Some thoughts on yield differences between organic and
conventional/pesticide grown crops:
On a number of crops, including onions and carrots, conventional growers
often have a leg up on yields per acre because of the nature of the
growing practices. Typically, on organic farms, these crops must be
mechanically or hand cultivated, which requires a set amount of space
between rows of plants in a bed in order to get a cultivator or hoe
between plants. However, growing these crops with pesticides means that
herbicides can be applied to eliminate weeds, and thus more plants can
be grown in a set amount of area. For example, organic onions may only
be planted three rows per bed, while I understand that conventional
growers may plant up to eight rows. Thus ones yields could be 267% more
on a simialr acreage of onions.
In some cases, organic growers may have better yields not because their
crops outproduce growers who use pesticides and petroleum based
fertilizers, but because the organic farms are generally smaller
operations where more personal care in given to specific plants, from
heirloom tomatoes that must be hand-picked to fruit that must be picked
over an extended period of time. Many large conventional growers
utilize mechanical harvesting methods and do a single harvest of crops
such as tomatoes, corn, stone fruit, beans and peas. Unripe or
undersized produce is often not utilzed, or is used in less economically
desireable ways such as being added to canned or prepackaged food.
In the are of California where I used to live, many farms grew tomatoes
for the large canned tomato market. These farms have a single tomato
harvest in which the entire plant is removed and a machine removes the
tomato from the plant in the field and conveyors drop the tomatoes into
a trailer truck. Vast amounts of acreage can be harvested daily by one
of these machines, which will often have a line of ten double-trailer
trucks waiting to be filled. Along the roads ther will be tens of
thousands of tomatoes these trucks drop as the drive to the processing
plants. The process is very efficient and requires little human capital
but immense petroleum capital. I am quite sure the overall yields, and
the value per acre is significantly lower than on organic farms in the
area, where a one-acre patch of tomatoes may producemany tons of
tomatoes over the season, but the tomatoes are all hand harvested when
they are ripe.
Obviously there are dozens of variables in considering crop insurance
and the differences between organic and conventional crops, including
the variability beteen different types of crops and even different
varieties of the same crop. Both conventional and organic growers face
the uncertainty of weather and markets, which may be the two most
significant variables. Many of those same conventinoal tomatoe growers
aren't planting this year because of el nino, which hasn't enabled them
to prepare fields in time to meet their predetermined harvest times.
Thousands of acres in one county alone will lie fallow this year and I
imagine we will see an increase in canned tomato prices over the next
Sheryl N. Swink wrote:
> Dear Sharon @usda.gov,
> Here are some questions and thoughts that were stimulated by your e-mail
> soliciting input on how to determine crop insurance for organically grown
> 1) How do you know that organic yields are lower (as you state in the
> message below)? Is this statement based on current data on all organic
> crops, or is it a generallized assumption/mythology? Some yields of some
> organically grown crops may be lower than the same crops grown
> conventionally, but it is my understanding that this less the case than in
> the past.
> How about it, fellow sanet-mg folks? Do you, especially those who are
> producers (not just consumers, researcher/extensionists, and interested
> digesters like myself), find that this is a generalizable fact? Or has it
> become a myth? What is the current state of affairs in terms of yield
> comparisons between organic and conventional methods? Are there now
> reliable organic practices by which farmers are regularly attaining or
> surpassing expected conventional yields onece past the transition stage?
> Anyone have any current research data/references to address this issue?
> 2) It seems to me that one difference in crop insurance for organic growers
> vs conventional, is that they need protection from crop loss due to drift
> of conventional growers' non-organic pesticides contaminating their organic
> fields. Of course, in my opinion, the cost for this kind of insurance ought
> to be borne by the applicators, not the organic farmers, either directly as
> a pesticide application insurance, or as a fee imbedded in the cost of the
> I work with mainly resource-poor farmers in a developing country who are,
> for the most part, moving from passive organic (no chemicals, but not
> necessarily using intensively managed organic inputs and techniques) to
> active organic farming in order to increase productivity. Crop insurance is
> unheard of in their circle! However, I would like to be more informed as to
> how organic performance is doing in the US and European situation as
> compared to conventional.
> Sheryl Swink
> >Thank you.
> >Sharon H.
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> Sheryl N. Swink
> Graduate Student
> Cornell International Institute for
> Food, Agriculture and Development
> Box 14 Kennedy Hall
> Cornell University
> Ithaca, NY 14853
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