Organic crop cultivation has gained popularity over the years as consumers seek out more natural products grown with fewer pesticides. With the prices of pesticides and fertilizers increasing and potential shortages, organic management techniques may start to become even more popular among farmers.

With organic production, cultivators do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and they grow on land that has not had any prohibited substances applied for a minimum of 36 months. To produce crops following the National Organic Program (NOP) standards, a grower must understand the rules and regulations to be officially considered USDA Organic. Approval from a certifying agent allows growers to use the USDA Organic label. If a crop has to go through additional processing to get made into a final product, that processing needs to use approved substances in the manufacturing to be considered organic as well.

Going through certification may not be for everybody. Certification comes with a cost, which includes yearly inspections to maintain organic status. Additionally, the cost of managing a crop organically is higher than doing so conventionally, while yields have typically been lower in organic systems. The higher cost of organic production comes from higher costs for organic seeds or plants, certification, labor, equipment and fuel.

Some producers instead opt for a hybrid production system, drawing from both conventional and organic management practices. With few pesticides available (most of which are approved for use in organic production), many hemp producers are already following management practices that align with organic farming practices. Hemp certainly is a good option to transition land into organic production.  

Still, there is a value-added benefit for producers willing to go through the certification process to become fully organic. Organically grown crops have higher gross returns to farmers compared to conventionally grown crops.

Whether a grower wants to seek organic certification or simply integrate certain practices, they can start by using the following management techniques in the field this season.

Crop Selection

The main goals of organic cultivation are to prevent problems before they occur and maintain healthy soil. Organic crop management principles include a focus on implementing crop rotation, using cover crops, minimizing soil disturbance and using integrated pest management. (These principles are also becoming more popular among conventional farmers.)

Crop rotation is something all farmers should be doing, but it is especially important in organic production where fewer pesticides are available. These crops protect the ground from soil erosion while benefiting the field that they are grown in. Farmers use cover crops at times when they’re not growing cash crops.

Hemp growers should avoid growing hemp in continuous rotation on the same site and instead develop a rotation plan for their fields. Rotating hemp with crops that break up disease and insect pest cycles can help prevent outbreaks. Breaking up the pest cycle also means a lower likelihood of crop loss in subsequent years. The optimal rotation for hemp has not been determined yet, but the rotational crop prior to and following hemp should not share the same diseases and pests. The rotation should also align with the goals of the operator, meaning they have the tools, equipment and capability to sell each rotational crop.

Cover crop selection will also depend on the availability of seed, which crops are suited for the area, which diseases and pests are common for the cover crop and what sort of goals a farmer may have for the field sites. These goals could include preventing soil erosion, fixing or scavenging nitrogen, suppressing weeds, breaking up compacted soil and increasing soil organic matter. Understanding the needs of the field site will provide information on which cover crops are ideal. Many growers like to include multiple cover crop species in a single planting, reaping numerous benefits by having a diversity of species.

Organic Inputs

One of the biggest misconceptions of organic cultivation is that producers cannot use pesticides. Organic producers can use naturally derived pesticides that are approved for use in organic crop production, which must go through the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Organic pesticides have to be naturally derived and have the OMRI seal. These products include viruses, entomopathogenic fungi, plant extracts, minerals and other products that are not synthetic.

While the approved list of pesticides allowed for use in hemp aligns with those used by organic producers, this is likely to change in the coming years as more conventional products get approved for use. Because pesticides can come with a big price tag, using integrated pest management principles is the best approach to managing pests. The same general principles apply across organic pest management and conventional integrated pest management: know your pest enemies; develop a management plan; prevent outbreaks through sanitary practices, variety selection and site choice; scout early and often; and have tools ready to manage pests. These tools could include the use of beneficial organisms, proper site drainage, exclusion of pests through netting and mechanical control of weeds. The list of techniques is extensive, so finding a combination that works for the operator’s systems is the ideal approach.

Organic producers also fertilize their crops, but only with approved sources, including manure, compost, fish emulsion, bloodmeal and bone meal, to name a few. Fertilizer costs are going up, so access to certain fertilizers may become difficult. The use of cover crops and keeping soil healthy will help growers balance the cost of fertilizer with meeting the crops’ nutrient needs. Growers should test their soil to see how much fertilizer they need to apply for each field site. This also means knowing the soil type, since different soils can hold different amounts of nutrients.

Growers also need to source from certified organic producers when possible. Growers may cultivate organic without sourcing from certified organic producers; however, if there are organic varieties commercially available, they must source organic.

This becomes more challenging in the hemp space since it is a newer crop. Certifying agents can provide clarity on how to source hemp seeds and plants. Organic producers are barred from using genetically modified or transgenic organisms obtained through modern molecular techniques. This means if there was a hemp cultivar that was created using genetic engineering or gene editing, it would not be allowed for use in organic production. This is not the same as traditional breeding practices.

Going Organic

There is ongoing research on organic hemp production at universities and nonprofits like Rodale Institute and Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. If hemp growers are interested in transitioning their land to organic, the network of certifiers can be found on the USDA’s website. The certifier network can provide specific information on products, the transition process and getting inspected for certification. USDA’s organic website also has helpful resources for prospective and current organic producers.

One question farmers may have is how economical organic hemp production is compared to conventionally growing the crop. Labor is already a large expense in cannabinoid and essential oil hemp production. Depending on management practices, fertilizer and pesticide input costs may be lower compared to conventional growers. Many organic producers also manage their crops with specialized equipment, which can drive up the cost of production. This equipment could include flame weeding devices, which use an intense blaze to singe weed pests in the field.

Organically produced crops reap a higher value, but that also can make these items less accessible to the masses.

Looking past the monetary aspect, using organic management practices—even for non-certified organic producers—has environmental benefits. Ultimately, the decision to transition to organic production comes down to the grower and what aligns with their goals and finances.

Marguerite Bolt is the hemp extension specialist at Purdue University’s Department of Agronomy. She received her M.S. in entomology from Purdue University and her B.S. in entomology from Michigan State University. Bolt’s research has focused on hemp-insect interactions and plant chemistry.