March 15, 2007: Just as there are many reasons
for farmers to convert to organics, there are many reasons
that farmers allow their certification to lapse. Some quit
farming altogether and some revert to non-organic systems
because they found the learning curve to comply with organic
production, certification and marketing too steep or not worth
Analysis by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS)
concludes there is no one specific reason why farmers who
had previously sought organic certification chose not to reregister.
The researchers studied farmers who had discontinued their
registration with the State of California Department of Food
and Agriculture Organic Program. (A complete version of the
study of decertifying organic farmers can be obtained from
the California Institute for Rural Studies www.cirsinc.org.)
Conventional, Mixed and "'Deregistered" Farmers:
Entry Barriers and Reasons for Exiting Organic Production
in California is based on analysis from more than 100
interviews conducted over the past year. More than 70 conventional,
mixed, and deregistered farmers were interviewed, representing
more than 1,200 acres of farmland.
In order to have a wide range of views, researchers sought
out respondents who were actively using either organic or
conventional practices, or were in the process of expanding
or contacting their organic acreage. The average farm size
was 63 acres.
While the data was derived from primary work done by CIRS,
data recently compiled by the state ag department’s
organic program indicates 523 organic farmers deregistered
between 2003-2005—a time when 600 new farmers entered
organics. In 2005, the state had 1,738 certified organic farmers
operating on 222,557 acres, state agriculture department figures
show. The deregistered farmers listed a total of 16,889 acres,
for an average of 33 acres each. A spokesman for the office
cautioned that the figures are somewhat general in nature,
as farmers can report their certification (or decertification)
and acreage at any time of year.
The study found that half of the deregistered growers interviewed
had left farming entirely—mostly for personal reasons
unrelated to the decision to transition to organic (lost lease
on land, health problems, divorce, retirement, grown kids,
etc.)—while the other half had reverted to conventional
The farmers who continued farming said they decertified due
to a combination of factors including higher production costs,
reduced yields, disenchantment with the federal organic rule,
lack of access to organic markets in general or lack particular
price premiums necessary to cover their higher production
costs and/or lower yields.
Some farmers said lack of access to information and technical
assistance prevented them from transitioning into organic
into the first place. "I could use some help navigating
the transition," one farmer stated, "I've got one
field close to being certifiable, but where do I go? It feels
like you're out there on your own." Several farmers cited
a lack of support from certifying agencies.
Beauty is in the eye…
Some farmers experienced an increase in production costs
coupled with lower yields and higher rates of either second-grade
or unmarketable product due to a smaller size or minor cosmetic
imperfections that customers wouldn’t accept.
"Organic might be sweeter, but it's smaller and definitely
more expensive," stated one respondent. However, other
growers indicated that both creative marketing and personal
relationships with consumers can resolve these issues. One
farmer with a longstanding relationship with local stores
found that those outlets bought his scarred peaches when he
labeled them as "nature kissed." Customers accepted
the imperfections and purchased the peaches.
Growers who had adopted
organic farming practices primarily for economic gain,
rather than a philosophical commitment to organic, were
more likely to revert to conventional production with
changing economic circumstances.
A number of farmers said they faced steeply higher costs
for weed management when they relied on hand weeding along
with additional tractor passes. As labor substitutes in part
on organic farms for other capital costs and purchased synthetic
inputs, the study indicates that wages can typically account
for more than 50 percent of all production costs.
As one mixed-enterprise farmer explained, "This is all
labor. I've had a few partners that backed out once they saw
they had to spend $1,800 an acre weeding spinach compared
to $150 an acre in conventional."
An organic farmer in Ventura County stated that "when
I farmed conventionally, I had six employees on 300 acres.
Now that I'm farming organically, I have 15 employees on 30
CIRS study authors Ron Strochlic and Luis Sierra found that
growers who had adopted organic farming practices primarily
for economic gain, rather than a philosophical commitment
to organic, were more likely to revert to conventional production
with changing economic circumstances. For example, when the
price of conventional almonds shot up, a number of organic
almond growers reverted back to conventional production.
"I think a lot of farmers also entered into organic
practices unaware of the need to shift their mindset to a
‘whole farm’ system based on soil health and the
inter-relationship of all on-farm systems,” Strochlic
said. “Many were also unaware of how much more management-intensive
organic farming is in terms of needing to monitor crops constantly
and make decisions based on conditions on the ground, rather
than according to a set calendar schedule."
Strochlic found that the decertifying farmers found that
“the transition to organic production is complex, and
that there are no guarantees of success.
"In particular, we've seen that the ‘input substitution’
approach is often not that successful. Transitioning farmers
must understand that organic is a different farming system,
which requires a deep understanding of the importance of soil
health and the interconnectedness of all on-farm systems.”
There’s a continuing need to explain to farmers considering
organic transition that they will face a lot more independent
decision-making. The authors said transitioning farmers will
benefit from “much more support for existing and transitioning
organic farmers, including technical assistance, market regulation
and green payments to reward organic farmers for their environmental
When Karen Klonsky, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist,
studied the organic dropout phenomenon several years ago,
she came up with about 300 farmers who had not renewed their
organic certification, out of a total of more then 1,750 in
California at the time.
She found some of those changes were technical, such as farmers
having been bought out, changing a farm name or consolidating
with a registered handler. In terms of acres farmed or the
farmers farming, nothing may have actually changed but the
Time, diversity stabilize organics
For the substantive decertifications, her research concluded
- The longer someone farms organically, the less likely
they are to drop out.
- Highly diversified organic produce farms are more likely
to remain in the organic sector.
Klonsky said that many of those dropouts may be attributed
to the farmers just not feeling a compelling need to bother
with formalizing their organic farming status.
"If it was a hobby or roadside farmer, or a smaller
organic farmer who knows all of his/her customers at a farmers
market and through a CSA, why would they bother with the expense
and paperwork of certification? A lot of very small farmers
don't need certification, but are still using organic practices."
Klonsky's study found that organic farmers tend to "build
long-run reputations as part of their marketing strategies
and are likely to be able to maintain their markets once they
have developed them."
CIRS analysis concluded that the principle barriers to farmers
transitioning into organic are:
- Financial losses associated with the transitional period
- Higher costs of production
- Potentially lower yields overall, and reduced marketable
- Challenges accessing stable, profitable markets
- Costs of recordkeeping associated with certification
- Limited access to technical assistance and marketing
- Lack of communication with other organic farmers
- High labor costs
- Lack of access to organic prices and markets
- Higher management requirements
- Limited access to credit and financing
- Opportunity costs associated with cover cropping
- Difficulties accessing organic inputs
- Reluctance to transition land with unstable tenure.
What can help? Klonsky cites the USDA's organic certification
cost-share program, which provides up to $500 for converting
farmers, as a current support for the process, as well as
the USDA Crop Insurance program.
Support for transition
The CCOF Foundation in California is providing needed support
for farmers in transition to organic. The foundation received
a grant from the California State Water Board, which recognizes
that organic farming practices can improve water quality and
reduce non-point pollution sources. The multi-year, $650,000
support program includes one-on-one farmer mentoring, regional
workshops and other focused educational programs.
The Going Organic (www.ccof.org/goingorganic.php)
project matches experienced organic farmers with a beginner
by crop type to help with production and marketing management.
The farmers receive $500 to have reciprocal visits, talk on
the phone and cultivate an effective support system, said
CCOF program manager Fred Thomas. "We have found that
existing mentors, reassuring the beginner farmers, reduces
the risk factor. We now have specific mentors for 60 farmers."
The Foundation works with partners to produce a series of
Central Valley grower panel meetings with packers, marketers
and representatives from University of California Extension,
USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the local Agriculture
Commissions and nonprofits. These turn out to benefit all
the farmers involved. Thompson offers Organic System Plan
training classes, or "OSP 101," for anyone interested.
"We are seeing increasing numbers in these classes”
including farmers, agriculture commission members, commodity
group representatives and farm advisors who are seeking more
knowledge on cutting-edge organic agriculture systems, Thomas
said. “What transfers knowledge to farmers is getting
together” in each of the program’s venues.
Speaking of the next Farm Bill, "We really need to compensate
organic farmers for the value they provide our environment:
clean water, clean air and habitat creation,” Thomas
said, perhaps with tax credits.
Ultimately, Strochlic would like to see California adopt
an approach along the lines of the European Union. These include
explicit recognition in public policy of organic farming benefits,
targets for organic acreage as well as various supports and
incentives for existing and transitioning farmers. (See sidebar:
”To keep organics strong.”)