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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week

Permalink I want to cover my raised beds with stucco or a similar material. Which building materials should I use to stay in compliance with organic standards?

Answer: It’s always a good idea to check with your local organic certification agency before applying new materials to currently certified beds or beds that are in the process of becoming certified.

There are a few options to choose from for building materials and a few different ways to approach making your raised beds more aesthetically pleasing. First of all, before applying any material to the outer surface of these raised beds you will need to apply a buffer, such as a metal lath backing, around the wood. This will allow for another material (such as stucco) to be applied around the wood. To ATTRA’s knowledge, there is no metal lath on the market that is prohibited from being used around organic production.

Next, you might consider placing a weather barrier around the wood, although this may not be necessary depending on the type of stucco or cement-like material you use to cover it. If you do want to use a weather barrier, keep in mind that many contain products that are not permitted for use with organic production. For example, black felt paper is commonly used as a weather barrier under house siding. It consists of about 50 percent asphalt and 50 percent organic felt. However, asphalt is petroleum-based material and is prohibited from contact with soils in organic production. The wooden material of the raised beds may create a large enough barrier between the soil and felt paper to prevent soil contamination, but it would be up to an organic certifying agency to determine if this type of barrier is adequate.

Regarding applying stucco or cement-like material around the raised beds, lime plaster and cement contain materials like hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide) that are restricted or prohibited from use as soil amendments in organic production. However, if you are careful enough not to get materials like cement or hydrated-lime on the garden beds themselves, once the materials have hardened and a buffer (the metal lath) exists between the soil and the material, it should not affect the crops. Lime plaster has less embodied energy compared to cement stucco. Lime plasters are durable, but depending on the amount of rain in your area, may need to be touched up every year or two. As far as a weather barrier behind the stucco, it would make sense to use one if you are going to use cement-based stucco, but you should not use one with a lime plaster because it needs to breathe. A useful resource for learning about plasters and other building materials is

For more information about organic materials and compliance, see the ATTRA publication Organic Materials Compliance at For information about wooden building materials, see the ATTRA publication Pressure-Treated Wood: Organic and Natural Alternatives at

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Permalink Our farm is located between conventionally-farmed corn and soy fields and a college sports field. We are not certified organic but we are growing to organic standards. What is the buffer zone required between conventional and organic farming operations?

The buffer requirements in section 205.202 of the National Organic Standards are vague. The exact wording is as follows: “Have distinct, defined boundaries and buffer zones such as runoff diversions to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to the crop or contact with a prohibited substance applied to adjoining land that is not under organic management.” Different organic farms have different buffering needs. Dominant wind direction, physical barriers and other unique characteristics on each farm can influence the buffer size needed. These distances need to be established for each farm by the certifying agency based on a third-party inspection of the farm.

In your case, pesticides and herbicides that are being used on the sports field and on the corn and soybean fields would be the biggest concern. These prohibited substances can drift when applied in windy weather. Twenty-five feet is a common buffer size but if you do apply for organic certification, the buffer sizes will need to be worked out in your organic system plan with your certifier. If the corn and soybean growers next to your farm are conventional, it is likely they are growing GMO crops. The pollen from these crops could cross with corn or beans that you grow, but that wouldn’t make these crops non-organic according to the organic standards. You and other community members may not want to grow crops that could be cross-pollinated with GMO pollen, even if those crops would still be considered organic. If that is the case, your options would be to move the farm to where there is no chance of cross-pollination with GMO crops or to not grow corn and beans in your current location. An adjacent land-use statement will need to be included in your certification application. Most likely, the farmers farming the adjoining land will tell you what they are using on the crops they are growing.

For more information on organic standards, see the ATTRA publication Organic Standards for Crop Production: Excerpts of USDA's National Organic Program Regulations at

To learn more about the organic certification process, see the ATTRA publication Organic Certification Process at Additionally, Organic Market Farm Documentation Forms has tools that market gardeners and produce farmers can use for documenting practices, inputs and activities that demonstrate compliance with regulations, or that assist in other aspects of farm recordkeeping. It is available at

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Permalink I am a beginning farmer who is taking over a beef cattle operation. How can I transition the operation to minimize disruption?

Transitioning a farm or ranch can be a challenging task, but there are certain things you can do to minimize disruption. Here are some suggestions and helpful resources.

First of all, it’s important for a new owner to start a conversation with the current farm manager to inform him of the changes, work out a schedule, and set out clear tasks for the transition. Communication will be key. Keep an open line of communication with the manager. Be very clear on the timeline, expectations, and needs; it will help with a peaceful transition. The current manager is very important in the transition process. Right now he holds most of the farm institutional and operational knowledge. You want him to be on your team and help you as much as possible. He needs to know that he is appreciated and acknowledged for his work and knowledge.

Planning the Future of Your Farm is a useful publication on farm planning. It is available at

Specifically see the worksheets in Section 2: Evaluating Your Farm Resources, on pages 41 to 49. It will be important for you to learn as much as you can about the operation from the current manager and the current owners. Section 2 of this document outlines many of the major components of the farm. This will give you a good understanding of what is there and in place (or not in place). Having the current manager and owners provide the information in the worksheets will be very helpful in understanding what you are starting with. It will be important to know the resources the farm currently uses for veterinary services, equipment repairs, farm help/hired hands, and the purchase of feed/hay.

Next, you will need to determine what the operating agreement/compensation will be. The current manger will need to set an "end date" with the new manager. Based on their arrangement, it might be after the calf crop is weaned/sold or whenever makes the most sense. It would be wise to have an additional arrangement/pay for him to help through the transition and complete some tasks that he doesn't normally do. You might pay him to help you through the first calving, or whatever you would like help with. The operating agreement might outline who will make which decisions about the farm and when those decisions will transfer to you. If he completes the document above (or something similar), be sure to pay him for the time he spends doing so. Be sure to put things in writing; draft a document or contract outlining the tasks and times you would like his help and the compensation you will provide. That way you both can be clear on what his role will be during the transition and how he will be compensated.

Another useful resource for writing a transition plan is Developing a Written Transition Plan Outline, from the University of Minnesota Extension. It is available at

Lastly, you will want to take part in farm planning. Once you take over, then it is your turn to plan. As you are going through this transition, it is a great time to set a vision and goals for the operation. You will be learning where you are starting from, and then you can set goals to move your operation to where you want it to be.

For more information, check out ATTRA's Beginning Farmer section at

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Permalink I sell vegetables at my local farmers market but the short growing season where I live makes it challenging. How can I be more profitable?

Answer: In northern latitudes and high elevations, producing food has its challenges, including low humidity and extreme fluctuations in temperatures, short growing seasons, and challenging soils. Small-scale market gardeners can overcome some of the challenges of profitably producing local foods in cold climates through seed and plant selection, season extension techniques, and niche marketing.

A number of crops actually do well with light frost and cooler temperatures that tend to dominate the early and later parts of a growing season in cold climates. These crops are often referred to as cool-season crops. Specialty vegetables can be considered any variation from the typical market fare. This could be baby, heirloom, or ethnic products. Producing specialty vegetables is a way to set yourself apart in local markets and often command a higher price. For more information and crop ideas, see the ATTRA publication Specialty Crops for Cold Climates at

Season extension techniques are another important strategy to increase profitability in areas with a short growing season. Cultural practices, plastic mulches, row covers, and low tunnels provide growers with earlier, later, and higher-quality produce that can capture more markets and get higher prices. High tunnels or hoop houses, which are essentially unheated greenhouses, have gained increased interest around the country in the past 10 years. Many growers now consider hoop houses essential to the success of their market gardens. For more information, see the ATTRA publication Season Extension Techniques for Market Gardeners at

To learn more about greenhouse design elements and their effectiveness at extending the growing season in cold climates, read Sustainable Season Extension: Considerations for Design at

Finally, it is important to consider which market is right for your cool-season specialty crops. If you are using these seed selection and season-extension techniques on your farm, chances are that your harvest season extends past the season of operation for a typical farmers market or other seasonal direct markets. Consider selling at (or starting) a winter farmers markets and selling directly to local restaurants or grocery stores. There is potential for finding lucrative markets that will increase the profitability of your market garden.

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Permalink What can I do if there are persistent herbicides in my compost and manure?

Answer: Most agricultural herbicides break down quickly in the environment. There are a few exceptions, however, particularly Clopyralid and Picloram, which have shown up in compost residues throughout the country. Clopyralid is a long-lasting herbicide that is commonly used on turf and has surfaced in municipal composting facilities that compost lawn and leaf residues and Picloram is used to control broad leafed weeds such as Canadian Thistle. It is currently banned for use on lawns in Washington State, and agricultural producers are required to have a pesticide applicators license to spray it.

The Woods End Laboratory is an alternative soil and compost testing lab in Maine. Woods End has developed some of the most accurate bioassays for revealing herbicide residue effects. Their tests are effective to the lowest levels attainable and protects from misinterpretation of other harmful effects, such as high salt content in compost. For more information, contact:

Woods End Laboratories, Inc.
PO Box 297, Mt Vernon, ME 04352

On the west coast, Environmental Analysis Inc. (EMA) in Woodland, California, conducts residue testing on both plants and soil. To learn more, contact:

Environmental Micro Analysis Inc.
40N East Street, Suite B
Woodland, CA 95776

To find additional testing laboratories, check out ATTRA's Alternative Soil Testing Laboratories database, available at This database identifies a range of soil testing labs and supplies that support the special analytical needs of farmers using organic or sustainable production methods. It is searchable by state, product category, or keyword.

It is essential that you know the limitations of this testing, though. There are limits on the feasibility of testing for some types of herbicides. ATTRA recommends that you call the laboratories of your choice to ask the following questions along with the symptoms that might explain your situation.

• Will the test tell me what I want to know?
• What kind of sample do I send?
• Cost? Often these tests can be quite expensive ($70 to $150).
• Is the test actually necessary or useful?
• Can the lab actually do the test needed?

Information on Cloropyralid symptoms is available in the pdf document link here:

More information on herbicide residue in general in compost is available from the BioCycle article "Prevalence and Fate of Clopyralid in Compost," available at

Another fact sheet from Ohio State Extension has a good overview of herbicide in compost and straw. It is available at

A sign of herbicide damage is when plants to which you applied compost exhibit curled and burned leaves. Certain plants are particularly susceptible to herbicide damage, however, including peppers, peas, tomatoes, red clover, and cucumbers. If only these plants are damaged, then most likely herbicide residue is the culprit.

When you source compost and straw for mulch in the future, be sure to ask if the animals have been fed hay that has had Cloropyralid applied.

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