Rising interest in organic transition requires diverse strategies

Bob Quinn has been an organic wheat farmer in Montana for 30 years. Through the years, hes spoken at countless meetings and workshops, written articles, given interviews on organic, and he says never in his three decades of practicing—and advocating—organic has he received as many questions about transitioning to organic agriculture as he has in the past six months.

Finally after 30 years, I am getting regular inquiries of how to convert to organic by many neighbors and fellow farmers throughout Eastern Montana,says Quinn. The first sign of this change came at our last farm field day which we usually host every two to three years. In 2014, we expected the usual 50 to 100 to show up, and we were extremely surprised that we had nearly 200. Even more surprising was that non-organic farmers outnumbered organic ones!

Quinn attributes this heightened interest in organic in his region to simple economics”—local organic wheat farmers are getting four to five times more for their crop than conventional growers.

Organic small grain farmers have never done as well as they are doing now,notes Quinn. “I’ve been telling my friends for years that organic agriculture is the future, but now the economics of the comparison speak louder than I ever could.

At first glance, the official statistics appear to bear out the rise in enthusiasm about organic among farmers that Quinn is seeing. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are right now more than 2,000 farms across the country transitioning almost 175,000 acres of cropland to organic. About two-thirds of these operations are already organic and are expanding their organic acreage; the remainder are farms converting to organic production for the first time.  Another big group of more than 5,000 organic farms—almost 40 percent of the 12,634 certified organic farms in the U.S.—intends to increase organic production over the next five years.

Certified organic fruit and vegetable acreage in the U.S. climbed nearly 40 percent between 2011 and 2014, and certified organic field crop acreage saw an almost 10 percent rise. USDA estimates organic cropland acreage in 2014 at almost 3.5 million acres, a 12 percent increase from 2011.

Acreage still falling short

But look a little deeper at the numbers and a more sobering picture emerges. USDA figures show that despite the encouraging numbers, a teeny fraction of the most dominant and vital field crops grown in this country is organic.

Organic acres of corn—the widest used feed grain in the U.S. and the primary energy ingredient in livestock feed—and soybeans—the largest source of animal protein feed—each account for merely around 0.2 percent of the nations total corn and soybean cropland. Only 0.6 percent of the nations crop of wheat, second only to rice as the worlds main food crop, is grown under organic conditions. And this is happening while prices of these organic commodity crops are all two to three times—and more—that of conventional.

The picture gets a little brighter when we turn to the fruit and vegetable sectors. A larger share (over 4 percent) of fruit and vegetable acreage is certified organic. Meanwhile, organic carrots represent 14 percent of all U.S. produced carrots according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see News & Trends, Page 17).

Yes, the interest in organic production has heightened throughout the country. But no, the rate of conversion to organic is not yet fast enough, and, no, its not keeping up with demand.

There is a real need for more organic production in the United States,says Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of USDAs National Organic Program. “We’re seeing increased demand across the board for organic products, and this is a great opportunity for farmers.

Demand for organic has soared in the United States. Todays consumer wants food grown without toxic pesticides and chemicals that have been proven to pose potential health risks to children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable members of the population. Todays consumer increasingly wants food that is a product of environmentally friendly practices, food that is non-GMO, and food that comes from animals raised without growth hormones and antibiotics. Consumers also want to know where their food comes from. If they cant make it to the farmersmarket, they know the USDA Organic seal shows transparency throughout the supply chain.

The Organic Trade Associations (OTAs) latest statistics show that Americans are eating record amounts of organic food. Organic food sales in this country now total around $37 billion, and expectations are that the trend of annual double-digit increases in organic food sales will continue for some time.

But domestic organic production has not held pace with demand, especially the production of organic feed grains. The expanding U.S. organic dairy, poultry and livestock sectors and organic processors are turning increasingly to foreign markets for organic soybeans, corn and other organic ingredients.

We have the situation in the U.S. organic industry where the organic livestock sector has grown substantially, but the land base has not. The economics of conventional crop farming have been so good the last ten years that its been easy to stay conventional. Livestock economics have been different. So now you have to either import organic feed, or (domestic) organic feed becomes very expensive," says Wade Miller, farm development manager for Organic Valley, the countrys oldest and largest organic cooperative, headquartered in Wisconsin.

What will it take to make organic agriculture more widespread in our country? Right now just ten states account for almost 80 percent of all organic food sales in the United States. A mere five states account for almost half of the total U.S. organic acreage. What is necessary to broaden organic agriculture in America, enable more farmers to share in the huge opportunities in organic, and ensure a steady supply of organic for American consumers?

Experts agree that transitioning to organic agricultural practices isnt easy.

The challenges a farmer faces in transitioning from a non-organic system to an organic system are far more daunting than adding organic acreage,says Wendy Larson of Big Tree Organic Farms, an organic almond marketing cooperative in California. An every-day comparison, she said, might look like this: “The non-organic to organic transition is like moving from a studio apartment in the city to a 3,000 square foot cabin in the mountains, while the addition of more acreage would be like living in a house in the suburbs and then buying a few rentals. It all takes work, but the culture shift required in the non-organic to organic transition is HUGE.” 

Challenges reflect diversity

The three-year transition process required by federal organic regulations is often cited as the biggest hurdle, but there are numerous other factors that can prove formidable. Moreover, these challenges differ from region to region, and from crop to crop.

Depending on what kind of product a grower is interested in producing and what region that producer is in, the challenges to transitioning to organic run the gamut from economic and technical to cultural and infrastructure,says NOP’s McEvoy.

Even within one state, organic challenges and the adoption of organic can vary greatly. Take California, the leading organic-producing state in the union where, Larson notes, The non-organic culture is very deeply established in the Central Valley of California where most crops are grown, even though the northern coast of California is very organically oriented.

And within the diverse organic culture in California, different forces often pull in conflicting ways. Good organic ground for vegetables is getting scarcer and more expensive in the Golden State, a vegetable grower said, due to increasing competition from the almond and nut industry, and other organic sectors. Prohibitive land prices of $10,000 to $15,000 an acre are not uncommon in some productive areas.

Organic agriculture is now practiced in varying degrees in every state—from Californias 2,805 organic farms to Mississippis eight organic operations. Organic agriculture in the United States—and its challenges and opportunities—are as diverse as the people who practice it.

Wade Miller of Organic Valley works with dairy farmers throughout OVs big network of over 1,700 members to help them attain more self-sufficiency and be better positioned to profit from growing organic demand. Growing organic feed grain on a dairy operation is a critical way to achieve that self sufficiency, and Miller said he sees different challenges toward that end on every farm. 

Midwestern organic dairy producers are to a large extent growing their own feed, but east and west, there is less self sufficiency,says Miller. We try to go to our livestock producers and help them to get more land under their control to stabilize their situation. Theres profit to be gained in the field, and profit to be gained in the barn.

Field crop farmers—especially grain and soybean producers—face a host of unique challenges in converting to organic.

Most grain farms in the U.S. are big. Most are GMO. Weeds can be a problem in organic, and this is a real problem with the big corn, wheat and soybean guys,says Dr. John Reganold, Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University. The other issue is you are learning a new system. We hear a lot about no-till farming now. No-till is new, but organic is an even bigger change.

For pure crop farmers, organic is more of a challenge because they dont have livestock. Organic is very well suited for livestock and more diversified. One of the things OV does is look at the whole rotation and opportunities for that rotation. OV works with business development and tries to connect the farm rotation crops to markets,said Miller.

Ardent Mills, the premier flour milling and ingredient company with headquarters in Denver, has committed to an aggressive effort to work with wheat growers in the upper Midwest and West to increase organic wheat production. The ambitious goal of Ardents Organic Initiative 2019, announced late last year, is to double organic wheat acreage in the United States by 2019.

Shrene White, Director of Specialty Grains and Risk Management for Ardent, says that about a year ago, the company began getting questions from large conventional wheat farmers about organic. The company launched a series of farmer meetings this year in North Dakota, Colorado and Idaho to identify producer concerns about converting to organic and to help Ardent shape its initiative.

White says a variety of concerns were voiced, depending on where the producer farmed. In Colorado, dryland farmers were worried about lack of water and not having as much control over their soils fertility without fertilizer. In Idaho, there is lots of irrigation so weed control was a serious concern. And overall, we saw concerns about organic education, the changed farming practices, disease and pest control, rotational crops, and cover crops.

We need to grow organic acres, but its not going to happen overnight,White adds.

In addition to helping farmers transition to organic wheat production, Ardent wants to help give transitioning farmers the opportunity to capture added value for their transitional wheat. We know organic farming is not for every grower, but if they want to move this direction, we want to help them,says White.

Rock Woods is the director of the National Center for Appropriate Technologys (NCAT) Gulf States Regional Office in Jackson, Mississippi. NCAT is one of the agencies USDAs National Organic Program is partnering with to help educate farmers in the South about organic and to make organic certification more affordable and attainable.

Woods is in charge of a five-state effort in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida to assist farmers with organic transition. As part of that effort, Woods co-hosted informational organic farming and certification workshops in those five states earlier this year with a USDA-accredited organic certifier.

We work with mainly small growers. Interest for organic in our region generally comes from small farmers with five to ten acres because theyre trying to find a profitable niche market,says Woods. In our workshops, we are often working with limited-resource famers who know many of the practices of organic, but maybe not by the right terms, so we break down the process.

We prefer to work with small famers because we want them to start organic on a small scale. We tell our farmers that if youre going to be farming, and especially organic farming, you cant do it on a hobby basis. Its true dedication if you want to be certified organic,says Woods.

For the smaller and often cash-strapped producer whom Woods is focusing on, one of the biggest challenges to converting to organic is labor. No chemicals so lots of hand weeding,he says. Record keeping and data collection can also be issues.

Making connections

Woods and other organic stakeholders make a strong case for developing a network of organic farmers to educate other farmers about the organic production system.

If we can get more farmers to train other farmers, thats the best,he said.

The role that knowledge transfer plays in farmers converting to organic is huge. The success rate goes up substantially if you have a network of support,says OTAs Executive Director Laura Batcha.

And developing the appropriate infrastructure to deal with a segregated organic system and then connecting organic producers to a market are critical for increasing organic acreage.

If youre transitioning to organic, finding new markets is key,says organic produce industry veteran Todd Linsky, head of Todd Linsky Consulting. “I’d like to see USDA get a better understanding of what consumers want, and then offer programs to help farmers understand the market. Its one thing to get farmers certified, its another thing to sell that certified crop. Now youre certified—now what?

All farmers are businessmen, and they have families to feed. There have to be the economic model and economic incentives in place for organic,stressed Miller of OV.

Adds OTAs Batcha, A key part of organic transition is having the full supply chain in place. From organic seeds to market outlets for animals and markets for cover crops. From the start to the vey end. You need a full life cycle to support the organic sector.

An impossible task? Not at all, say organic power players.

Organic is for both big and small farmers. I think youll see success with the smaller producers first; it takes a huge change to transition to organic. But bigger farmers are expressing more interest,said White of Ardent Mills. I see us expanding our program eventually because there is growing demand for organic, and we have mills from coast to coast. Its a good time to come into organic.

There are challenges, but there are obviously many farmers who have figured it out,says NOP’s McEvoy. “The new organic acres will probably come from areas where there is organic infrastructure in place—the West Coast, the Pacific Northwest, the Upper Midwest. But all kinds of farmers are getting involved—new farmers starting out because they see a market advantage; conventional farmers because they want to keep up with the times and expand their market. We saw more than 10 percent growth in the number of certified organic operations last year. There are a lot of farmers already reaping the benefits of organic farming.

So, the big questions now may be, How many people who came to Bob Quinns last farm field day have started transitioning their farms, and how can we ensure they bridge the gap?”  //