California farmers dropping organic certification cite crop management, yield and marketing challenges as reasons for opting out
Converting from conventional farming—and sticking with organics— means changing thinking, diversifying enterprises, linking with other farmers and finding many means of support.

By David Kupfer


Photo courtesy of Full Belly Farm.

Claiming organic’s fair share

Less than 1 percent of Farm Bill programs are specifically geared towards helping organic growers or growers in transition. Despite impressive market growth and the tremendous economic and environmental benefits provided by organic agriculture, federal investment to support this increase in production has lagged.

Kari Hamerschlag is policy director for the California Coalition for Food and Farming. In order for the organic sector to remain competitive, she says it needs far more public investment in the areas of research, extension, marketing and resource conservation. This is especially important for California growers, who produce nearly half of the country's organic and specialty crops yet face increasingly stiff competition from China, Mexico and other low-cost producers, she says.

"At the very least, federal investment in organic agriculture should be equivalent to its proportional share of the US food market," says Hamerschlag.

(Editors note: It will be tough sledding, based on the initial reaction from California Congressman Henry Cardoza (D-Merced), chairman on the House Ag subcommittee in charge of organic agriculture. He said, basically, the funding request that organic farmers delivered in early March was coming too late in the budget process to pull dollars away from other ag interests.)

"The California Coalition for Food and Farming is working to bring urban and rural constituencies together to rally California Congressional support for Farm Bill legislation that embraces a vision of a more just and sustainable agriculture and food system, including specific proposals geared towards helping organic farmers overcome the challenges described in the CIRS study. For example, they are promoting a National Organic Conversion and Stewardship Incentive Program funded at $50 million annually to help growers get the financial and technical assistance they need to make the transition to organic."

--DK

To keep organics strong

Recommendations by the California Institute for Rural Studies to promote adoption of organic farming in California include:

Financial incentives such as transitional payments and low-interest loans to encourage and facilitate organic conversion; maintenance payments rewarding organic farmers for good environmental stewardship; an increase in access to credit for organic production; and training for financial service providers regarding the viability of organic production.

Marketing innovations such as development of a “transitional organic” label providing growers with the opportunity to obtain some price premiums during that period; expanded promotion of direct marketing and “buy local” campaigns; and trade agreements to promote California-grown organic products in domestic and export markets.

Research, information and technical assistance such as improved research on organic production methods; increased access to technical assistance via traditional extension models, commercial and non-profit entities; increased support for organic agriculture programs at universities and other institutes of higher education; and support for farmer-to-farmer mentorship program models to spread this learning approach.

--DK

Washington wheat farmers wary of organics

Perceived barriers to organic success have kept all but 18 grain farmers in Washington state from converting their acres, despite high prices and strong demand from the surging organic dairy sector. Perceived challenges included weed management, lower yields, pest management, transportation and access to organic buyers, providing sufficient nitrogen and overall lack of information.

The Washington State University report on the issue says wheat breeder Steven Jones continues to search for genetics that will assist organic and low-input producers.

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 the effort.

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 production.

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 acres."

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.

Motivation matters

"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 contributions."

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 paperwork.

Time, diversity stabilize organics

For the substantive decertifications, her research concluded that:

  1. The longer someone farms organically, the less likely they are to drop out.
  2. 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 yield
  • Challenges accessing stable, profitable markets
  • Costs of recordkeeping associated with certification
  • Limited access to technical assistance and marketing expertise
  • 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."


Photo courtesy of Fred Thomas, CERUS Consulting.

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.”)