CHURDAN, Iowa — In the 1970s, when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea did not go down well.
Back then, organic crops were an oddity, destined for health food stores or maybe a few 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 realize his dream and start switching from standard crops to organic crops.
But over the decades, something unexpected happened – the demand for organic produce began to grow so rapidly that it began to outstrip the supply produced in the United States.
Now, a new challenge has emerged: not to make consumers pay more, but to convince enough farmers to overcome their reluctance to organic and start enjoying the income that is flowing in.
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 organic certification body Oregon Tilth, referring to government assistance. “This is an important step in the arc of this work.”
Schreiner, who has worked for the Oregon-based organization since 1998, said expanding technical training is important given the vast differences between conventional and organic farmland. Schreiner noted that a farmer told him that converting a conventional farmer was like asking “a chiropodist 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 with techniques such as rotating different crops and planting cover crops that eliminate 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 this time, farmers can grow crops, but they won’t get the extra premium that comes with organic crops.
According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms newly switching to organic production dropped by around 70% between 2008 and 2019. Organic accounts for around 6% of overall food sales, but only 1% of the nation’s farmland are in organic production. producers filling the gap.
In the United States, “there are so many barriers to farmers making that leap to organic farming,” 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 over the past decade and now exceed $63 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales are expected to climb up to 5.5% this year.
This growth is evident to anyone pushing a cart through the average supermarket, past bins of organic apples and bananas, through dairy and egg aisles, and past shelves overflowing with organic beef and chicken.
The new USDA effort would include $100 million to help farmers learn new organic growing techniques; $75 million for farmers who meet new conservation practice standards; $25 million to expand crop insurance options and reduce costs; and $100 million to help organic supply chains and expand markets for organic products.
Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension worker who works with organic farmers, called the USDA effort a “game changer.” It should be particularly attractive to farmers with small plots of land, as the added value of organic crops can make big money even on farms of 25 to 100 acres (10 to 40 hectares) – much smaller than commercial farms that supply most of the country’s produce.
“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business that would otherwise go bankrupt,” Andrews said.
Noah Wendt, who in recent years has transitioned 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land in central Iowa to organic farming, noted that the change has been “rocky” for him at times and his farming partner, Caleb Akin.
But he and Akin recently purchased a grain elevator east of Des Moines to use only for organic crops, the kind of project the USDA program can help with. They hope the elevator will not only be a nearby place to store grain, but provide a one-stop-shop for learning more about growing and marketing organic crops.
Seeing all the organic activity is rewarding for George and Patti Naylor, who farm near the small central Iowa community of Churdan. But they say they still appreciate the simple perks of their choice, like evenings spent watching hundreds of rare monarch butterflies flock to their herbicide-free farm.
As Patti Naylor said, “It really helps to believe in what you’re doing.”
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