Organic farming in the US is less popular with farmers and more with customers

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

At the time, organic crops were exotic, destined for health food stores or perhaps a few farmers’ markets.

“I told my dad I wanted to become an organic farmer and he said, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’” Naylor said, noting that he couldn’t embrace his dream until 2014 and start making the transition from regular to organic crops.

But over the decades, something unexpected happened – the demand for organic matter began to increase so rapidly that it began to outpace the supply produced in the United States.

Now a new challenge has emerged: It’s not making consumers pay higher prices, it’s convincing enough farmers to bypass their organic hesitation and start taking advantage of the revenue stream.

Instead of growing to meet demand, the number of farmers turning to organic products is already declining. Last month, the USDA committed up to $300 million to recruit and help more farmers make the change.

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

Schreiner, who has worked for the Oregon-based organization since 1998, said expanding technical training is important given the vast differences in conventional and organic land cultivation. Schreiner noted that a farmer told him that turning a traditional 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. Instead, organic farmers must control weeds and pests using techniques such as rotating different crops and growing cover crops that compress weeds and add nutrients to the soil.

Crops can only be considered organic if they are grown on land that has not been treated with synthetic materials for three years. During that period, farmers can grow crops, but they will not get the extra premium associated with organic crops.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of conventional farms newly converted to organic production fell by about 70% from 2008 to 2019. Organic products make up about 6% of total food sales, but only 1% of the country’s farmland is in organic production, With the presence of foreigners. Producers who make the gap.

“There are a lot of barriers to farmers making that leap to organic,” said Megan DeBates, vice president of government affairs for the US Organic Trade Association.

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

This growth is evident to anyone pushing a cart in an average supermarket, or passing crates of organic apples and bananas, through dairy and egg departments and along shelves filled with 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 criteria for new 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 materials.

Nick Andrews, an extension agent at Oregon State University who works with organic farmers, described the USDA’s efforts as “game changing.” It should be especially attractive to farmers with small plots of land because the added value of organic crops makes it possible to make big money even from 25 to 100 acres (10 to 40 hectares) farms – much smaller than the commercial operations that provide most of the country’s production.

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

Noah Wendt, who in the past few years has converted 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land in central Iowa to organic, noted that the transformation 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 on organic crops, the kind of project the USDA program could help with. They hope the elevator will not only be a nearby place to store grain, but also provide a one-stop shop for learning about the growing and marketing of organic crops.

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

As Patti Naylor has expressed, “It really pays to have faith in what you’re doing.”

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