRP. Special consideration practices, such as salinity reduction or wellhead protection, or for aquaculture wetlands restoration, are also eligible. Visit www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/outreach-and-education/help-for-organic-farming/index for more information.