Recently the Department of Agriculture announced a $300 million Organic Transition Initiative designed to support the increased production of organic agriculture. The number of farmers transitioning to organic farming has dropped significantly in the past 15 years.

If you’re curious about organic production it’s important to become familiar with the standards in the National Organic Program (NOP). Developing a good relationship with your organic certifier is the best way to ensure that you meet organic standards in a way which is practical for your operation.

There are certain NOP standards which can be particularly challenging for growers of perennial organic systems such as orchards and vineyards. Perennial systems have a bigger challenge meeting the crop rotation rule and the natural resource rule.

The NRCS recently hosted a webinar with two experts on the production of organic perennial systems to help growers ensure they will be in compliance with these two standards. The experts were David Granatstein, Emeritus sustainable ag specialist at Washington State University, and Mae Culumber, University of California Cooperative Extension nut crops farm advisor for Fresno County.

The crop rotation standards state that producers must utilize crops which can maintain or improve soil quality and organic matter content, provide for pest management in annual and perennial crops, manage deficient or excess plant nutrients and provide erosion control.

The natural resource rule says operations must “maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation.” Elsewhere, the NOP states that producers must incorporate practices which are beneficial to biodiversity on their operation.

In perennial systems such as orchards and vineyards, uniformity, Granatstein said, is “a key management objective, important for crop quality. Uniform light is important for fruit quality.” So adding biodiversity can conflict with the quality of the cash crop. Nonetheless, there are some manageable steps to take to add biodiversity to a perennial system.

Adding plantings at the end of trellis rows is one way to increase biodiversity in perennial organic systems. Photo courtesy of David Granatstein

During Granatstein’s career, he spent a lot of time working on organic orchards, focusing on the orchard floor. To meet the biodiversity rules of the NOP, he suggested using intercropping, alley cropping and hedgerows. In addition, he said, “using existing orchard features such as row ends, pond buffers and buffer zones is a way to add biodiversity.”

One thing to consider, he said, is that additional biodiversity is defined by going above baseline standard practices, which vary from region to region. For example, if having a grass alleyway between orchard rows is standard in your region (such as in the East), it’s unlikely your certifier will say that management approach is sufficient to promote additional biodiversity. They may ask for mixed species between rows. But if you live in an arid region where grass alleys are not common, adding that practice could satisfy your certifier.

Planting perennial low-growing shrubs to trellis ends, Granatstein said, is a “pretty simple way to add biodiversity.”

Switching from growing grasses in alleyways to growing legumes may help provide nitrogen for your orchard. Keep in mind that if you switch from growing grasses to growing legumes in alleyways the legumes could be attractive to pests.

On the flip side, sometimes adding biodiversity can help control pests. Flowers can attract beneficial insects which help control aphids. For example, sweet alyssum is attractive to syrphids which help control the wooly apple aphid.

Some producers have experimented with adding biodiversity within the tree row, such as autumn planting mustard or permitting weeds to fill in rows of mature trees, then controlling the weeds with mowing. Sweet woodruff has even been planted due to its ability to repel rodents.

One project in West Virginia alternated two rows of peach trees with two rows of apple trees. In that instance, the apples suffered less injury due to stink bug and San Jose scale.

Depending on the size of your operation, you may even want to consider a food forest, with alternating canopy trees, medium-sized trees, shrubs and floor cover. Hedgerows can provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds and provide a windbreak too. Some permaculture operations have even experimented with not having the same species tree adjacent to another.

If that’s not practical, Culumber said, one straightforward way is using mixed species in the alleyway. That will help meet the NOP standards and increase the water holding capacity of your soil and enhance the soil microorganism function and soil carbon levels.

In her part of the country, she no-tills the alleyways at the end of October, then mows in late February. If you’re looking to have seed production and natural reseeding for the following autumn, wait until the seed hardens (in May or June, depending on what cover crop you are using) and the presence of native weed pressure to mow.

For more information on adding biodiversity to your perennial organic system, check with your certifier and your local ag officials. Some of the money designated in the Organic Transition Initiative is to help educate local officials on the NOP.

by Karl H. Kazaks