More Shoppers Buying Organic, but Many Farmers in the US Remain UnconvincedAs a demand for organic produce outstrips supply in the United States, many farmers remain reluctant to take advantage of this new source of revenue
By Main Street Sentinel Staff
For years, America’s organic farmers worried that consumers wouldn’t pay a premium for their produce. That’s no longer the case. The Organic Trade Association reports that annual sales of organic products have more or less doubled in the past decade and now top $63 billion. And that growth shows no sign of stopping: this year, the organization projects sales will climb by up to 5.5%.
Unfortunately demand for organics is growing so quickly that it’s outstripping supply, creating a new challenge for the organic sector: finding enough farmers to leave behind conventional farming and start taking advantage of the revenue pouring in.
At the moment, the number of farmers switching to organic is, in fact, decreasing. According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms making the transition to organic production plummeted, between 2008 to 2019, down 70% overall during that span. Organic produce represents around 6% of overall food sales, but just 1% of US farmland is devoted to organic production. As a result, foreign farmers must make up the shortfall.
The U.S. The Department of Agriculture is hoping they can convince America’s conventional growers to meet that shortfall – and they’re spending up to $300 million to recruit and help more farmers make the change.
The new USDA program is slated to include $100 million for technical training for farmers, an additional $75 million to reward farmers who meet new conservation practice standards, $25 million to help expand crop insurance options; and a further $100 million to strengthen supply chains and ensure more organic produce can get to market.
“It feels good,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of the organic certification organization Oregon Tilth, of the program. “It’s a milestone in the arc of this work.”
But Schreiner, who has decades of experience in the world of organic agriculture, emphasizes that switching between conventional and organic farming is no easy task. The biggest differentiator between conventional and organic farming is the reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the use of GMO seed. Organic farmers must replace those technologies with techniques like crop rotation and the use of cover crops that squeeze out weeds and add nutrients to the soil.
To achieve the organic designation, crops must be grown on land that hasn’t been treated with synthetic substances for three years. During that initial transition period, farmers are able to grow crops, but they won’t be able to get organic certification – or the premium prices that come with it.
Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension agent who works with organic farmers, referred to the new USDA program as a “game changer.” He hopes that organic farming can be a lifeline for more small family growers who are struggling to compete with larger-scale conventional farms.
“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business who otherwise would go out of business,” Andrews said.