What are transitional crops and why is MIG growing them?
We are currently growing some crops with organic methods but on land that is in year two of three for the transition period required by the USDA's National Organic Program. Some of the produce in our CSA, at our Farm Stand, and at our Salem Saturday Market booth is thus designated as transitional, often labelled with a T on the sign.
Farming on transitional land
Many of you who have visited the farm know that MIG is incredibly lucky to have access to an abundance of land, owned by the Miller family who have owned what we call the nursery and about 40 acres, since the early 1970's. On this farm, my family grew mint, continued to operate a mint still producing essential oil, as well as other specialty seed crops, native plants and hybrid poplars. Chris and I formed Minto Island Growers in 2008 and began transitioning land to organic production. The contiguous acreage that expands north from our farm stand, was owned by Elizabeth's grandparents Pat and Walt, and for many years, farmed by the Iverson family, who also used to farm the open fields in Minto Brown Island Park. MIG started chipping away at the conventional fields, planting blueberries, which were certified in 2011, and last year, the opportunity arose to start farming another 5 acres north of the farm stand that had been in conventional wheat since the fall of 2015.
In the past 10 years of intensively farming these certified organic parcels, we have begun to face issues that many farmers do, including disease/fungal issue, and persistent perennial weed problems. Clubroot was found about five year back, it is a fungal issues that affects all brassica plants (our CSA grows TONS of these crops- broccoli, radish, arugula, kale, Brussels etc.) stunting and disfiguring the growth of plants. It spreads rapidly through fields, and once it's in the soil, it basically never leaves. Where it has been detected, we now cannot grow brassicas in and in large part we have left these areas fallow, because it is such a risk to spread the fungal spores over the entire farm.
One of our biggest weed issues is Canada thistle, a gnarly, very hardy plant that spreads both from seed production (seed blows in from ditches and our perennial native and poplar stoolbeds) and more persistently, by rhizome- an underground root network that is long lived and will continue to send up new shoots, even if the above ground green growth is pulled. When planting cash crops over the years, we have done our best to mow, hand pull, and mechanically kill the thistle.
Despite our best efforts, the thistle has spread each year in particular fields, often completely blanketing sections, causing low yields and painful harvests. We reached the breaking point probably last year in realizing that to continue farming some of these areas, we needed a longer-term management solution that could actually start to remove the thistle. Thankfully Corrie arrived this year, ready to tackle complex farming problems, and she has been researching, planning, and beginning to implement a thistle control strategy. I am going to ask her to share more about this in a future newsletter, because it's quite interesting and gets to the heart of long-term sustainability of ecosystems that are managed without chemical weed control. It also gets to the heart of the overall sustainability of our farm, and not just green-washed sustainability, but in the truest sense of the three part concept- ecological, economic and social- just ask our crew who has to continually weed around, harvest around and deal with lower than expected yields in harvest plans.
Basically, it's impossible to eradicate Canada thistle unless you fallow, cover-crop, tarp, or a combination of the three, all which requires a well designed plan, time, and material resources without any revenue return, and most awesomely- because farming is always hard due to the mother nature's complexity- we don't even know how long these strategies will take nor if they will ultimately work!
As organic farmers, we are already dedicated to feeding the soil with covercrops, resting fields when possible, and rotating plant families, but with a critical mass of clubroot and thistle issues, plus other complicating factors, we have found our current certified organic land base is not sustainable nor is it allowing us to manage the land in the way we believe is right or is economically viable. Thus we made the difficult decision to plant crops in the new transitional 5 acre area and do our best to communicate to our CSA members, Farm Stand and market customers which crops these were and why we felt this decision was right for the long-term viability of the farm and our business. Hence you will see some crops listed as transitional in the box contents list and at our SSM booth and Farm Stand.
This land is being managed the same as our organic crops, but it will not be officially certifiable by Oregon Tilth until the fall of 2018. Since we were neighbors to the conventional farming, we were also able to obverse their management, which was not chemically intensive.
If you would like more information about the land history, or have any concerns, please email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We know that people choose organic produce for a variety of reasons and we take the fact we grow your food very seriously.