More consumers are buying organic, but American farmers are still wary

More consumers are buying organic, but American farmers are still wary

CHURDAN, Iowa (AP) – In the 1970s when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea didn’t go over well.

At the time, organic crops were an oddity, destined for health food stores or perhaps some farmers markets.

“I told my dad I wanted to be an organic farmer and he goes, ‘Ha, ha, ha,'” Naylor said, noting that it wasn’t until 2014 that he was able to embrace his dream and start transitioning from standard to organic crops.

But over the decades, something unexpected happened – the demand for organics began to increase so quickly that it began to outstrip the supply produced in the United States

Now a new challenge has emerged: It’s not getting consumers to pay the higher prices, it’s convincing enough farmers to get past their organic reluctance and start taking advantage of the income that’s flowing in.

Instead of growing to meet demand, the number of farmers switching to organic is actually declining. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture committed up to $300 million to recruit and help more farmers make the switch.

“It feels good,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of organic certification organization Oregon Tilth, referring to the government’s help. “It’s a milestone in the arc of this work.”

Schreiner, who has worked at the Oregon-based organization since 1998, said expanding technical training is important given the wide differences in farmland conventionally and organically. Schreiner noted that one farmer told him that converting a conventional farmer was like asking “a podiatrist to become a heart surgeon.”

The main difference is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified seeds. Most conventional farms rely on these practices, but they are prohibited on organic farms. Organic farmers must instead fight weeds and pests with techniques such as rotating different crops and planting cover crops that crowd out weeds and add nutrients to the soil.

Crops can only be considered organic if they are grown on soil that has not been treated with synthetic substances for three years. During that period, farmers can grow crops, but they will not receive the additional premium that comes with organic crops.

According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms that recently converted to organic production fell by about 70% from 2008 to 2019. Organic makes up about 6% of total food sales, but only 1% of the nation’s farmland is in organic production, with foreign production. manufacturers making up the gap.

In the United States, “There are so many barriers for farmers to make that leap to organic,” said Megan DeBates, vice president of government affairs for the Organic Trade Association.

While farmers seem hesitant, American consumers are not. Annual sales of organic products have roughly doubled in the past decade and are now $63 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales are estimated to rise to 5.5% this year.

This growth is evident to anyone who pushes a trolley in the average supermarket, past bins of organic apples and bananas, through the dairy and egg sections and along shelves full of organic beef and chicken.

The new USDA effort will include $100 million to help farmers learn new techniques for growing organic crops; $75 million for farmers who meet new standards for conservation practices; $25 million to expand crop insurance options and reduce costs; and $100 million to help organic supply chains and develop markets for organic products.

Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension agent who works with organic farmers, called the USDA effort a “game changer.” It should be particularly attractive to farmers with small parcels of land because the added value of organic crops makes it possible to make significant money on even 25 to 100 decre (10 to 40 ha) farms – much smaller than the commercial operations that provide most of the country’s produce.

“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business that would otherwise go out of business,” Andrews said.

Noah Wendt, who over the past few years has shifted 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land in central Iowa to organic, noted that the shift has been “rocky” at times for him and his farming partner, Caleb Akin.

But he and Akin recently bought a grain elevator east of Des Moines to use only for organic crops, the kind of project the USDA program can help. They hope the elevator will not only be a nearby place to store grain, but also be a one-stop shop for learning about growing and marketing organic crops.

Seeing all the organic activity is gratifying to George and Patti Naylor, who farm near the small, central Iowa community of Churdan. But they say they still value the simple benefits they choose, such as evenings spent watching hundreds of rare monarch butterflies flock to their herbicide-free farm.

As Patti Naylor put it, “It really helps to believe in what you’re doing.”

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