In the 1970s when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea didn’t go over well.
Organic crops back in those days were rare, intended for food markets or health food stores.
“I told my dad I wanted to be an organic farmer and he goes, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’” Naylor said, noting it wasn’t until 2014 that he could embrace his dream and begin transitioning from standard to organic crops.
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But over the decades, something unexpected happened — demand for organics started increasing so fast that it began outstripping the supply produced in the U.S.
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 revenue pouring in.
The number of organic farmers is declining, instead of increasing to meet demand. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided $300 million last month to help farmers switch to organic farming.
“It feels good,”Chris Schreiner is the executive director at Oregon Tilth organic-certifying organization. He was referring to government assistance. “It’s a milestone in the arc of this work.”
Schreiner has been working at the Oregon-based company since 1998. He said that expanding technical training was important because of the wide differences between organic and conventional farming. Schreiner said that the conversion of a traditional farmer to organic farming was similar to asking a farmer. “a foot doctor to become a heart surgeon.”
One key distinction is that genetically modified seeds can be used instead of conventional fertilizers or pesticides. Conventional farms use these practices, while organic farms ban them. Organic farmers have to control pests and weeds using techniques like rotating crops, planting cover crops that remove weeds from the soil and adding nutrients.
Crops can only be deemed organic if they are grown on land that hasn’t been treated with synthetic substances for three years. During that period, farmers can grow crops, but they won’t get the extra premium that accompanies organic crops.
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The USDA reports that the percentage of traditional farms making the transition to organic farming has dropped 70% between 2008 and 2019. Organic comprises about 6% of overall food sales, but only 1% of the country’s farmland is in organic production, with foreign producers making up the gap.
U.S. “There are so many barriers to farmers making that leap to organic,”Megan DeBates was vice president, government affairs, for the Organic Trade Association.
While farmers seem hesitant, U.S. consumers aren’t. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic product sales have more than doubled over the last decade. They now account for $63 billion. The Organic Trade Association projects that sales will rise to 5.5% in 2015.
This growth can be seen by anyone who pulls a cart into a typical supermarket. It passes bins full of organic bananas and apples, and then moves on to the dairy and egg sections, and onto shelves filled with organic chicken and beef.
USDA’s new effort will include $75 million towards helping organic farmers, $100 million to help them learn new ways to grow organic crops and 75 million dollars for those who follow new conservation practice standards. There would also be $25 million available for crop insurance to improve yields and lower costs. The USDA has $100 million to support organic supply chains and expand organic markets.
Nick Andrews is an Oregon State University Extension agent and works with organic farmers. He called the USDA effort “a great idea.” “game changer.” It should be especially attractive to farmers with small parcels of land because the added value of organic crops makes it possible to make significant money off even 25 to 100 acre (10 to 40 hectare) farms — much smaller than the commercial operations that provide most of the country’s produce.
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“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business who otherwise would go out of business,” Andrews said.
Noah Wendt noted that 1,500 acres (607 ha) of central Iowa land have been organically converted in recent years. “rocky”Caleb Akin was his partner in farming at times.
Akin and Akin have recently purchased an east Des Moines grain elevator to be used exclusively for organic crops. The USDA program is able to assist with this type of project. The elevator is expected to be more than a place to store grains, but also a resource for information about marketing and growing organic crops.
George and Patti Naylor are happy to be able to observe all of the natural activity near their small Iowa farm, Churdan. However, they insist that the most important benefits to them are those they can enjoy such as watching thousands of monarch butterflies fly around their farm without any herbicides.
As Patti Naylor put it, “It really helps to believe in what you’re doing.”
This article was contributed by the Associated Press
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