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How To Transition to Certified Organic
Transitioning into certified organic farming takes time, patience, and a lot of paperwork. But seeing compacted ground transform into rich black soil teeming with worms and insects has made the journey worthwhile, says Keba Hitzeman of Pleasant Hill, Ohio. After taking over her parents’ 180-acre farm in 2010, Hitzeman and her husband Dennis allowed some acreage to go back to nature to preserve topsoil in flood-prone areas along the river.
Since they didn’t have equipment, the Hitzemans let a renter work the acreage until trees started dying due to overspray from crops being treated with 2,4-D. When the renter’s contract expired, the couple let the land go fallow for a couple of years until they could decide on a more sustainable direction. Farmers saw the idle land and asked about renting it. Among them was Adam, a farmer who shared the Hitzemans’ ideals.
Costs for certified organic farming are higher than conventional farming, and it takes at least 3 years to become certified. So, they agreed on a sharecropping arrangement, splitting the expenses and income on about 100 acres. By 2018 some of the acreage was certified, and all the fields were certified in 2021. Adam grows corn, soybeans, and a couple of hay mixes. The Hitzemans have two pastures for sheep and goats.
Hitzeman shared her story in Grit magazine and offers a few suggestions for farmers considering organic certification.
Take time to carefully research options in your area that are best for you. Sometimes organically grown (without certification) or Certified Naturally Grown (beyond certification) are more suitable, she notes. Hitzeman looked at websites at Ohio State University Extension and USDA, then searched “how to become Certified Organic in Ohio.” She chose to work with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association for certification. (OEFFA serves farmers in other states, as well.)
“Paperwork for the first few years is overwhelming,” Hitzeman says, noting that some information needs to be repeated in several places in the application. The first application is 20+ pages and requires a field history for the past three years and plans for the future with documentation of equipment, seed, soil amendments, soil tests, buffer zones, harvest handling, and more. Once certified, annual renewals are easier, she notes.
Save receipts and input labels and organize and maintain paper and computer files. Adam is responsible for finding seed and input sources that are approved, and Hitzeman takes care of the certification paperwork. “It’s good to have a second set of eyes looking at it,” she notes, adding that if things get missed, they can be fixed by email or when the inspector comes each year. It’s part of the process and fee they pay to OEFFA annually for certification.
Expect questions and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with neighbors about what you’re doing, especially if organic farming isn’t common in your area.
Hitzeman notes organic practices are becoming more common, and with growing demand for organic products, there are grants available, especially for young and new farmers to get started. Growing organically is more expensive, and can be challenging to find seed and input suppliers that meet organic standards.
At the same time, organic crops earn premium prices compared to commodity markets. Adam works with an elevator to purchase corn and beans, and the hay is sold to organic livestock farmers. For the Hitzemans, a huge benefit is improved soil and the perimeter areas filled with wildlife and pollinators.
“In the end, you have to follow what you think is right,” Hitzeman says. “For us, that means treading on the land as lightly as we can to leave things better than we found them.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Keba Hitzeman, Pleasant Hill, Ohio (innisfreeonthestillwater@gmail.com; www.innisfreeonthestillwater.com; Facebook: Innisfree on the Stillwater).

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2023 - Volume #47, Issue #4