Demand for organic products is greater than ever as consumers become more concerned with their health and production impacts on the environment. If you decide to tap this expanding market and grow your crop organically, the following tips can help you get started. While many of these are focused on greenhouse production, they can be applied to outdoor growing as well.

 

1. Consider whether USDA Organic certification is right for you.

hemp plant
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Organic certification grants growers the use of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic seal and the term “organic.” Both can help products gain consumer confidence and contribute to their market value and premium pricing. The certification process can also help organizations track and manage inputs and processes. Drawbacks to certification include the cost, extra paperwork, and limited and sometimes less-effective means to control production issues.

Certification requires maintaining records, following rules and regulations on farming inputs and processes, and having oversight to ensure compliance. The USDA set up the National Organic Program to create the rules and regulations, and it has accredited nearly 80 agents to manage certification. (The full list of agents is available here.)

Certification costs (including application, inspection and renewal fees) vary based on the agent and the size and scope of your operation. (USDA Organic Certification Cost-Share Programs can reimburse eligible businesses up to 75% of the certification costs.)

 

2. Use OMRI-Listed and certifier-approved growing mixes and nutrients.

Whether you choose to grow in a field or containers, the growing medium is key. Growing organically means any inputs to your land or containers need to be on the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) Products List (or the OMRI Canada Products List for Canadian growers) or approved by your certifier. OMRI reviews products to determine whether they meet organic standards.

For containers, you can either make a growing mix using approved ingredients or purchase an approved mix.

A good blend should have a proper nutrient balance, ingredients to manage water retention and distribution, and diverse microbiology for plant health, nutrient uptake and disease prevention. A well-fed plant is also less vulnerable to pest and disease pressure.

 

3. Employ IPM practices.

Pests, such as aphids, spider mites and hemp borers, can be the bane of any grow, and hemp is very susceptible to these threats. Using an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy, you can employ multiple methods to prevent and rid plants of infestations. For instance, you can place sticky cards throughout a greenhouse to detect and identify insects. You can also use bacteria (such as Bacillus thuringiensis) and fungi (like Beauveria bassiana) to infect and disrupt pests. Additionally, you can release beneficial insects, such as parasitic wasps and predatory mites, to find hidden insects that avoided infection. And, you can utilize OMRI-Listed or certifier-approved sprays like neem oil or insecticidal soaps to help prevent or target a hotspot of heavy pest pressure.

Overall, pay close attention to the selection and timing of IPM methods and carefully assess which to use, as problems can arise. For example, the risk of botrytis (grey mold) or residue increases if a spray is used in later flowering stages.

 

4. Take a preventative approach.

Being proactive about preventing diseases and pests will increase your chances of success. Many approved organic-use products are more effective as preventives than curatives. When purchasing clones or seedlings, ask providers about any disease or pest pressure the plants have endured and what actions they are taking or have taken. Also check plants for signs of pests or disease and take targeted action right away. If you are cultivating plants from seed, be cautious about reusing soil or growing mix that can harbor diseases and pests. Also, sanitize tables, containers and tools to prevent year-to-year contamination. Finally, plant inspection is important to immediately identify issues and begin curative procedures to increase the chances of successful control.

Randal Kohn is the owner of West Star Organics and West Star Hemp Co., a certified organic greenhouse in Wisconsin.