Organic Farmers

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements defines organic farming as "a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic agriculture combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved."

Organic farmers either own the organic farmland on which they work, rent the land from the owner, or lease it through a land trust. Organic farmers may therefore be the farmland and business owners, farm operators, or they may be farm managers. They may come from a long line of farmers or they may be new to the business. On small farms, organic farmers have fewer staff and more diverse, wide-ranging responsibilities. They may be involved in more of the physical labor in addition to hiring and managing staff; researching, purchasing, and maintaining farm equipment; and researching and strategizing the types of crops to grow, the types of seeds to plant, and the timing of plantings and harvestings.

A big part of organic farming involves soil management through crop rotation (also known as crop sequencing). To keep the soil fertile and help control pests and diseases, organic farmers will use the same farmland to plant a different crop in a schedule of either successive seasons or every few years. Composting is also part of the job description. Compost, or "green manure," is a natural fertilizer that can be created by mixing such things as decaying vegetables and food wastes, paper and yard wastes (such as grass clippings), and animal waste (manure). Granted, it's not a pretty smell, but the combination is rich in minerals that help fertilize and condition the soil.

Depending on the size of the farm, organic farmers are responsible for preparing the land, mechanical tilling, weeding (by hand or with tools and devices, such as the flame-weeder, which literally shoots flame to burn weeds), mulching, planting, fertilizing (composting), cultivating, and harvesting, and this is by no means an all-inclusive list. Work hours are especially long during planting, growing, and harvesting seasons. Once the harvest is over, farmers make sure that the produce is properly packaged, stored, and marketed. Many farmers participate in farmers' markets, and while this boosts sales, it also adds to the farmers' workload. It requires creating the vending booth (such as signage, product packaging, literature for takeaways, etc.); packing up and trucking the products to the market; setting up the booth; and either working at the market and interacting with consumers and handling transactions, or staffing the booth and managing the staffing schedules. And at the end of marketing day, every task needs to be reversed: The booth needs to be broken down, products must be packed up and brought back to the farm, and then the tallying and bookkeeping of the transactions can begin.

During cold seasons, farmers may plant cover crops, which are crops that are planted primarily to provide ground cover, prevent erosion, and improve soil properties. Cover crops may be wheat, oats, or rye, or can even be legumes, such as clover and alfalfa.

Organic farmers might also produce products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs. All organic dairy products and eggs must come from animals that are fed organic feed and are provided with access to open space where they can comfortably roam and enjoy the sunlight. Organic livestock and poultry may not be given antibiotics, hormones, or medications, but they may be vaccinated against disease.

Next Section: Earnings

Career Update Newsletter

Tips and tools to help you manage your ideal career.