© 2006 Plant Management Network.
Organic Farmers in the US: Opportunities, Realities and Barriers
Leslie A. Duram, Department of Geography and Environmental Resources, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale 62901
Corresponding author: Leslie A. Duram. firstname.lastname@example.org
Duram, L. A. 2006. Organic farmers in the U.S.: Opportunities, realities and barriers. Online. Crop Management doi:10.1094/CM-2006-0921-03-RV.
The objective of this article is to describe both the opportunities provided to farmers who adopt organic farming methods and the barriers farmers must overcome along the path of converting to organic methods. Five case study organic farms from across the US are presented and factors that influence these farming operations are detailed. Based on case study analysis, key influences are found to be: economic, ecological, societal, and personal variables. Overall, organic farmers face both multiple opportunities and complex barriers that they must mediate in their on-farm decision-making.
This paper is organized in four sections. First, the interface between geography and agriculture will be described; second, an overview of the current research literature on organic agriculture will be presented; third, research from my book, Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works (12) will be described in detail; and finally, I will draw some general conclusions about the realities of adopting organic agricultural techniques.
Geography and Agriculture
The discipline of geography is commonly misunderstood to include only simple facts such as, "What is the capital of Zimbabwe?" But, in fact, geography includes much more, as indicated by the roots of the word: geo is earth and graphy is to describe. So, geographers describe the Earth through various means, including maps, data collection and analysis, descriptive texts about landscapes, and in-depth spatial analysis through Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Overall, geography deals with space and place, the interaction between humans and the environment, and linkages between and among places. Because of this comprehensive approach to research and concern for environmental sustainability, geography is particularly successful in the study of agricultural topics.
Certified organic farming is a specifically-defined production method that is encompassed by the broader concept of sustainable agriculture. Data on US organic agriculture are limited, as it was only recently included in the US Census of Agriculture. In fact, certified organic cropland doubled in the 1990s and there are currently 2.34 million acres of certified organic farmland in this country. Interestingly, there are significant variations among crop types. Only 0.1% of corn and soybeans are certified organic, while 2% of specialty crops such as lettuce, carrots, apples, and grapes are grown organically. Some specialty crops have much higher levels of organic production, for example 30% of buckwheat and 37% of spelt are certified organic crops (29,30,31).
Previous research literature on organic agriculture may be best understood in two main categories: organic production and organic people. First, in terms of production research, studies have focused on economics, production comparisons, and landscapes. Second, in terms of people and society, organic research has addressed organic farmers, consumers of organic products, and issues related to local food systems.
Research into comparisons between organic and conventional agricultural production indicates that, in terms of profit, organic farming can be quite rewarding. Put simply, lower input costs combined with price premiums lead to higher profit margins (5,27). In a recent study conducted in the Corn Belt, organic methods yielded higher net returns than conventional production in 5 of 6 years (15). In fruit and vegetable production, researchers found that organic methods led to similar pest losses with significantly better tasting produce (16,24).
Keep in mind that production comparisons are complex. Are test plots or field experiments conducted on university farms really comparable with long-term land management variables found on actual organic farms? Do researchers miss important on-farm management variables when we conduct such university research? How do we accurately "match" conventional and organic fields when we conduct comparisons? Research results show that in 30 cases of comparative observations of on-farm productivity, organic yields were higher than conventional yields in 13 cases, were equal in 2 cases, and were lower in 15 cases, but this variability was less than 20%. Overall, organic productivity is more reliable and higher yielding in variable growing conditions, particularly drought (9,14,19,20,23,28).
Research investigating landscape assessment has been conducted in the European Union. Through the EU’s Production Research Policy for Rural Sustainability, an assessment framework draws from four categories: ecology, economy, social factors, and cultural geography. Studies in several countries indicate that organic farms provide higher scores on these landscape variables (4). Other ecological research indicates that soil quality is better on organically farmed land. In terms of topsoil depth, soil structure, porosity, and other variables, organic methods lead to improved soil quality (17,25). Finally, biodiversity, as measured by bird and insect species, is greater on organic farms than on conventional farms (8,26).
Research into social issues related to organic farming begins with the farmers themselves. Demographic characteristics show high variability, but in general, organic farmers tend to be younger, have a higher level of formal education, and are more likely female, when compared to conventional farmers (11,13,18). Many organic farmers maintain a worldview that is distinct from their conventional counterparts. They have heightened ecological awareness, seek more alternatives, and are more independent (6,7,10).
Another key social factor is organic consumers. Who buys organic food? This question has never been fully answered, but there are a few key ideas to keep in mind. First, the organic products market is growing at a phenomenal rate: 20% annually by many accounts; it was approximately $9.3 billion in 2004. When ABC News conducted a poll in 2001, over half of all US consumers said that they prefer organic produce. Both the domestic and export market are important for organic farmers (1,22,30).
Along with consumer demand for organic food generally, there is growing interest in local organic food production and sales. Researchers have studied this issue and developed a few interesting terms. First, a "food mile" is how far any food travels from farm to table — and this is a staggering 1,800 miles, on average, in the US today. Many consumers want to reduce food miles and eat locally produced foods. Second, a related concept is that of a "foodshed" which, like a watershed, indicates that all food is produced and flows to consumers within one region. In order to meet these increasing demands for local food, farmers are turning to alternative means of marketing and sales. Farmers’ markets have been booming in the US and continue to grow in number and popularity. Likewise Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is also increasing; this is a relationship in which consumer members buy "shares" to a farm which then supplies them with produce throughout the growing season. Both farmers’ markets and CSAs are making an important impact on organic farmers’ ability to connect with local consumers (12,22,30).
Current Research: Good Growing
Based on extensive research conducted for the book Good Growing: Why Organic Farming Works, this paper presents an analysis of the following research question: What are the main opportunities and barriers for organic farmers? This research employed mixed methods analysis, through which five case study farms were studied to represent a broad distribution across US agriculture. Organic farms in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, and New York were used as case studies of both production and social concerns related to organic production. These farms, or specifically the farmers, were each special and distinct. For example, the California farmer in this study is an expert at marketing organic vegetables on a regional scale; the Colorado farm family has produced grain on their land for five generations; the Florida growers are proud of the high quality of their citrus crops; an Illinois farmer runs a highly diversified operation that is truly unique in the Corn Belt region; and an upstate New York farmer developed a huge CSA within an ever-changing operation that included livestock, feed grains, and organic vegetables.
On-farm visits and extensive interviewing were key to this research. This analysis was based on a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative methods include recording, transcribing, and coding themes from the interviews. This coding allowed for cross-case comparisons, through which generalizations were discovered (2,3,11,21). Quantitative data were also gathered and appropriate univariate statistics were employed.
First, we notice variations in the ecological conditions of each farms’ location (Table 1). The drier conditions of the California and Colorado farms contrast sharply to the higher precipitation of the other three locations. Such variations are expected in these types of ecoregions, of course, as are the temperature variations. General soil types are also important to each production scheme.
Table 1. Ecological factors on case study organic farms.
Second, there are important on-farm factors that influence each farmer (Table 2). Case study farm sizes were smaller than the average conventional farm sizes in each region. The year of each farm’s initial certification shows substantial experience and time commitment to organic production; each farm had unique challenges during the 3-year transition period. These farmers are experienced with local, regional, national, and even international marketing efforts. The fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, and livestock grown by these five farmers represents nearly all the crops produced in the US. These farmers see diversification as key to their livelihood.
Table 2. Case study organic farm characteristics.
Based on an analysis of case study data, the key factors that influence opportunities and barriers to organic production are: economics, ecology, society, and personal variables. Analysis of interviews and data collected during many visits, emails and telephone conversations with organic farmers further indicate sub-categories that are common among many organic farmers across the US. For the economic category, farmers indicate that marketing is a central concern for their farm’s survival. Marketing factors include the need for diversification, the importance of direct marketing, and the newest concerns about how to withstand the powers of organic agri-business. Also in terms of economic concerns, the farmers firmly believe that crop types and quality are important for their success. Finally, these farmers indicate that organic agriculture provided an opportunity for them — they say they could not have succeeded in conventional agriculture today with the low commodity prices and lack of freedom from agri-business.
In terms of ecology, organic farmers commonly discussed soil health, ecosystems, and balance. They may or may not use scientific terms for these concepts, but they clearly understand the ecological processes at work on their farms. They also describe the annual gamble with weather and growing conditions; they realize they cannot control these factors, but rather must mediate them to the best of their ability.
Social issues play an important role in the success of organic farming. These farmers had clear visions of how American culture impacts agriculture and specifically how culture and politics support the conventional production system with extensive subsidies. They see how many consumers simply want cheap food, often at the long-term expense of the environment and rural communities. Organic farmers have specific recommendations for policies that would improve opportunities for organic production. First, the US government must do more than simply implement national certification standards; rather they must support farmers through the difficult 3-year transition period. The government should also provide greater research, information, and educational support for organic production techniques. The personal characteristics were broadly similar among this highly diverse group of five farmers and their farms. All five are fiercely independent and willing to accept risk at a personal level. That is, they are not afraid to be different from their neighbors and they are only willing to operate with low debts. Their risk is in their unique methods, crops, and markets (not in their bank accounts). These organic farmers are highly innovative and conduct their own on-farm experiments because they have questions about organic farming methods that university researchers simply have not addressed.
Finally, an important unifying characteristic is that these five case-study farmers proudly represent the farming tradition, handed down from generations or from fellow organic farmers. Each describes the importance of their continuing to farm organically, as part of that tradition.
This research indicates that currently there are both opportunities and barriers to organic agricultural production in the US. In fact, the line between opportunity and barrier can be blurred; for example, organic farmers are often motivated by being independent — organic production provides a great opportunity, but it is also a barrier because they have less outside support in organic methods of production. In addition, the popularity of organic products is both an opportunity (increased marketing opportunities) and a barrier (agri-business corporations are making inroads into marketing which may diminish farmers’ independence). Likewise, their farming tradition is sometimes a barrier, if it makes farmers more closed-minded about alternative methods like organic. But of course tradition is a key asset if it provides entry into the farm business and access to land. Diversification provides a key opportunity to spreading out the risk for organic farmers, but it can also be a barrier, as the extensive marketing work increases with each additional crop produced.
Overall, there are both opportunities and barriers that organic farmers must face. Two key factors would help them sustain their operations, and may help others adopt organic methods well into the future. Organic farmers need research and information; they need to be informed so that they can make good choices for their production and marketing activities. In addition, the 3-year transition to certified organic production is challenging. During this time, farm fields are undergoing tremendous change as synthetic chemicals are withdrawn. Farmers have a huge learning curve to get up to speed on organic methods, and farmers do not receive a price premium for their crops during this transition period. Indeed, the transition to certified organic methods is a crucial time, and can sometimes mean the difference between adopting organic methods successfully or failing. Again, research and information advice is important at this stage, but financial assistance would be extremely useful. Government programs to support farmers in their 3-year transition would make an important statement as to public commitment to the benefits of organic agriculture. Farmers face major barriers in organic production; American society and government should act whenever possible to lower those barriers and indeed create opportunities for organic farming to flourish.
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