Published: Sat, October 07, 2017
World | By Tasha Manning

Best fresh - Best fresh !: September 2015

Best fresh - Best fresh !: September 2015

The Internet is awash with reports claiming that organic farming is more profitable for farmers than conventional agriculture. The last spate of posts was based on a study published in PNAS by Washington State University researchers who found a premium premium of 22 to 35 percent over the same conventionally grown food, despite yields that were 18 percent lower for organics.

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This report echoes the conclusions of the 2009 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study, which also pointed to the "non-economic benefits" Of organic agriculture-it's supposed to be sustainable benefits. But the claims of improved profitability for farmers run up against some hard facts: organic farming in the West is far from booming, even the sales of organic foods are increasing sharply, albeit from a very low base. If there is so much money to be made in organics, then why are no more farmers switching?

Declines in organic farms

While the consumer demand for organic food is rising, there are 16.525 organic farms in the US, only 0.8 percent of all farms. Most organic farms are also small in Washington state, 30 percent of organic farms had less than $ 25,000 a year in sales, while just 9 percent had more than $ 1 million. The USDA also has found that most organic farms tend to be smaller (which it measures by having less than $ 250,000 in sales).

The US Department of Agriculture does not keep data on farms that have dropped out of the National Organic Program, and changes in data collection between 2007 and 2012 make it almost impossible to make that kind of comparison (for now-the USDA is conducting surveys that could reveal more data this or next year).

In 2007, the California Institute for Rural Studies found that while 600 farmers entered that state's organic program (California's only state with its own organic registration process), 523 farmers dropped out of the program between 2003 and 2005 alone. Just last month the UK Guardian carried an article titled "Why are organic farmers across Britain giving up?" Detailing the plight of organic farmers who are being squeezed despite the sharply higher prices paid by consumers for organic food:

Darren and Julia Quenault took their first delivery of non-organic cattle feed a few weeks ago. After years of organic dairy farming, they decided to convert back to conventional, and give up their organic status, at the end of last year.

The Quenaults are not alone. Even the demand for organic food remains high, the farmers producing it are falling by the wayside. ... UK government figures show that while organic food sales have bounced back from the low that followed the 2008/9 financial crash, the amount of land being farmed organically in Britain continues to shrink. In 2013, the last year for which data are available, land in the process of being converted to organic fell by 24 percent, with fully organic land falling by 3.9 percent. The number of producers and processors of organic food fell for the fifth year in a row, by 6.4 percent, and the number of organic sheep, pigs and cattle also fell.

What do farmers say?

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The Quenaults say the reason they switched came down to simple economics. "Cattle feed costs were excruciatingly expensive and we just could not absorb them," says Julia. "We're saving £ 1,800 a month. We could not have continued, we would have had to put up prices significantly, and we did not feel we could burden consumers with an extra 12 percent on the price of milk. "

Conventional farmers saw themselves as better planners, more scientific, and embracing minimal tilling and "chemical applications" to increase yield. Meanwhile, organic farmers saw themselves farming as their grandparents, spending more time in the field but seeing soil as an ecosystem.

Conventional farmers saw organic farmers as unscientific, and following "an organic crop guru." Meanwhile , Organic farmers perceived conventional farmers as lazy, "leaving it all up to the co-op to make decisions for them." Aside from these perceptions, conventional farmers said they would consider some organic practices if they paid off.

For many farmers, organic practices as a whole do not always translate to higher profits. One of the obstacles is the same thing faced by conventional farmers, including those who use genetically modified seeds. A study by the University of California found that 38 percent of organic farmers listed regulatory burdens as their chief challenge. "These included paperwork and record keeping for certification, inspections, finding a third party certification, and the cost of certification," the study said.

The certification process is quite involved. Under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), any farm must go through a transition period of three years, during which it can not sell any certified organic product. However, the farm is supposed to be changing its practices to organic during This time Once certified, a farmer has to pass inspections, and document that his or her farm is following all the rules governing organic farming.

One organic farmer in a California study told researchers "This is all labor. I've had a few partners that backed out of the way they spent to spend $ 1,800 an acre spinach compared to $ 150 an acre in conventional. "Meanwhile, an organic farmer in Ventura County, California, told the researchers that" when I farmed Conventionally, I had six employees on 300 acres. Now that I'm farming organically, I have 15 employees on 30 acres. "

Too much woo?

Other farmers have abandoned organics because they see the movement as more like a religion Than focused on agricultural science. Mike Bendzela, a former organic farmer in Maine, recently likened the philosophy of the organics movement ...... to a barrel raft covered in loose planks. In trying to justify their beliefs, the pile on the claims (planks), each of which rests on a different assumption (barrel). Bendzela recounted attending to Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association fair, and encountering "Whole Life Tent, "Replete with" reflexologists, naturopathic doctors, homeopaths, Reiki practitioners ... I was unsure what any of this had to do with agriculture. "What they were:" a necessarily evil to get non-ag types of attend. This disorder is not limited to the fairgrounds. "

Prices do not stay the same

One looming question is whether or not the premium premium will last. According to the Washington State University report: "The current premiums paid to organic farmers ranged from 29 to 32 percent above conventional prices. Even with organic crop yields as much as 18 percent lower than conventional, the breakeven point for organic agriculture was 5 to 7 percent. "According to the researchers, that means that organics could still be profitable at much lower premiums.

Source: Andrew Porterfield (

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