Consumers buying organic, but US farmers still wary News, Sports, Jobs

George Naylor holds an organic apple grown on his farm, Tuesday near Churdan, Iowa. Naylor, along with his wife Patti, began the transition to organic crops in 2014. The demand for organics has increased so fast that the US Department of Agriculture last month committed up to $300 million to help farmers switch from conventional crops. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

CHURDAN, Iowa — In the 1970s when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea didn’t go over 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 goes, ‘Ha, ha, ha,'” Naylor said, noting it wasn’t until 2014 that he could embrace his dream and start transitioning from standard to organic crops.

But over the decades, something unexpected happened — demand for organics started increasing so fast that it began outstripping the supply produced in the US

Now a new challenge has emerged. It’s not getting consumers to pay the higher prices, it’s convincing enough farmers to get past their organic reluctance and start taking advantage of the revenue pouring in.

Instead of growing to meet the demand, the number of farmers converting to organic is actually dropping. 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 the organic-certifying organization Oregon Tilth, referring to the government aid. “It’s a milestone in the arc of this work.”

Schreiner, who has worked at the Oregon-based organization since 1998, said expanding technical training is important given the vast differences in farming land conventionally and organically. Schreiner noted that one farmer told him that converting a conventional farmer was like asking “a foot doctor to become a heart surgeon.”

The key difference is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified seeds. Most conventional farms rely on those practices, but they are banned at organic farms. Instead, organic farmers must control weeds and pests with techniques such as rotating different crops and planting cover crops that squeeze out 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 that period, farmers can grow crops, but they won’t get the extra premium that accompanies organic crops.

According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms newly transitioning to organic production dropped by about 70% from 2008 to 2019. Organic comprises about 6% of overall food sales, but only 1% of the country’s farmland is in organic production, with foreign producers making up the gap.

In the US, “There are so many barriers to farmers making that leap to organic,” said Megan De-Bates, vice president of government affairs for the Organic Trade Association.

While farmers seem hesitant, US consumers aren’t. Annual sales of organic products have roughly doubled in the past decade and now top $63 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales are projected to climb up to 5.5% this year.

That growth is clear to anyone pushing a cart in an average supermarket, past bins of organic apples and bananas, through dairy and egg sections and along shelves brimming with organic beef and chicken.

The new USDA effort would include $100 million toward helping farmers learn new techniques for:

growing organic crops; $75 million for farmers who meet new conservation practice standards; $25 million to expand crop insurance options and reduce costs; and $100 million to aid organic supply chains and develop markets for organics.

Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension agent who works with organic farmers, called the USDA effort a: “game changer.” It should be especially attractive to farmers with small parcels of land because the added value of organic crops makes it possible to make significant money off even 25 to 100 acre farms — much smaller than the commercial operations that provide most of the country’s produce.

“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business who otherwise would go out of business,” Andrews said. CHURDAN, Iowa — In the 1970s when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea didn’t go over 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 goes, ‘Ha, ha, ha,'” Naylor said, noting it wasn’t until 2014 that he could embrace his dream and start transitioning from standard to organic crops.

But over the decades, something unexpected happened — demand for organics started increasing so fast that it began outstripping the supply produced in the US

Now a new challenge has emerged. It’s not getting consumers to pay the higher prices, it’s convincing enough farmers to get past their organic reluctance and start taking advantage of the revenue pouring in.

Instead of growing to meet the demand, the number of farmers converting to organic is actually dropping. 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 the organic-certifying organization Oregon Tilth, referring to the government aid. “It’s a milestone in the arc of this work.”

Schreiner, who has worked at the Oregon-based organization since 1998, said expanding technical training is important given the vast differences in farming land conventionally and organically. Schreiner noted that one farmer told him that converting a conventional farmer was like asking “a foot doctor to become a heart surgeon.”

The key difference is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified seeds. Most conventional farms rely on those practices, but they are banned at organic farms. Instead,

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Above, George Naylor and his wife Patti walk through a cover crop of clover on their farm, Tuesday near Churdan, Iowa. The Naylors began the transition to organic crops in 2014. The demand for organics has increased so fast that the US Department of Agriculture last month committed up to $300 million to help farmers switch from conventional crops.

organic farmers must control weeds and pests with techniques such as rotating different crops and planting cover crops that squeeze out 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 that period, farmers can grow crops, but they won’t get the extra premium that accompanies organic crops.

According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms newly transitioning to organic production dropped by about 70% from 2008 to 2019. Organic comprises about 6% of overall food sales, but only 1% of the country’s farmland is in organic production, with foreign producers making up the gap.

In the US, “There are so many barriers to farmers making that leap to organic,” said Megan De-Bates, vice president of government affairs for the Organic Trade Association.

While farmers seem hesitant, US consumers aren’t. Annual sales of organic products have roughly doubled in the past decade and now top $63 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales are projected to climb up to 5.5% this year.

That growth is clear to anyone pushing a cart in an average supermarket, past bins of organic apples and bananas, through dairy and egg sections and along shelves brimming with organic beef and chicken.

The new USDA effort would include $100 million toward helping farmers learn new techniques for:

growing organic crops; $75 million for farmers who meet new conservation practice standards; $25 million to expand crop insurance options and reduce costs; and $100 million to aid organic supply chains and develop markets for organics.

Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension agent who works with organic farmers, called the USDA effort a: “game changer.” It should be especially attractive to farmers with small parcels of land because the added value of organic crops makes it possible to make significant money off even 25 to 100 acre farms — much smaller than the commercial operations that provide most of the country’s produce.

“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business who otherwise would go out of business,” Andrews said.

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