Where have all the farmers gone?

Organic FarmerIn a recent discussion with Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, he cited a concern on the lack of new farming operations entering organic production.

“Though we have seen market success over the last 20 years, the number of new certified operations in the US has remained relatively flat,” Miles told me. “The industry continues to grow, sales are up, but the number of certified operations has not grown.”

A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that the Farm Belt is not expanding quickly enough into organics to meet growing consumer demand. Consequently, producers are going abroad for commodities

This leads me to ask, where have all the organic farmers gone?

What are the barriers keeping our farmers from entering and staying in organic production? Unfortunately, much like the demise of the honeybees, the reasons are diverse and complicated.

  • The rise of corn and other products grown for Bio-Fuels instead of food has increased the overall price of commodities. Consequently, the price farmers can get for conventional corn is so high that some farmers have opted to convert back to conventional farming.
  • The cost and paperwork of becoming certified organic is viewed as cumbersome and onerous. The Certification Cost Share Program designed to help defray the costs of certification was de-funded when the 2008 farm bill was extended. Organic crop and livestock producers in some states had been eligible for reimbursement as high as 75 percent of their certification costs, up to a maximum of $750.
  • The increase of a local underground movement is occurring and some farmers are choosing not to become certified. This trend cites a “Beyond Organic” consumer preference where producers and consumers unfortunately emphasize local over organic.
  • The average American farmer is now 57 years old. The access to certified organic land for young and beginning farmers remains a significant challenge. Beginning farmers and ranchers need access to credit, technical assistance, business acumen and knowledge on good land stewardship.

Why is it important to be a certified organic farmer?

  • Organic protects the health of our topsoil.  Topsoil is the upper, outermost layer of soil, usually only the top 2 inches, and it has the highest concentration of organic matter and microorganisms. Without topsoil, little plant life is possible. The United States alone loses almost 3 tons of topsoil per acre per year. This is of great ecological concern as one inch of topsoil can take 500 years to form naturally. With current trends, the world has about 60 years of topsoil left. A nine-year study by USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers at Beltsville, MD, has shown that organic farming can build up organic matter in soil better than conventional, no-till farming can
  • Organic farming enhances soil fertility and biodiversity, according to findings from a 21-year field trial initiated by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland. There are many other studies on organic agriculture  related to increased soil fertility.
  • Organic production reduces the amount of pesticides, herbicides and toxic chemicals that end up in our environment and water. It’s estimated that 50 million tons of toxins are applied annually to soil and crops in the US.   Organic agriculture does not use toxic chemicals and eliminates this enormous health hazard to workers, their families, and their communities.
  • The USDA has introduced a ‘Sound and Sensible’ initiative that involves identifying and removing barriers to certification and streamlining the certification process. It focuses its enforcement by working with farmers and processors to correct small issues before they become larger ones.  The overall goal of this new initiative is to make organic certification accessible, attainable, and affordable for all operations.
  • The future of family farming and ranching in America is at stake as is the viability of our nation’s food supply.  We need to produce more organic products here in the US and reduce our dependency on offshore organic products.

USDA certified organic is the gold standard in agricultural and food production. The biggest way we as consumers can help organic farmers enter and stay in organic production is to seek out and purchase only certified organic products bearing the USDA Organic seal. As the market grows, our farmers will receive fair and profitable prices, while at the same time converting more acreage and protecting more soil, water and biodiversity.

The next thing you can do is contact your Congressional Representatives  and encourage them to pass a farm bill that restores the Certification Cost Share and other organic priorities. Organic farming is crucial to rural and urban prosperity and must be nurtured and protected.

Make that call and then post below to let me know.

10 thoughts on “Where have all the farmers gone?

  1. To Melody’s great list of reasons to farm organically, I would add that organic farming systems – by increasing soil organic matter – sequester more carbon in soils and have lower carbon footprints than conventional farms, thereby making a positive contribution to our climate crisis. Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (water shortages, extreme weather events, new pests and diseases, etc.) and increasing soil organic matter will also help build resilience by increasing soil fertility and improving water-retention capacity.
    – Renata Brillinger, California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN)

    • Thanks Renata,
      Great points you bring forward. We need to be celebrating these amazing reasons organic agriculture is good for us and the planet. Lets get the positive word out on organic and leave the infighting behind. We need a united organic message.

  2. I had the pleasure of crossing paths with you at the NOSB meeting in Portland in April. I have been meaning to write a letter to the board after that meeting to share my disappointment with their performance. As a longtime (since 1981) commercial certified organic orchardist, who hasn’t been too involved with the politics of organics, I am now a confirmed cynic about those politics, and that is very disappointing to me. The fireblight issue that was ruled upon should never been decided by the consumer groups, who totally misled the public in their campaign. That campaign appears to have been motivated by power and money. They caused so much damage to the cause of organics, which, as you mentioned above, should be promoted and expanded on our agricultural lands. The board members who made that decision that day totally ignored the voices of the orchard experts, who were mainly university scientists who have spent their lives, not in the service of chemical companies, but working with organic farmers and the whole field of sustainable ag. When the hardworking organic farmers and the scientists who work to help them with so little research money are ignored and dismissed, it is a perfect example of one of the important reasons that fewer farmers want to venture into organics. Who’s really there to support them when it’s their livelihood that’s on the line? To my mind, that day in Portland will live in infamy in the minds of many organic orchardists, and I’ll bet that more of them will leave the fold. The ruling should be overturned in the effort to acknowledge that when a consumer advocate heads up the materials committee, something is terribly wrong with our system. I’m all in favor of unity, but we’re talking about organic farming and I see little evidence from the board that they care what happens to the farmers. Please share this with Miles.

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