US organic farming is less popular with farmers, more with customers

CHURDAN, Iowa (AP) – In the 1970s when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic, the idea didn’t work out.

Back then organic crops were a weird thing, for health food stores or maybe a few farmers markets.

“I told my dad I wanted to be an organic farmer and he said, “Ha, ha, ha,” Naylor said, noting that it wasn’t until 2014 that he was able to embrace his dream. themselves and begin the transition from standard crops to organic.

But over the decades, something unexpected happened – demand for organic matter began to grow so rapidly that it began to outpace the supply produced in the US

Now, a new challenge has emerged: Not to make consumers pay higher prices, but enough to convince farmers to overcome their organic reluctance and start taking advantage of the revenue pouring in. .

Instead of growing to meet demand, the number of farmers converting to organic production is actually decreasing. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture committed up to $300 million to recruit and help more farmers make the transition.

“It feels good to mention the government’s help,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of organic certification organization Oregon Tilth. “It’s a major milestone in the arc of this work.”

Schreiner, who has been with the Oregon-based organization since 1998, says expanding technical training is important given the wide variation in conventional and organic farmland. Schreiner notes that one farmer told him that converting an ordinary farmer was like asking “a podiatrist to become a heart surgeon.”

The main difference is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well as genetically modified seeds. Most conventional farms rely on such practices, but they are prohibited on organic farms. Instead, organic farmers must control weeds and pests with techniques such as rotating different crops and planting cover crops to remove weeds and add nutrients to the soil.

Crops can only be considered organic if they are grown on soil that has not been treated with synthetic substances for three years. During that time, farmers can plant crops, but they won’t receive the extra premium that comes with organic crops.

According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms that have just switched to organic production fell by about 70% between 2008 and 2019. Organic accounts for about 6% of total food sales, but only 1% of the land’s farmland. water is organic production, with foreign. Manufacturers create distance.

In the US, “There are a lot of barriers for farmers to switch to organic,” said Megan DeBates, vice president of government affairs for the Organic Trade Association.

While farmers seem hesitant, American consumers are not. According to the Organic Trade Association, annual sales of organic products have nearly doubled over the past decade and are now at $63 billion. Sales are expected to grow up to 5.5% this year.

That growth is obvious to anyone pushing carts in a regular supermarket, formerly boxes of organic apples and bananas, through the dairy and egg sections and along shelves filled with beef and organic chicken.

The new USDA effort will include $100 million to help farmers learn new techniques for growing organically; $75 million for farmers who meet new conservation practice standards; $25 million to expand crop insurance options and reduce costs; and $100 million to support the organic supply chain and grow the market for organics.

Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension officer who works with organic farmers, called the USDA effort a “game changer.” It will be especially attractive to smallholder farmers because the added value of organic crops makes it possible for them to make significant money from farms of 25 to 100 acres (10 to 40 hectares). – much smaller than the commercial activities that supply most of the country’s output.

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

Noah Wendt, who in the past few years has converted 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land in central Iowa to organic, notes that the change has sometimes been “difficult” for him and his farming partners. yours, Caleb Akin.

But he and Akin recently purchased a grain elevator east of Des Moines to use only with organic crops, the kind of project the USDA program can support. They hope the elevator will not only be a nearby spot for grain storage, but also provide a one-stop-shop to learn about growing and marketing organic crops.

Seeing all the organic activity was gratifying for George and Patti Naylor, who farm near the small Churdan community in central Iowa. But they say they still value most of the simple benefits of their choice, such as evenings spent watching hundreds of rare monarch butterflies fly to their herbicide-free farm.

As Patti Naylor said, “Believe in what you are doing helps a lot”.

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