Risk Management Guide for Organic Producers

eOrganic authors:

Kristine Moncada, University of Minnesota

Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota

A new publication for organic farmers in the Upper Midwest, written and released by the University of Minnesota, is now available at www.organicriskmanagement.umn.edu/.

Organic agriculture can be risky because of the complexity of dealing with crop management issues such as fertility, weed control and pest control. The Risk Management Guide for Organic Producers is a free online manual and website designed to help farmers understand the risks in organic production and make choices that minimize those risks. The manual covers a wide range of production topics that are relevant to organic farmers while integrating recent organic research and tips from local experienced organic farmers.


The publication is primarily intended for organic and transitioning grain producers in the Upper Midwest. However, much of the information also applies to other regions of the country as well as for producers who grow crops other than row crops. So whether you are an experienced organic producer, one who is transitioning, or someone considering organic farming, this guide will have something to offer.


Risk Management Guide for Organic Producers has 14 chapters written by 11 authors who cover a wide range of production topics relevant to organic producers and those transitioning to organic production. Each chapter includes color photographs, data tables and charts on organic research, producer profiles, producer tips, further resources on each topic, and summaries on how to reduce risk. At the end of each chapter are quizzes for producers to gauge their risk level in a given topic. The website also includes a link to electronic, interactive versions of these same quizzes that will add quiz-takers scores and provide a summary of risk.

Summary of Topics


This chapter describes one of the most important tools in organic farm management – rotation. A diverse rotation will lead to fewer insect, weed and disease problems and, with the inclusion of legumes and perennials, increase fertility and soil health. This chapter addresses the benefits of how rotation can help with soil health, yield, weeds, pests, and economics, and example rotations and what factors to consider in planning a rotation.

Soil Health

Soil is composed of minerals, air, water, organic matter, and living organisms, all of which are important for healthy plant growth. This chapter reviews some of the general properties of soil, soil conservation, soil testing, and plant nutrient needs.

Soil Fertility

The ability of soil to provide essential nutrients is called fertility. The goal of an organic farmer is to provide good nutrition for crops and develop healthy soils without environmental degradation. Topics covered include adjusting pH, green manures, manures, compost, and other amendments.

Weed Biology

Weed biology is a necessary aspect to understand in order to manage weeds. Farmers can reduce their risk by learning to recognize weed species, focusing on weed emergence, and reducing weeds and their buildup in the seed bank through sound management and equipment care. This chapter covers weed traits and weed effects on crops.

Weed Management

The biggest challenge that organic producers face today is weed management. Producers must make sure that weeds do not exceed damaging thresholds that limit crop yields. In this chapter, we address practical weed management techniques consisting of cultural weed control and mechanical weed control.

Weed Profiles

This chapter focuses on management of individual weed species that can be problematic in cropping systems. These Weed Profiles cover identification of common weeds at different stages and offer information on their management. Weeds profiled include quackgrass, large crabgrass, woolly cupgrass, giant foxtail, yellow foxtail, green foxtail, wild buckwheat, Pennsylvania smartweed, common lambsquarters, kochia, redroot pigweed, smooth pigweed, waterhemp, wild mustard, velvetleaf, Eastern black nightshade, common ragweed, giant ragweed, Canada thistle, horseweed, common sunflower, and cocklebur.


This chapter is written to help growers who are contemplating adopting organic production practices understand the risks that are associated with organic production and, when possible, make choices that will minimize those risks. Production challenges can be especially evident during transitioning from a conventional to an organic system. Topics covered are differences between organic and conventional systems, steps in transitioning, and reducing risk during transitioning. 

Corn Production

Corn can be one of the most important and profitable crops for organic grain producers. Organic growers face several issues in corn production including variety selection, soil fertility, planting variables, weed management, pest management, harvesting, and reducing risk of GMO contamination.

Soybean Production

In the Upper Midwest, soybeans are an important part of many organic producers’ rotations. Soybeans have lower fertility requirements than corn and, because it is a nitrogen-fixing legume, a productive crop of soybeans can provide some nitrogen to a subsequent crop. Organic growers face several issues in soybean production including variety selection, soil fertility, planting variables, weed management, pest management, and harvesting.

Small Grains

A diversity of small grains is grown by organic farmers. The four main small grain crop species that are grown in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest region include wheat, barley, oats, and rye. Organic growers face several issues in small grains production including variety selection, soil fertility, planting variables, weed management, pest management, and harvesting.


There are several legumes and grasses that are used in organic cropping systems in the Midwest. The emphasis in this chapter is on small-seeded legumes and grasses used for hay or silage. The topics covered in this chapter include legume selection, grass selection, legume-grass mixtures, forage establishment, companion crops, weed control, and harvesting forages. Forage species discussed include red clover, alfalfa, white clover, birdsfoot trefoil, sweet clover, smooth bromegrass, timothy, orchardgrass, reed canarygrass, perennial ryegrass, Kentucky bluegrass, and tall fescue. 

Winter Cover Crops

This chapter focuses on winter cover crops such as winter rye and hairy vetch, used in grain cropping systems. Winter cover crops can provide several benefits but involve some risks. Winter cover crops are best adapted to areas with a long enough time to establish in the fall and without soil moisture deficits in the spring. Topics include selecting cover crops, establishing cover crops, terminating cover crops, subsequent crops, and cover crop profiles including winter rye, hairy vetch, spring oats, annual ryegrass, brassicas, and bi-cultures.

Alternative Crops

For the Upper Midwest, alternative crops may be considered as any crop besides corn, soybean, small grains, or alfalfa. While the adoption of alternative crops can provide real advantages, it also carries real risks. Special requirements, variable yields and shifting markets can be expected. The smart grower will carefully research market options before investing the time, effort and money required. Before adopting one or more alternative crops for full-scale production, there are several steps producers need to take to minimize risks. Topics include selecting alternative crops, markets, economics, where to go for more information, and alternative crop profiles including field peas, flax, sunflowers, buckwheat, triticale, millets, grain sorghum, grain amaranth, and field beans.

About the Contributors

Risk Management Guide for Organic Producers was developed by the University of Minnesota with funding from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Eleven authors from various divisions including University of Minnesota Extension, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, the Southwest Research and Outreach Center, the Northwest Research and Outreach Center, the Department of Soil Science, and the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, contributed to the publication.

In addition, the content of the publication was guided by input from a learning group network of experienced organic producers from Minnesota. Organic field research to support the publication was conducted at field stations at the Southern Research and Outreach Center and the Southwest Research and Outreach Center.

References and Citations

Moncada, K.M. and  C.C. Schaefer (ed.)  2011. Risk Management Guide for Organic Producers [Online]. University of Minnesota. Available at www.organicriskmanagement.umn.edu/ (verified 18 February, 2011).

Published February 21, 2011

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.