Organic conversion: the steps to get there (right)

updated on 30 June 2021

The figures given in this article are from the Agence Bio.

In 2020, more than 9 out of 10 French people said they had consumed organic products, 13% even consumed them every day! 85% of them consider it important to develop organic farming.

This article brings together the information needed to give you a comprehensive overview of the process of converting to organic farming. We have summarised the information to make it easier to understand. We quote the main interlocutors of interest with direct links to allow everyone to go into more detail as needed.

<i>Photo credits New Republic</i>
Photo credits New Republic

Organic farming: principles and objectives 

Organic in a few figures

Organic farming is currently experiencing extremely rapid growth. In 2019, organic farming represented 8.5% of the French Utilised Agricultural Area, which is 13% more than in 2018. In 2019, more than 47,000 agricultural structures are committed to organic farming, including 15% of large-scale farms. 

In terms of the organic food market in France, it represented 6.4 billion euros in 2015 and reached 11.9 billion euros in 2019. This is equivalent to an increase of 86% in just 4 years. Demand is growing, and outlets are diversifying in order to enhance local production. 

The upstream organic sectors are gradually being organised and set up to keep pace with its rapid development. For example, the seed sector has seen a 25% increase in the number of farmers who produce seed between 2018 and 2019. 

It is therefore a sector that is clearly growing, for which innovation and creation will make it possible to respond to demands and markets that are still unsatisfied.

What is organic farming? 

From a purely regulatory point of view, organic farming complies with a set of specifications in force(European framework regulation EC 834/2007 and application regulation EC 889/2008), the main line of which is the ban on the use of any synthetic plant protection product or input.

More information on the organic specifications here.

From an agronomic point of view, the objectives of this practice are multiple: they include the respect of natural balances and the preservation of the environment.

Organic farming enterprises also aim for overall system autonomy. Finally, the notion of resilience is essential for an organic farming system. The system must be considered from both an agronomic and environmental point of view, without forgetting the human and economic dimensions. Indeed, the philosophy of organic farming is also to preserve a traditional agricultural heritage, as well as family farming and to help make small structures viable. 

It is important to note that a technical itinerary that works in conventional farming will certainly not work in organic farming. For example, the dynamics of the carbon and nitrogen cycle are very different from one type of agriculture to another, because the nature of the amendments differs. This influences the behaviour of the spontaneous soil flora, but also the populations of arthropods and other organisms. Thus, it is the system as a whole that needs to be rethought in order to start organic farming. It is therefore necessary to have a defined project before embarking on the conversion process.

How to get started?

Have a project  

Having a project in organic agriculture is crucial because it allows you to project yourself and to better establish the "needs" for the transition. In order to mature your thinking, it is possible to visit farms and gather feedback to build a project that suits you.

But how do you build your project? Here are some key points to consider:

  • From a personal point of view

Why switch to organic farming? What motivates you? Think about the objectives of this transition for you and your farm. 

  • From a technical point of view 

Which project might be right for your farm? The soil and climate conditions on your farm will greatly influence your organic farming practices. Moreover, depending on your current system, more or less changes will be necessary, especially in terms of your rotation, your farming techniques, the markets for your crops and your contacts. It is important to have in mind the outlets for each of your future productions and to evaluate their feasibility. This allows you to project yourself financially. 

  • From an economic point of view 

Is it economically viable? What investments are required? What will be the production costs? How will your production be valued? How will your margins evolve? You can create a financial plan that highlights expenses and revenues as well as subsidies to get an overview of a potential operating result. It is also possible to be accompanied by a qualified advisor. 

A final important point is your knowledge. In order to make your transition to organic farming as successful as possible, the agronomic aspect is at the heart of the issues. If you feel the need, training courses or technical days can give you certain technical keys to make your project a reality and bring it to a successful conclusion.

Certification: the key steps 

Certification to organic farming is a two-stage process: first, conversion and then maintenance with an annual audit. 

Conversion is the transition from non-organic to organic farming. Its duration differs according to the specialities of the farm. In crop production, the conversion period is 2 years before the sowing of an annual crop. The first year is referred to as the "C1" crop and the second as the "C2" crop. This is a period when the production is carried out according to the specifications of organic farming but is valued at the conventional market price. There are specific markets for C2 crops.

<i>Representation of the timetable for conversion to organic farming in field crops. (Source: Technical document from the IDF Chamber of Agriculture, "Conversion AB, guide Grande Culture", 2018 edition).</i>
Representation of the timetable for conversion to organic farming in field crops. (Source: Technical document from the IDF Chamber of Agriculture, "Conversion AB, guide Grande Culture", 2018 edition).

The certification process consists of 3 key steps: 

  1. The development of your project, explained above.
  2. Notification to the Agence Bio. This notification can be made on the Agence Bio website or by post. It is a compulsory declaration for all certified organic actors. It is permanent except in the case of a major change such as your address, your production or your certification body.
  3. Selection of a certification body (CB). This independent body will check your structure in order to certify it. One inspection per year is carried out by appointment to ensure compliance with the organic specifications. The appointment consists of consulting the practice record books, checking the invoices and taking samples. Following the visit, an inspection report is drawn up: it may indicate anomalies that need to be modified to obtain certification. Once the certification is validated, you will be entitled to sell your production as organic. Note that unannounced checks may take place. 

And at the economic level?

Investments to be planned

First of all, certification is at the expense of the farmer. This is a cost to be taken into account in comparison with "non-organic" production. 

The main investment is probably in mechanical weeding tools: harrows, hoes, rotary hoes for example. To reduce the investment, it is possible to share the equipment via CUMAs or between neighbours. However, it is not uncommon for weather windows to be very limited for work such as mechanical weeding. A good understanding and a certain proximity between the users of these tools are therefore essential. As you can imagine, mechanical weeding must be very precise so as not to damage the crops planted. A guidance system (GPS, RTK) may become necessary. Note that aids are available for this type of equipment.

Public aid to be sought

For organic farming, there are two types of aid that correspond to the two phases of certification to organic farming. They are distributed by the second pillar of the CAP since 2015. 

  1. Conversion aids: these are distributed per hectare and relate to the crops grown on the plot. For annual crops, conversion aid amounts to 300 euros per hectare per year.
  2. Maintenance aids: these are also distributed per hectare and relate to the crops grown on the plot. For annual crops, it represents 160 euros per hectare per year. Since 2020, the allocation of maintenance aids changes for new conversions to AB. These changes are specific to the regions/departments, do not hesitate to ask for more information from your chamber of agriculture.

Please note that, depending on the region, ceilings are established. Your chamber of agriculture will be able to provide you with this information. 

With the new CAP, changes will take place. As Europe wants to make agriculture greener, support will most likely continue to be given to the development of organic farming.   

Other aids exist to support organic farming, such as certification aids and investment aids. However, it is important to be well informed because some aids must be applied for at key moments in the conversion process. 

It is also possible to combine conversion and maintenance aid with certain MAECs(Agro-environmental and Climate Measures).

<i>Credits Chambre d'Agriculture de Dordogne</i>
Credits Chambre d'Agriculture de Dordogne

The key to success: knowledge 

The interlocutors 

The importance of dialogue in the transition to organic farming should not be overlooked. Technical institutes, chambers of agriculture and certification bodies are available to answer your questions and support you in your project. 

It is also possible to get a concrete insight into organic farming by meeting farmers who are already practising it. Sharing experiences is essential to gain confidence and make a project a reality.

Training courses/trade shows/press 

A multitude of training courses exist throughout France in different formats, answering questions about organic farming.

Technical days, field trips, presentations by agronomists or farmers, and feedback are organised by various organisations. This knowledge is essential to improve your system. In many cases, you contribute to training courses via the VIVEA fund. Part of your training costs may therefore be covered.

You can also subscribe to specialised organic farming magazines. This allows you to stay informed about the sector, the issues at stake and the regulations. 

Finally, trade fairs and events are organised to bring together the latest innovations and the various players in the organic sector. One example is Tech&Bio, an international agricultural exhibition. These events provide an opportunity to meet and discuss specific issues. It is also an ideal moment to discover the latest innovations available concerning sorting, seed storage and many other topics. Agronomic feedback on varieties, cultivation practices or amendments is often presented following trials during such days. This technical feedback allows you to progress and evolve in your overall system thinking.

Key contacts to get started

  • TheAgence Bio: this is THE place to go for organic in France. Their website lists all organic structures. You can also use it to notify your organic activity and find a lot of information and updates on practices, regulatory developments and initiatives at national level.
  • Produire bio: this is a very comprehensive site that answers specific questions in detail about organic farming. 
  • Your chamber of agriculture: advisors specialised in organic farming can provide you with information and help you in your efforts. They can provide you with the contact details of farmers who are willing to share their experience, as well as contacts concerning specific sectors or outlets. They can also put you in touch with organic suppliers. 
  • Certification bodies: there are currently 12 accredited organic certification bodies, all of which are listed on the Agence Bio website (Ecocert, Certipaq, Bureau Veritas, Certisud, Certis, Bureau Alpes Controle, Qualisud, ControlUnion, Ocacia, Afnor Certification, Eurofins)
  • Your water agency: water agencies have support programmes for organic farming. They will also be able to answer some of your questions. 

Now you know everything, let's go for the organic conversion!

Article written by AgroParisTech Service Etudes.

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