Natural Foods Merchandiser

The new era of organic farming

Thirty or 40 years ago, it was popular to categorize organic farmers into two types: hippies and weirdos. The hippies were young baby boomers who wanted to commune with the land. Through trial and a lot of error, they eventually learned how to grow good crops sustainably. The weirdos were conventional farmers who decided to stop using chemicals and start using earth-friendly methods like crop rotation. To the befuddlement of their rural neighbors, they too learned how to grow good crops sustainably.

Today, the hippies and weirdos still exist, but they've been joined by a host of other types of organic farmers: college students, retirees, part-timers and immigrants. Together, they create a nationwide farming network that spans 4 million acres, ranking the United States fourth in the world in the amount of certified organic land. But there's plenty of room to grow: Only about half a percent of U.S. cropland and pasture was certified organic in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

The ERS has been tracking organic farming stats since 1992. "In 2005, for the first time, all U.S. states had some certified organic farmland," says Catherine Greene, senior agricultural economist with ERS. California is still the leader, with more than 220,000 acres of certified organic cropland. Other top states include Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin. In addition, ERS reports that more than 40 states had certified organic rangeland and pasture in 2005, led by Alaska, Texas, California and Montana.

To find out who is doing all this organic farming, we talked to organic-farming experts around the country and found the following trends.

Far from conventional
"We see a lot of conventional farmers coming to the big sustainable ag conference we have every year," says Nancy Creamer, director of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Organic farming has become a lot more accepted across the board—it's not thought of as crazy anymore." The reason? Economic opportunity. Organic crops command higher prices than conventional. "Conventional farmers are not making any money with the current agricultural system," Creamer says.

According to research conducted by the University of California at Davis, about half of California's new organic acreage comes from existing farms adding organic crops, and about half is from new farmers. "Virtually all of the large vegetable producers have some organic acreage now," says Karen Klonsky, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UCD.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., says many of the conventional farmers switching to organic are second- or third-generation. "The older people are less likely to change. It's a lot easier for the younger people to go to mom and dad and say, ?Would you mind letting me manage 10 head organically,' or ?Can I go over to that organic farm down the road and apprentice?' " Some kids also ask their parents for a small plot on the family farm where they can experiment with organic growing techniques.

Scowcroft says the growth and acceptance of organics in recent years make it easier for younger farmers to talk to their parents and grandparents about converting to organic. "They can say, ?Look, Costco's got organics; the local slaughterhouse has an organic division.' "

Have degree, will farm
Just as with past generations, "There are still a lot of young people who are very motivated by passion for the environment and growing local food," Creamer says. But whereas previous generations specialized in do-it-yourself organic farming, today's young farmers have a wealth of resources to teach them organic farming techniques before they ever till a field or plant a seed.

A variety of conferences, publications and networking opportunities help people who want to learn about organic farming. Some universities offer organic-farming degrees, others have internships and student farms, and community colleges arrange apprenticeships for organic-farmer wanna?bes, Creamer says.

So where are the young organic farmers coming from? "A lot of them don't have a farming background," Creamer says. And almost always, they opt for organic over conventional farming, not only for ideological reasons but business practicalities as well. "I think the only way a new, young person can get into farming is to go into organic farming," Creamer says. An organic farmer can support a family with a 5- to 10-acre vegetable plot because of the price premium for organics, but conventional farmers often need a lot of land and equipment to make a decent living, Creamer says. "And if you didn't inherit that land or equipment, there's just no way you can afford it."

Size matters
"I feel like there are two parallel tracks in organic farming," Creamer says. "There are definitely more corporate organic farms than there used to be, but at the same time, at least here in the South, local, sustainable organic is just exploding." Many of those farms are small enough to be operated by part-timers, she says.

According to the ERS, growth in certified organic fruits and vegetables—which can be grown on small farms—is surging. Big-acreage commodity organic crops like soybeans and cotton are declining because they can be produced more cheaply in other countries, Greene says.

In California, where land is pricey, there are a lot of 5- to 10-acre organic orchards, says Klonsky of UCD. Because fruit trees take less work than seed crops, organic orchards attract retirees, she says.

California also has an increasing amount of organic wine acreage.

Moo'ving up
There's an exception to the movement toward small organic fruit and veggie plots. "There's tons of interest in pasture-raised, antibiotic-free cattle," Creamer says.

Greene says ERS data show the U.S. organic-dairy sector is made up primarily of smaller producers. And those producers need feed for their cattle. "Organic hay prices have really gone up, along with corn grown as dairy-feed grain." Still, she says, "Organic growers are probably getting higher prices for crops grown for food use versus crops grown for feed grains."

A changing face
A growing number of immigrants—particularly Hispanic and Asian—are starting their own organic farms. According to the USDA's Census of Agriculture, California alone has seen a 60 percent increase in acreage owned by Hispanic farmers over the last five years.

Scowcroft says there are several training and farm-ownership programs for Laotian and Mexican farm workers. California's Agriculture and Land Based Training Association has two farms in Monterey County where Mexican farm workers can learn organic farming techniques. ALBA also sets up loan programs to help immigrants buy farmland.

For organic farmers who are already established, the U.S. crackdown on immigration has had serious consequences. "Say you've got six seasonal immigrant workers on your organic farm—a family you've had a relationship with for years," Scowcroft says. "Now all of a sudden those six people are hard to find. Some farmers haven't been able to harvest because they can't afford to pay contractors. Some have changed to having salaried employees that live here year-round."

Adds Klonsky: "Organic has a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables that need to be hand-harvested, so organic farms should be more impacted [by immigration restrictions] than conventional. Also, organic relies more on hand weeding, and that requires more labor."

Jones says some Midwestern dairy farmers have set up exchange programs with villages in Mexico or Guatemala. The American farmers help out the villagers by building schools and other facili?ties, and the villagers reciprocate by providing a steady stream of labor to the farmers. "Everybody realizes we're all in this together," she says.

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 12/p. 32,36

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