Monday, June 1, 1998
With the demand for organically grown produce increasing and the
prices for it soaring, traditional farmers are taking a new look at
organic farming practices.
In the case of organic soybeans, for example, farmers can get more
than three times the standard market price by growing organic
David Petritz, assistant director of the Purdue University
Cooperative Extension Service, says the acceptance of organic
farming is a dramatic change in agriculture. "Traditional producers
now have more than a passing interest in organic farming," he says.
"This isn't something they scoff at any longer. Every day, more and
more traditional farmers are looking into whether they should
convert part of their operation to certified organic.
To be sure, the organic movement is still small potatoes down on the
farm. Of the estimated 60,000 farms in Indiana, for example, only 60
have been certified as organic.
But as organic farming gains acceptance, experts predict that the
demand for chemical-free land may drive up the price of uncultivated
land being released from the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program.
The land is in demand because for crops to be certified as organic,
the land they are grown on must be chemical-free for three years.
The experts also see increased niche opportunities for farmers. "For
example, some farmers have become interested in on-farm grain
processing, and organic farming may make these kinds of operations
profitable," Petritz says.
Because of increased opportunities, conventional farmers are
considering how organic farming might fit into their operation. "The
real entrepreneurial farmers are looking at it and saying, 'Maybe I
can make some money at that,'" Petritz says. "They're saying, 'If I
do it now I can get a two-year edge on the other guys to figure out
how to make this work.'"
Organic foods, in the most simple definition, are crops grown
without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic meat
or milk is produced using organic feed and without the use of
Beyond those simplified definitions, though, the debate over what is
and isn't organic is a heated one.
Last fall the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed standards for
organic foods and received more than 200,000 comments during the
public comment period of the revision process -- the most public
input the agency has ever received about a new regulation. Because
of the comments, the USDA may exclude various practices from organic
food production that have nothing to do with chemical use, including
growing genetically enhanced crops, using irradiation for food
safety reasons, or applying sludge as a fertilizer.
Despite the controversy, many people say that interest in organic
production is as high as it has ever been.
Ron Roller is president and chief soybean buyer of American Soy
Products in Saline, Mich., the nation's largest producer of organic
soy food products. He says the current status of the organic market
is unlike anything he's seen in his 25 years in the business.
"The organic soybean market is exploding at the moment. It's just
going nuts," he says. "I'm amazed at the speed at which farmers are
getting into this market. In the years past, we had a hard time
finding suppliers, and it's still difficult, but that's because the
demand for the crops is so high. But there's been a surge of farmers
coming into organic farming."
The demand for organic soy products, such as soy milk and tofu, has
driven organic soybean prices much higher than regular soybeans.
This has not gone unnoticed by farmers in the Midwest. According to
Roller, prices for organic soybeans are ranging as high as $25 a
bushel, compared to just below $7 for conventional soybeans.
"The Japanese market is the driving force," Roller explains. "They
make a lot of products out of soybeans, and the past few years, they
have been demanding organic products. It's spurred a huge demand in
A second major reason for the heightened interest in organic farming
is the upcoming revision of the USDA's standards for organically
Roller says that the new standards could significantly increase the
number of producers and products. "Right now there are 30 or 40
certifying groups, but if the government sets a uniform standard,
that will speed the entire process," he says. "Not everyone is happy
that there will be one standard applied by the federal government,
but if you are a multinational manufacturer of food products, and
you make products that use many ingredients, it'll make it easier
for these companies to move into the organic marketplace."
According to Petritz, although organic farming may look simple, it
is surprisingly complex for farmers who haven't tried it. "For
example, if you plan to sell organic meat or milk, you have to have
organically produced feed for the livestock," he says. "Producers
need to know the basics of producing their particular crop. They
can't go from doing nothing with organic to producing crops
Cissy Bowman, spokeswoman for the Organic Farmers Marketing
Association and herself an organic farmer in Clayton, Ind., agrees
that producers considering organic farming should proceed
cautiously, and identify exactly where they plan to sell their crops
and what those markets are buying.
"There are market complications that can disappoint growers if they
are not well-informed about markets prior to planting," Bowman says.
"In 1995, the founders of the Organic Farmers Marketing Association
did a survey of market barriers and found that many potential and
new growers quickly became disillusioned when the time came to sell
their crops. If growers are well-informed ahead of time, then
markets can be good and the 'conversion' to organic works. As in any
other form of agriculture, the new organic growers must have a local
infrastructure in place or they will likely revert back to
conventional methods and markets."
Roller agrees that there can be pitfalls. "Most of the buyers want
specific varieties of beans, and these are grown under contract," he
says. "People who are interested in getting the right prices need to
grow the right kind of beans. It's really the end-user who is
determining what the producers plant."
For more information, contact Dave Petritz, Purdue, (765)494-8494,
Copyright 1998, Environmental News Network
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