Addressing challenges and solutions in organic farming
by Sally Colby
Organic farmers don’t always get the same attention as conventional farmers, but a recently completed national study helped determine the challenges and needs of those who farm organically.
“We consider these surveys and the findings to be the most robust reporting of challenges faced by U.S. organic producers,” said Dr. Thelma Velez, research and education program manager at the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF). “The findings become a roadmap for OFRF, researchers, Congress and the USDA.” The survey results represent 1,000 organic growers, 16 focus groups and a group of transitioning growers.
The demographics of those surveyed isn’t surprising – about 60% of farmers were over age 54 and 77% had 10 years or more farming experience. Motivations to transition to organic production included environment and biodiversity concerns, personal and family health, community concerns, farmworker wellbeing and potential increase in profit. Having a specific contract for organically produced crops was not a significant motivator for transitioning.
Organic growers listed the top five production challenges as weed control, production costs, maintaining adequate yields, managing soil fertility and crop nutrition, and controlling insect pests. Challenges for transitioning growers included weed control, finding organic seed/varieties, managing production costs and minimizing the adverse impacts of tillage. Transitioning farmers also listed seed saving, managing soil fertility and crop nutrition and adapting to climate change as challenges.
With weed management topping most lists of concerns, comments on the topic included “I would like to see more research not on how to kill weeds but how to discourage them to germinate in the first place.” Some voiced concern about the challenges of perennial weeds such as nutsedge, morning glory, bindweed and Canada thistle; other growers indicated a need for information about appropriate pre- and post- emergent herbicides.
Some respondents indicated issues maintaining sufficient yield to break even over input costs, which Velez said is tied to soil building. Managing insect pests is also a problem for many organic growers. “Some folks said there’s an increasing number of pests and diseases,” she said, “and it’s becoming more difficult to keep up.”
Farmers listed a variety of non-production challenges including accessing labor, finding and developing markets for organic products, cost of organic certification, meeting recordkeeping requirements and developing infrastructure. “For beginning farmers, accessing capital and financing is a challenge,” said Velez. “For experienced farmers, farm succession planning emerges as a challenge. Those who have been farming for decades want to make sure their farm continues to produce and stays within an agricultural setting.”
Velez said in finding and developing markets, there’s a big difference between certified organic growers and transitioning growers. Transitioning farmers see a need for identifying regional market opportunities that smaller growers can serve with aggregated distribution systems such as co-ops or food hubs. One respondent asked about tools and technologies that can serve small farms trying to sell online or provide delivery services. Velez said this presents an opportunity for researchers to work on finding ways to build a more sustainable organic food system. Transitioning farmers often struggle to find qualified people who were available regularly, but sometimes for only several days a week for short periods of time.
Recordkeeping and cost of certification are two major challenges across all sectors. Organic farmers who grow a large number of diverse crops find it difficult to maintain accurate records. Quoting a respondent, Velez said, “The hardest part of certification is when your certifier asks you to trace a crop. They had 150 crops, and within those crops there were numerous successions and they found it difficult to trace all of that.” Every transitioning farmer faces challenges, including paperwork and familiarity with acceptable practices.
Organic farmers were asked about technical assistance needs, and the majority wanted assistance with organic weed, insect pests and disease management, soil fertility and crop nutrient management, soil conservation and soil health. Many noted a desire for securing sales channels and production assistance. Only 18% of respondents stated their needs for any assistance were being met very well. “This tells us we need more service providers, technicians, Extension agents and specialists who can help,” said Velez.
The top five concerns regarding organic production included organic fraud and label integrity, industrial organic, crop contamination (GMO, pesticide drift), imbalance of domestic supply and demand, lack of skilled labor and lack of research specifically for organic production.
Velez said one respondent noted, “I’m really concerned about the future of organic. I don’t know if the integrity has been lost. I know some of my neighbors are cheating; I turned them in but nothing has been done. I’m actually dropping organic acres because it isn’t working and I’m losing integrity in the organic industry as a whole.” Some organic producers are concerned about the potential fraud of imported organic products because they don’t know whether other countries’ certification processes align with USDA oversight.
Recommendations for integrated weed management include research to evaluate the net profitability of organic systems considering costs such as labor and inputs, the issue of lost income due to conservation practices and long-term economic trends under organic management. Fine-tuning non-cultivation practices such as mulching, mowing, flaming, tarping and manual removal will also help organic farmers. Additional work on breeding and evaluating crop cultivars for weed tolerance and competitiveness will benefit organic farmers.
Another recommendation is to develop organic integrated weed management strategies that combine non-soil disturbing tactics with crop rotation, cover crops, nutrient and water management to favor crops over weeds and weed-resilient crops to minimize the need for cultivation. Farmers transitioning to organic will benefit from strategies to manage weeds and restore soil health during organic transition.
Regarding the ongoing management of production costs, organic farmers said they needed less expensive organic inputs and/or higher prices for what they grow. Recommendations for managing production costs include research and development in organic management strategies to reduce labor requirements and document conservation benefits to establish appropriate financial assistance through NRCS to offset implementation costs and support adoption of USDA certified organic production. Organic farmers will also benefit from Extension programs that better serve the organic farming sector as well as training and technical assistance for transitioning and beginning organic farmers.
The USDA Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and the Organic Transitions Program (ORG) have funds but would benefit from more. “Our main takeaway is that we need to increase organic research funding to reflect the U.S. market share for organic products,” said Velez.
The complete 2022 National Organic Research Agenda is available online at ofrf.org/research/nora.
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