Organic farming sprouts in mainstream agricultureWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Organic farming, long a niche activity in the nation's agricultural system, is garnering second looks from traditional farmers.
The reason for the change in attitude is simple: high prices, which are the result of strong demand for organic foods. In the case of organic soybeans, for example, farmers can get more than three times the standard market price by growing organic varieties.
David Petritz, assistant director of the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, says the acceptance of organic farming is a dramatic change in agriculture. "Traditional producers now have more than a passing interest in organic farming," he says. "This isn't something they scoff at any longer. Every day, more and more traditional farmers are looking into whether they should convert part of their operation to certified organic.
"It's not just long-haired guys wearing tennis shoes anymore -- now it's boot-wearing farmers who are doing it."
To be sure, the organic movement still is small potatoes down on the farm. Of the estimated 60,000 farms in Indiana, for example, only 60 have been certified as organic.
But as organic farming gains acceptance, experts predict that the demand for chemical-free land may drive up the price of uncultivated land being released from the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program. The land is in demand because for crops to be certified as organic, the land they are grown on must be chemical-free for three years.
The experts also see increased niche opportunities for farmers. "For example, some farmers have become interested in on-farm grain processing, and organic farming may make these kinds of operations profitable," Petritz says.
Because of increased opportunities, conventional farmers are considering how organic farming might fit into their operation. "The real entrepreneurial farmers are looking at it and saying, 'Maybe I can make some money at that,'" Petritz says. "They're saying, 'If I do it now I can get a two-year edge on the other guys to figure out how to make this work.'"
Organic foods, in the most simple definition, are crops grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic meat or milk is produced using organic feed and without the use of synthetic hormones.
Beyond those simplified definitions, though, the debate over what is and isn't organic is a heated one. Last fall the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed standards for organic foods and received more than 200,000 comments during the public comment period of the revision process -- the most public input the agency has ever received about a new regulation. Because of the comments, the USDA may exclude various practices from organic food production that have nothing to do with chemical use, including growing genetically enhanced crops, using irradiation for food safety reasons, or applying sludge as a fertilizer.
Despite the controversy, many people say that interest in organic production is as high as it has ever been.
Ron Roller is president and chief soybean buyer of American Soy Products in Saline, Mich., the nation's largest producer of organic soy food products. He says the current status of the organic market is unlike anything he's seen in his 25 years in the business.
"The organic soybean market is exploding at the moment. It's just going nuts," he says. "I'm amazed at the speed at which farmers are getting into this market. In the years past, we had a hard time finding suppliers, and it's still difficult, but that's because the demand for the crops is so high. But there's been a surge of farmers coming into organic farming."
The demand for organic soy products, such as soy milk and tofu, has driven organic soybean prices much higher than regular soybeans. This has not gone unnoticed by farmers in the Midwest. According to Roller, prices for organic soybeans are ranging as high as $25 a bushel, compared to just below $7 for conventional soybeans. "The Japanese market is the driving force," Roller explains. "They make a lot of products out of soybeans, and the past few years, they have been demanding organic products. It's spurred a huge demand in organics."
A second major reason for the heightened interest in organic farming is the upcoming revision of the USDA's standards for organically produced foods.
Roller says that the new standards could significantly increase the number of producers and products. "Right now there are 30 or 40 certifying groups, but if the government sets a uniform standard, that will speed the entire process," he says. "Not everyone is happy that there will be one standard applied by the federal government, but if you are a multinational manufacturer of food products, and you make products that use many ingredients, it'll make it easier for these companies to move into the organic marketplace."
According to Petritz, although organic farming may look simple, it is surprisingly complex for farmers who haven't tried it. "For example, if you plan to sell organic meat or milk, you have to have organically produced feed for the livestock," he says. "Producers need to know the basics of producing their particular crop. They can't go from doing nothing with organic to producing crops overnight."
Cissy Bowman, spokeswoman for the Organic Farmers Marketing Association and herself an organic farmer in Clayton, Ind., agrees that producers considering organic farming should proceed cautiously, and identify exactly where they plan to sell their crops and what those markets are buying.
"There are market complications that can disappoint growers if they are not well-informed about markets prior to planting," Bowman says. "In 1995, the founders of the Organic Farmers Marketing Association did a survey of market barriers and found that many potential and new growers quickly became disillusioned when the time came to sell their crops. If growers are well-informed ahead of time, then markets can be good and the 'conversion' to organic works. As in any other form of agriculture, the new organic growers must have a local infrastructure in place or they will likely revert back to conventional methods and markets."
Roller agrees that there can be pitfalls. "Most of the buyers want specific varieties of beans, and these are grown under contract," he says. "People who are interested in getting the right prices need to grow the right kind of beans. It's really the end-user who is determining what the producers plant."
Sources: Dave Petritz, (765) 494-8494; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ron Roller, (313) 429-2310; e-mail, email@example.com
Cissy Bowman, (317) 539-2753; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org;
Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809; e-mail, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org