According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic field crop acreage remains low and is not keeping up with consumer demand, despite profit potential. What’s holding farmers back from exploring the untapped potential of organic? It’s likely a combination of factors, but many farmers mention their reluctance stems from a lack of resources to help with the organic farming transition process.
We’ve asked J.P. Rhea to answer seven frequently asked questions about transitioning acres from conventional production to organic. Rhea is the CEO and co-founder of AgriSecure — a turn-key organic platform company and partner of Farmers Business Network — based in Blair, Nebraska.
1. What’s the profit potential for growing organics?
During the 2016-2017 marketing year, an estimated 78 percent of organic soy and 41 percent of organic corn were imported, representing over $400 million in lost revenue for U.S. farmers.1 The demand for organics is not being met domestically, so the profit potential is there. We’re selling corn for more than $9 instead of $3 to $4, and now we’re also starting to see yields that are comparable with conventional.
2. How much extra record-keeping is involved?
Growing organic crops involves considerably more record keeping, mainly because of the certification process for organic crops. However, the increase in profits should offset the extra time. This is one area where AgriSecure can certainly help—we enlist experts to help farmers with the organic certification process, and have a proprietary IT system for seamlessly managing the documents required to maintain organic certification.
3. How many acres should I transition to organic?
We always suggest a slow transition of acres from conventional to organic and recommend starting with a transition of up to 25 percent of your acres to organic. Some farmers may never transition more than that and some may eventually convert all. Transitioning to organic is a big change and takes more time and resources, so it’s good to start out with a manageable amount of acres for your operation.
4. What is the transition period?
The two-crop-year transition period—the timeframe for using organic production methods, while marketing as conventional—can be a difficult component of switching to organic. However, there are ways to make the most of your investment during this time. For example, alfalfa is an excellent transition crop, since it helps control weeds and builds soil organic matter for the first organic crop. There are options for every grower, depending on the current equipment on the farm and the desired agronomic benefits. The key is developing a customized plan that works for your operation.
5. What is the biggest benefit of growing organics?
Of course, the profits are nice, but more than that, organic farming allows you to have more control over your cost structure. It’s going to challenge you to farm differently, as you have to treat the soil a little better and change a few farming methods. But, in the long run you’re setting up your farm agronomically and economically for generations to come.
6. Do you recommend every farm develop a specific transition plan?
I absolutely recommend a customized production plan for every farmer transitioning acres to organic. It’s important to establish your resources, markets and have a solid understanding of the process before you begin the transition period. We work with farmers to start with the end in mind, and develop a plan to get there as efficiently as possible.
7. What is the outlook for organic crops?
The market outlook for organic crops is exciting. The United States is the largest single market for organic foods sales in the world — reaching a total of more than $45.2 billion [in 2017]. It has increased more than 350 percent since 2000!2 And as organic production practices become more and more efficient, organic farming will continue to have a positive impact for U.S. farmers.
1. USDA, U.S Census Bureau Trade Data for trade deficit via Mercaris
2. Estimated based on data from FIBL & IFOAM - Organics International