As of 2014, there were 18,513 U.S. certified-organic operations and another 3,240 farms that were transitioning to organic, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic farm sales grew 82 percent in five years, and the organic market grew by 11 percent last year alone.
There are many reasons why a farm would undertake the somewhat arduous journey to transition from conventional to organic. Prime among those reasons is money.
“The biggest advantage for organic farmers is finances,” says Karen McSwain, farm services director at Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), an organization that provides resources and technical consulting to help farmers transition into sustainable and organic practices and become certified. “Farmers who are selling organic, particularly to a wholesale buyer, can really get a premium for certified organic as opposed to conventional or sustainable.”
A couple of years ago, CFSA undertook an organic-produce market survey looking at the gap between the organic demand and the supply in crops grown in North Carolina. “There was about a $7 million gap between the amount of organic produce bought in the Carolinas and the amount of produce produced in the Carolinas,” she says. “So yes, there is lots of room to move into that market.”
Andy Clark, communications director at Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, hears different motivations for farmers who want to switch to organic methods, including not wanting to be exposed to or expose others to agrichemicals, but the primary one is profit. “There are a lot of studies showing that organic farmers’ profit margins are really much better — they’re profitable, provided you do it right,” he says. “Farmers who are able to charge premium prices for organic products report being more financially stable than those that can’t charge those premiums.”
A paper entitled “Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale,” written by David W. Crowder and John P. Reganold and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2015 (Vol. 112 No. 24), proves that. The authors examined data from 55 crops grown on five continents to determine how competitive organic agriculture is when compared to conventional. The data shows ups and downs for organic, depending on what detail is looked at, but, overall, organic fared well. For instance, total costs were not significantly different, but labor costs were seven to 13 percent higher with organic-farming practices. When organic premiums were not applied, the study found that benefit/cost ratios and net present values of organic agriculture were significantly lower than conventional agriculture. However, when actual premiums were applied, organic agriculture was significantly more profitable by 22 to 35 percent and had higher benefit/cost ratios of 20 to 24 percent than conventional agriculture. The study reports that break-even premiums necessary for organic profits to match conventional profits were only five to seven percent, even with organic yields being 10 to 18 percent lower.
“The number of consumers who recognize the organic symbol and trust that symbol and buy organic is increasing,” CFSA’s McSwain says. She encourages farmers who are considering transitioning to take the leap, particularly if they’re new and just getting established, because that logo can bring people to their stand instead of their neighbor’s who doesn’t have one. “Particularly if they’re selling at a farmer’s market and they’re new and they don’t have a history built up and a relationship with their consumers, that certified logo really brings people to their stand,” she says. “So while a farmer might not be able to charge more at that farmers’ market because they’re certified, they may be able to move more volume because they’re going to attract more customers to buy that tomato because it’s organic.”
In practice though, the decision to transition or not transition, certify or not certify, is complicated.
Brian O’Driscoll, 48, and his wife, Michelle, 36, have three children and manage 12 acres of blueberries they planted in 2007 along with 4.5 acres of asparagus. Brian grew up on their 320-acre Springbank Farm in Lebanon, Ore. It was established in 1912, and his parents bought it in 1974.
He, like many young farmers, also has a full-time job but returned to the farm determined to make it work for his family.
“All of my research said that to jump right into the crop and immediately try to grow organically would be all the more challenging,” he says. “We thought weeds would be a huge battle, so we decided to use what tools we could to battle weeds the first few years, wait until the canopy is established and the plants can shade out the weeds, and then see if we would make any changes. We said, ‘Let’s grow conventionally,’ because our perception is that’s an easier thing to get into as your freshman foray into farming. In hindsight, I might have done things differently.”
O’Driscoll feared the market would not support organic prices. That’s something each farm has to think about given their particular demographics, and for O’Driscoll, pricing himself out of the local market is a legitimate concern.
A couple of years on, despite everything he was “supposed” to be doing, patches of his plants were not thriving. He was unsure what the problem was and began examining his choices. “I had used pre-emergent herbicides to stop weed seeds from germinating, and it really works quite well,” he says. “But I always wondered if that wasn’t detrimental to the health of the plants. They’ll say it’s not and there’s no good research that I could find saying it’s not, but I thought, well, it’s not helping the soil chemistry.” He cut that out in 2010.
In 2011, he began consulting with a berry researcher who put him on a more intensive program focusing on soil micro nutrients, not all organic, but more than what he had done in the past. “I was motivated by what’s going to be the best for the plants?” he says. “If that soil is happy, the plants are happy, or at least happier.”
Now, eight years into his berry venture, O’Driscoll is finding himself using more and more organic practices and inching ever closer to that certification. He began seriously delving into the paperwork for Oregon Tilth certification this spring, but then spring went into summer seemingly overnight. “It’s like, OK, shove this paperwork over and get out into the field,” he says.
O’Driscoll says more and more people are asking about his growing practices. “Not all people, but a lot of people care,” he says. “We didn’t want to have to say, ‘Gosh, we use Roundup,’ and hang our head in shame. As farmers you don’t want to turn people away, so then we started questioning ourselves and asking, ‘What would be the downside of going through this path to organic certification?'”
He believes in the power of organic certification and feels he is close to achieving that mark, but two things are holding him back. One is a tiny speck of an insect. The other is the paperwork that comes with the label.
Spotted wing drosophila, Drosophila suzukii, is a pest that can be devastating to soft-skinned fruit such as berries. Known in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest since about 2009, this species is now a menace to many fruit-growing regions around the country. “It attacks fruit before it’s ripe and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it,” says O’Driscoll. The couple of organic sprays that can be used against it are not very effective, he says. Furthermore, there are only a couple of classes of material that can be used against this fly. “We’re glad that those are available, but we are a little concerned that if you keep using the same class of material over and over again, the fly will adapt and then it won’t work anymore,” he says. “I think that most people in the business are concerned that if more alternative organic treatments aren’t developed, that the fly will overwhelm what few treatment options are available to the organic grower.”
So far, last summer’s heat has been a blessing in disguise, because the fly doesn’t reproduce well in temperatures approaching 100. But in years past, O’Driscoll says they got “hammered” by the fly. “We used the organic spray to the extent that we thought we could, but there’s no really highly effective organic control,” he says. “What might keep us from being certified is the specter of things we can’t do anything about, and if it comes down to losing your whole crop because of mummy berry or a fruit fly because your hands were tied and you can only use these organic controls . . .” He sighs loudly and pauses while considering the ramifications. “That’s a problem. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
O’Driscoll is aware of cost-sharing programs that help defray the expenses of becoming certified and maintaining certification, and he plans to look into those, but that’s not his biggest concern. “Cost sharing programs do help lower that barrier but what it doesn’t help with is the paperwork,” he says. “Farming paperwork is just overwhelming.”
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and organizations like CFSA and Sustainable Agriculture Resource and Education (SARE) offer a lot of online resources such as budgeting tools and record-keeping software to help with the paperwork.
“We have an organic-transition handbook which is a huge wealth of information for farmers who are interested in transitioning to certified organic,” CFSA’s McSwain says. CFSA offers an organic production and transition program including workshops and educational events. They are also available for direct consulting to help farmers establish what’s called their Conservation Activity Plan, or CAP. “We like farmers to get the CAP early on in the process because it really helps them put together their production plan,” McSwain says. “The direct consulting is either for farmers who don’t have a CAP plan or for farmers who do and they’re ready to submit their organic-system plan and they need a little more help, maybe identifying a certifier or reviewing their organic-systems plan. We’ll help them with whatever kind of assistance they need, right at about six months before they’re ready to submit their application and have an inspection.”
The USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has a program called EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, to provide technical and financial support for implementing organic production. To be eligible for EQIP, producers must develop and carry out an organic-systems plan. The CAP helps producers determine what is required for transitioning to organic agriculture prior to developing their organic-systems plan.
Some farmers can receive funding through the NRCS’s Conversation Stewardship Program, a larger program that’s available to all producers regardless of size or crop, in all 50 states and U.S. territories, although that’s more impacted by how much funding is available in each state for the program.
SARE is primarily a grant-making program that is part of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. SARE has been giving federally funded grants since 1988 to farmers, ranchers, graduate students or anyone else who wants to study some issue or disseminate information about sustainable agriculture. Of the nearly 6,000 grants SARE has distributed, 20 percent were given specifically to study some organic issue, and those fact sheets are available from the website. SARE funds are distributed via four regions in the country, North Central, Northeast, South and West, each with its own administration and set of calls for proposals and committees that set priorities and review the grants and make decisions, Clark explains.
While SARE does not offer grants specifically for transitioning from conventional to organic, their website has a wealth of resources for farms who are thinking about doing this. SARE offers a 32-page guidebook called How to Transition to Organic Production and a new (as of September 2015) guide called Organic Transition: A Business Planner for Farmers, Ranchers and Food Entrepreneurs, published in collaboration with the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “It walks you through the whole business planning process, including things to ask yourself and worksheets to help you figure things out,” Clark says. “It’s got everything you can begin to imagine.” The new publication is a companion guide to another called Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses.
Transitioning takes time, Clark says, both to gain certification and for the changing biosystem to stabilize. But for all the trouble, it’s worth it. Not just to be able to say, “My farm is organic,” but for the very real difference it makes. “A good farmer that sticks his hands in the soil can tell it’s better by using some of these organic practices,” Clark says. “I would say that all farmers know this now, not just the organic ones. The soil health incentive is important. They can see and feel how much healthier the soil is, and therefore their plants. It really shows and a good farmer can see that, so that’s a good motivation for anyone who has been able to see that happen.”