"Background on Organic Farming"
"Defining Organic Production in the 1990s"
"Most Organic Producers Family Farmers"
"Organic Acreage Increased Ten-Fold Since 1980"
"Organic Practices Enable Many Farmers To Earn Living"
"Consumer Demand Drives Organic Prices"
"Obstacles Impede Organic Transition"
"Farm Group Profile: Organic Farming Research Foundation"
FAMILY FARMERS EXPLORE ORGANIC GROWING PRACTICES TO
STABILIZE INCOME; PRESERVE THE LAND
"You have to go into organic farming with your soul. It's a real
change in the way you think. But the end result is diversification,
and that's the only way for farmers to beat market risk." -- Ellen
Polishuk, manager of a 35 acre organic fruit and vegetable farm in
Family farmers have been leading the way in developing organic
growing practices that offer both economic and ecological rewards.
Following decades of rising production costs and declining crop
prices, many conventional farmers are joining this growing
movement of organic producers.
Many small farms, like Ellen Polishuk's, are making the transition
from conventional production to diversified, organic enterprises that
market direct to local consumers, wholesalers and restaurants.
Farmers who are able to overcome many of the obstacles involved
with starting an organic operation, have earned a viable, steady
income from their production and sales. Farm Aid is working with
organic producers and organizations across the country to explore
the economic potential of organic farming practices for farmers and
to ensure that family-sized farms capture and maintain their share
of the market.
ORGANIC FARMING BACKGROUND
Although the use of organic materials in farm production dates back
to the beginning of crop cultivation, non-organic farming has
dominated our country's fields since the 1940s when synthetic
fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides were introduced at relatively
cheap prices offering large yield rewards. After several decades of
this intensive production, farmers have seen their soil deteriorate
and their income shrink to below-poverty wage levels. Likewise, a
growing number of consumers have become more aware of food
safety issues and consequently are beginning to demand food grown
without synthetic chemicals. This changing consumer demand has
made it possible for many family farmers to earn a viable living
from the sale of organic farm products.
DEFINING ORGANIC PRODUCTION IN THE 1990s
Historically, individual states and local organizations have set their
own standards for organic certification. The National Organic
Standards Board (NOSB), established as a federal regulatory agency
under the 1990 Farm Bill, has been working for several years to
define the term "organic" as it applies to food and fiber. NOSB is
scheduled to release national certification requirements early in
1996. Until then, in order to receive organic certification, producers
must, at a minimum, prove that they have not applied commercially
produced synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to their crops for at
least three years. Additionally, it is common for most organic
producers to utilize alternative farming techniques, including crop
rotations, animal manures, and aspects of biological pest control to
maintain soil productivity and to control insects, weeds, and other
ORGANIC PRODUCTION TRENDS
Historical records of organic farming trends are unavailable from the
USDA since this type of production has not been practiced on a wide
scale over the past 50 years. However, several private and non-profit
organizations have begun tracking the progress and growth of
organic production in the United States. Here's what they've found:
1. Most Organic Producers Are Family Farmers
According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Organic Farming
Research Foundation (OFRF), most organic farms are run by family
farmers. Eighty-four percent of those who responded to the survey
reported being sole proprietors or family partnerships. "The reason
family farmers are responsible for much of organic production is
because they are able to respond more quickly and innovatively to
market demand changes than someone who has a lot of overhead,"
explains OFRF'S Bob Scowcroft .
Organic family farmer Martin Connaughton agrees. "A small farmer
has an advantage because he can identify market niches every year
as they emerge and alter his production to meet that new demand,"
OFRF estimates that there are approximately 4,000 state and locally
certified organic farmers in the United States and between another
6,000 to 8,000 farmers who meet general organic certification
requirements but who are not yet certified.
2. Organic Acreage Rose Ten-Fold Since 1980
OFRF estimates that the amount of farmland devoted to organic crops
has increased ten-fold since 1980. On this acreage farmers grow a
variety of crops, including vegetables, fruits, herbs, freshcut flowers,
dairy products, meats, grains and beans.
The Midwest Organic Alliance surveyed growers in Iowa, Minnesota,
North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin to determine how many
acres are certified organic. They found that of the 140 million acres
in crops, pasture and CRP, about 273,000 acres are certified organic.
1994 Upper Midwest Certified Organic Acres
State Total Organic Total Acres
Acres in Millions
Iowa 54,961 20
Minnesota 22,284 24
North Dakota 51,942 40
South Dakota 117,731 44
Wisconsin 25,996 40
Source: AG WEEK, September 4, 1995.
3. Organic Practices Enable Many Farmers to Earn Living From Land
Farmers who practice organic production are able to generate viable
farm income through higher crop prices and reduced input costs.
Organic crop prices vary depending on local supply and demand
conditions, as well as the marketing technique used by farmers.
Premiums can range from 25 to 100 percent of the conventional
Research conducted by the Midwest Organic Alliance, for example,
found that producers growing organic soybeans received three times
the price paid to growers who sold non-organic. Greg Welsh, an Iowa
Extension agent and advisor to organic growers in several states, says
growers in the Midwest receive, on average, $14.50 to $15.00 per
bushel for their organically-grown soybeans. "That's the average
price: Many farmers get a lot more, a few get less," Welsch says.
Likewise New Mexico farmer Martin Connaughton says he earns up
to $2.00 per pound for specialty, organic potatoes, compared to eight
cents per pound for non-organic U.S. varieties. "The reason we chose
to farm organically was because of price. On average, we earn 50 to
75 percent more for our crops than farmers who are producing non-
organically," Connaughton says.
Although organic farming is more labor intensive than conventional
production, many farmers can generate viable farm income by
reducing other input costs through organic production techniques.
Iowa family farmer Wayne Bott, for example, has farmed organically
since 1987 in an effort to reduce his energy costs. "By cutting down
on our use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, our farm has been
able to compete directly with conventional crops at standard market
prices," Bott says.
4. Consumer Demand Drives High Organic Prices
Sales of organic foods have grown, on average, more than 20 percent
annually throughout the United States over the past several years.
A study by Rodale Press found in 1993 that nearly two-thirds of all
consumers had tried organic produce, and nearly 90 percent said
they would buy organic food consistently if it cost the same as non-
organic food. Still, some 41 percent of those consumers surveyed
were willing to buy organic produce even if it costs more. As a
result, sales of organic foods have increased steadily over the past
four years, according to recent research:
Sales of Organic Food Products:
Year Sales in Billions
Source: The Packer, October 24, 1994; PANUPS, July 12, 1995.
OBSTACLES IMPEDE ORGANIC TRANSITION
Low farm income has discouraged family farmers from taking on the
additional risk of developing new farming practices. In addition, lack
of information and marketing support makes it even more difficult
for family farmers to weather a three-year transition period to
receive organic certification.
A 1993 study by North Dakota State University found that "The
transition to organic farming is a costly, time-consuming procedure.
Reduced production and income may occur during the transition
period, since little or no premium is received during the transition
period. Many lending agencies will not lend to a farmer unless he
can show that his methods are based on University Extension
recommendation, which nearly always include chemical inputs."
Additional obstacles preventing producers from farming and
marketing organic crops include:
1. Lack of identifiable markets;
2. Lack of transportation and storage
3. Lack of practical growing and marketing
Many family farmers also fear that their hard-earned share of the
organic market could be squeezed if larger organic operations and
food processors come to dominate the organic market. This
phenomenon has already occurred in conventional agriculture and
has resulted in the loss of more than 400,000 family farmers since
Many organizations representing family farmers and consumers have
made it their goal to reduce the marketing, research, and financial
barriers faced by farmers making the transition from conventional
production to organic farming.
The Commodity Growers Cooperative in Kentucky, for example,
works as a liaison between organic farmers and local restaurants and
consumers to establish supply needs and crop prices before the
growing season begins. "We talk with our markets in advance and
let our growers know what the local markets require," says Pam Clay
who runs the Cooperative. "This way we can stabilize the markets
for growers by helping them determine what crops to grow, how
much to grow and what to charge." The Cooperative has been
operating for two years and markets organic produce for 33 farmers
to over 120 consumers through a system modeled after Community
Supported Agriculture projects.
Some farmers, like those who have joined the Northern Plains
Organic Marketing Cooperative, are combining the rewards of organic
production with cooperative marketing techniques to maximize their
profit and ensure their place in a growing market. Wilfred Schill, an
organic farmer in Langdon, North Dakota, says "What this co-op
hopes to do is build overall price stability." Through the co-op
farmers are able to gain a premium for their crops "without
competing with one another in their own backyards."
Other farm organizations, like California's Community Alliance for
Family Farmers, have developed programs to help organic and low-
input growers overcome information barriers. Through CAFF's
Lighthouse Farm Network, for example, more than 1,000 farmers,
farm credit representatives, policymakers and ag consultants
exchange information about farming techniques, economic obstacles,
and marketing barriers.
While not a substitute for farm policy and market reforms, organic
farming represents a viable way for family farmers to increase
income and develop new marketing opportunities. Farm Aid
continues working with organizations across the country to ensure
that family farmers are able to maintain and expand their share of
the growing organic market.
The following organizations are helping family farmers make the
transition to organic production and marketing. Please contact them
directly for more information:
Commodity Growers Cooperative, Pam Clay, (606) 233-7845.
Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Jill Klein, (916) 756-8518.
Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Dr. Garth Youngberg,
Organic Trade Association, Katherine DiMatteo, (413) 774-7511.
Northeast Organic Farming Association, Jack Kittredge, (508) 355-
Ozark Small Farm Viability Project, Eric Ardapple Kindberg, (501)
Mothers and Others for a liveable planet, Betsy Lydon, (212) 242-
Sustainable Cotton Project, Will Allen, (209) 862-0860.
OFRF SUPPORTS ON-FARM RESEARCH
Organic Farming Research Foundation funds research into organic
farming methods, dissemination of research results to organic
farmers and growers interested in making the transition to organic
production systems, and education of the general public about
organic farming issues. For grant application and deadline
information contact Bob Scowcroft, OFRF, P.O. Box 440, Santa Cruz,
California 95061. (408) 426-6606.
January 24-27 "Ecological Farming Conference," Asilomar,
California. Contact the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture, (408)
January 26-27 "Organic Farming Comes of Age," University of
Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Contact Hugh Martin, Ontario Ministry of
Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, (519) 631-4700; or Tomas
Nimmo, Canadian Organic Growers, (705) 344-0923.
February 22-24 "1996 North American Farmers' Direct Marketing
Conference," Saratoga Springs, New York. Contact Charlie Touchette,
North American Conference, (413) 527-6572.
"The 1995 National Organic Directory." Contact Community Alliance
with Family Farmers, (916)-756-8518.
Listing of U.S. Organic Certifiers available on World Wide Web site:
http://www.mother.com./agaccess. This is a comprehensive listing
organized by agAccess.
"National Organic Farmers' Survey." Survey conducted by OFRF,
(408) 426-6606. New survey results will become available this
"Northern Plains Organic Crops Marketing Analysis: Wheat, Oats,
Sunflower," Larry D. Stearns, David L. Watt, Department of
Agricultural Economics -- Agricultural Experiment Station, North
Dakota State University, Fargo, ND 58105-5636.
We welcome comments and suggestions: contact Harry Smith at
FARM AID, (617) 354-2922. We encourage the reproduction of
FARM AID NEWS. Produced by The Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy (IATP) for FARM AID. Editors: Gigi DiGiacomo and
Harry Smith. For information on other agriculture bulletins, contact
IATP: (612) 379-5980.