CHURDAN, Iowa (AP) — Back in the 1970s, when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea was not well received.
Back then, organic crops were a rarity, destined for health food stores or maybe some farmers’ markets.
“I told my dad I wanted to be an organic farmer and he was like, ‘Ha ha ha,'” Naylor said, noting that it wasn’t until 2014 that he was able to embrace his dream and begin the transition from standard to organic farming.
But over the decades, something unexpected happened: the demand for organic products began to increase so fast that it began to outstrip the supply produced in the US.
Now a new challenge has arisen: it’s not about getting consumers to pay the higher prices, but about convincing enough farmers to get over their organic reluctance and start tapping into the income that accrues.
Instead of growing to meet demand, the number of farmers converting to organic is actually declining. Last month, the US 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 the organic certification organization Oregon Tilth, referring to the government aid. “It is 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 vast differences in conventional and organic farming. Schreiner noted that one farmer told him that converting a conventional farmer was like asking “a foot doctor to become a heart surgeon.”
The key difference is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as genetically modified seeds. Most conventional farms rely on those practices, but they are prohibited on organic farms. Instead, organic farmers must control weeds and pests with techniques like rotating different crops and planting cover crops that kill 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 substances for three years. During that period, farmers can farm, but they won’t get the extra premium that goes with organic farming.
According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms that recently transitioned to organic production fell by about 70% between 2008 and 2019. Organic production comprises about 6% of total food sales, but only 1% of the country’s farmland is devoted to organic production, with foreign producers filling the gap.
In the US, “there are so many barriers for farmers to make the 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 produce have roughly doubled in the past decade and now exceed $63 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales are forecast to rise as much as 5.5% this year.
That growth is clear to anyone who pushes a cart in an average supermarket, past bins of organic apples and bananas, through dairy and egg sections, and along shelves stocked with organic beef and chicken.
The new USDA effort would include $100 million to help farmers learn new techniques for growing organic crops; $75 million for farmers who meet the new conservation practice standards; $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 especially attractive to farmers with small plots of land because the added value of organic farming makes it possible to earn a lot of money even on farms of 25 to 100 acres (10 to 40 hectares), much smaller than the commercial operations that provide the most of the country’s production.
“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business that would otherwise go out of business,” Andrews said.
Noah Wendt, who in recent years transitioned 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land in central Iowa to organic, said the switch has been “difficult” at times for him and his farming partner, Caleb Akin.
But he and Akin recently purchased a grain elevator east of Des Moines to use solely for organic farming, the kind of project the USDA program can help. They hope the elevator will not only be a nearby place to store grain, but provide a one-stop shop for learning about growing and marketing organic crops.
Seeing all the organic activity is gratifying for George and Patti Naylor, who farm near the small community of Churdan in central Iowa. But they say they value the simple benefits of their choice even more, like spending afternoons watching hundreds of rare butterflies. monarch flocking to his herbicide-free farm.
As Patti Naylor said, “It really helps to believe in what you’re doing.”
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