Organic farming has been gaining popularity among farmers in recent years. It aims to produce food in the most natural way possible, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. While there are clear environmental and health benefits associated with organic practices, switching from conventional to organic farming also comes with significant challenges. This article weighs up the pros and cons of making the transition.
Definition of Organic Farming
Organic farming is a method of crop and livestock production that avoids or largely excludes the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, growth promoters and regulators, livestock feed additives, and genetically modified organisms. Instead, organic farmers use cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, and biological pest management techniques to enrich the soil, manage weeds and pests, and boost biodiversity on the farm.
To be certified as organic, farms must avoid the use of synthetic chemicals for at least three years before harvest and must pass annual inspections to ensure compliance with national organic standards. Organic certification also extends to aspects of livestock management, feed production, processing, and packaging.
Pros of Switching to Organic Farming
Improved Soil Health
A key benefit of organic farming is improved soil health over time. Regular additions of organic matter in the form of cover crops, compost, and manures build soil organic matter. This helps increase soil fertility and water holding capacity, supports beneficial soil organisms, and prevents erosion. Healthier soils help plants better access nutrients and water, strengthen pest and disease resistance, and produce higher crop yields over the long term.
Reduced Pollution and Carbon Emissions
By eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, organic farming greatly reduces water pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases associated with the production, packaging, and transport of these chemical inputs. Nitrous oxide emissions linked to nitrogen fertilizer use are eliminated on organic farms, as nitrogen is instead introduced slowly to fields through nitrogen-fixing cover crops and organic approved amendments. The reduction in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions makes organic farming more environmentally sustainable.
No Synthetic Pesticides or Fertilizers
Food grown under certified organic standards cannot be produced using toxic synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. This appeals to consumers who want to reduce their exposure to these chemical residues through the foods they eat. Instead, organic farmers use biological means to maintain soil fertility and manage pests and diseases. Produce sold as organic must adhere to maximum residue limits for chemicals far below those allowed for conventional agriculture.
Premium Prices for Organic Produce
There is significant and growing consumer demand for organic food, with 82% of U.S. families reporting they purchase organic products at least sometimes. As demand has outpaced domestic supply, organic food sales show double digit percentage growth nearly every year. The higher prices consumers are willing to pay at the supermarket, farm stand, or through a CSA subscription makes organic farming more profitable for many farmers once they’ve tackled the transition costs. Price premiums are necessary to recoup higher labor, certification, and input costs.
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Cons of Switching to Organic Farming
Switching from conventional to organic production often results in lower yields, especially during the three year transition period before organic certification. As synthetic herbicides and fertilizers are eliminated, farmers must learn new techniques for building soil fertility and managing weeds and pests. Developing effective organic management methods suited to specific crops and farm sites can take years. Yields may remain 10-15% lower on organic farms compared to conventional operations, varying widely depending on crops grown, weather conditions, and farmer expertise.
More Labor Intensive
Efficient organic crop production requires more work in the field scouting for pest outbreaks, weeding, and cover cropping. Organic farmers also take on additional recordkeeping and documentation for organic certification. Livestock operations require more pasture management and attention to preventative health measures when antibiotics or medicated feeds cannot be used. Farm operations must weigh whether price premiums will adequately compensate for increased labor costs associated with organic management.
Higher Cost of Organic Seeds, Feeds, etc.
While organic farmers save money by not purchasing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, approved organic alternatives typically cost more. Organic seeds and feeds can be up to twice as expensive. Beneficial insects and habitat to support biological pest control carry costs as well. Organic ingredients such as botanical pesticides permitted for use on organic farms are far more costly than basic synthetic pesticide applications. However, some farmers are able to produce their own organic compost, seeds, and livestock feeds to reduce input costs.
Challenging Pest and Weed Control
Farmers transitioning from conventional to organic production often cite weed and pest management as their biggest challenge. Without chemical herbicides, farmers must rely on mechanical cultivation, hand weeding, cover crops, mulches, and crop rotation to prevent weeds from reducing yields. Likewise, farmers need in depth knowledge of biopesticides, beneficial insects, and integrated pest management techniques to control problematic insect, disease, and vertebrate pest issues. It can take years of trial and error to fine tune organic management strategies for different crops, soils, and regional pest pressures.
Government Programs and Incentives
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program develops standards for organic certification and oversees the system. Participating State Departments of Agriculture also provide oversight of certifiers operating within their states. A range of government grant programs have provided cost share funding to assist with a portion of the costs farmers incur to get certified organic. Additionally, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program offer financial incentives to implement conservation practices aligned with organic farming systems. Crop insurance tailored to organic producers is also now available.
Transition Process and Timeline
Switching from conventional to certified organic production takes patience and planning. Farms must avoid using prohibited substances for 36 months before the first harvest can be certified organic. Many farmers invest three years in this transition to improve soil, select optimal organic varieties, establish new marketing outlets, and learn new management techniques before the first organic harvest. The lengthy transition is necessary to flush chemical residues from the field and allow the biological cycles within the farming system time to stabilize. Some farmers implement changes gradually, transitioning a few acres at a time.
Certification Requirements and Costs
Organic producers must complete an application, submit an Organic System Plan describing farm practices, sign an affidavit, and pass an annual inspection by an accredited organic certifying agency. Unannounced inspections can occur to ensure compliance. Certification costs commonly range from $500 to $2000 annually depending on farm size and sales. Cost share programs exist in some states that reimburse up to 75% of certification fees for several years to incentivize new organic producers. Marketing organic products without certification can incur fines up to $11,000 and loss of further organic certification.
Market Opportunities and Outlook
The growing consumer demand for organic food represents a lucrative market opportunity for certified organic farmers. Selling direct-to-consumer through CSAs, farm stands and farmers markets allows producers to capture full retail prices. Contracts with organic handlers, processors and wholesalers provide additional structured outlets to commercialize certified organic acres or livestock production. Don’t expect premium organic grain prices when selling undifferentiated commodity grains. Seek buyers highlighting your farm’s organic status. As organic demand continues to increase more than 6% annually, there is ongoing and expanding opportunity.
Transitioning to certified organic crop or livestock production allows farmers to tap into fast-growing organic food markets. But it requires patience to master new agronomic and marketing skills. While organic practices promote soil health and environmental benefits that appeal to many farmers’ stewardship ethics, achieving profitable operations hinges on higher prices to defray increased labor and input costs associated with approved organic management strategies. Weigh your willingness to manage greater production challenges against market opportunities when deciding if switching to organic makes sound business sense. Utilize cost share support where available. Thorough planning can lead to organic production success.