As more and more consumers scrutinize their spending habits – from the health effects of the food on their plates to the carbon footprint of the clothes they wear – the popularity of the certified organic label continues to soar.
Demand for organic products is far outpacing supply, with US farms and ranches nearly doubling organic sales between 2011 – 2016, and global organic agricultural products reaching $55.9 billion in sales in 2019. And yet despite this enormous growth, certified organic acreage represents less than 1% of all farmland in the US – undoubtedly a missed opportunity for American farmers, whose farms and ranches stand to benefit both economically and ecologically from organic certification.
The following article describes how to start your transition from conventional agriculture – a production model that relies on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and GMO crops – to organic systems, which leverage natural products and processes for pest control and fertility.
Table of Contents
8 Reasons to Start Farming Organic
1. Support for organic has never been stronger
Many farmers would like to transition to organic agriculture in theory, but in practice face a number of barriers to transition. Among them, weed management, the cost of transitioning, and the recordkeeping requirements are the most daunting, according to transitioning farmers.
Fortunately, myriad public and private initiatives support farmers who are making the transition. The US Department of Agriculture, for example, offers a cost-share program via county FSA offices, financial and technical assistance through NRCS EQUIP program, and rental payments for on-farm conservation areas. Additional funding through the newly formed Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP) supports transitioning farmers affected by the pandemic via financial assistance.
Similarly, companies like Quality Assurance International aim to ease the burden of the organic transition by helping transitioning farmers market their produce, while nonprofit groups like Rodale offer both consulting and education services. Be sure to search for regional nonprofit(s) dedicated to helping farmers in your area – You’ll likely find strong support locally, including microgrants or pro-bono assistance.
2. Consumer appetite for organic products is growing
Consumer demand for certified organic products emblazoned with the USDA’s seal has never been stronger. 3 out of 4 grocery stores now offer organic products, with organic produce representing the most popular category of organic food.
Although organic was once viewed as a fringe movement, public opinion polls now show that a majority of Americans view organic food as a healthier alternative to conventionally-grown food. 68% of Americans bought at least one organic product within the last month, and younger consumers are more frequent buyers than their older counterparts.
The higher cost of organic products – by far the largest obstacle for consumers – is actually decreasing thanks to the mainstreaming of organic food among large retailers and food processors. Nevertheless, farmers still fetch a premium for organic crops, earning up to $14 more per bushel for soybeans; $3 more for corn; and $5 more for wheat. Large-scale studies demonstrate greater overall profitability for organic farms compared to conventional growers – a fact that farmers should heed when planning their farm systems.
3. Building soil health is an investment in the future
Healthy soil is the bedrock of all successful organic farms, contributing to crop health through nutrient cycling, pest management, and water regulation. Organic practices that integrate cover cropping, crop rotation, and animal manures support both soil health and environmental health by increasing soil organic matter, replenishing soil fertility, improving soil structure, and feeding the soil microbiome. Whereas applications of herbicides like glyphosate can have unintended consequences for soil health, throwing the soil microbiome out of balance in favor of pathogenic organisms, organic farming practices tend to favor the creation of a healthy soil ecosystem. As more and more studies show, the soil microbiome, or “rhizosphere,” is crucial for plant health, as soil microbes form beneficial associations with plant roots, providing both nutrients and protection from pathogens.
Studies also demonstrate that soil organic matter is crucial to increasing and stabilizing crop yields. With soil eroding at an alarming rate across the US, organic farming methods that protect soils are more important than ever. Soil takes hundreds – even thousands – of years to form. In other words, soil health is future wealth, and conventional and organic farmers alike would be wise to protect it.
4. Healthy ecosystems can manage themselves
Organic farmers not only encourage biodiversity, but they also depend on it – both above and below ground. Experienced organic farmers have learned over many decades that combining multiple crops with livestock and other animals reduces the need for expensive inputs and diversify farm revenue. Farmers who integrate sheep in their vineyards, for example, have realized reduced pest pressure, increased biodiversity, reduced need for irrigation, reduced fuel use, and other benefits through their unconventional methods.
Other common organic practices like biological pest control – i.e. using natural predators like parasitic wasps or biocides like Bacillus thuringiensis to manage pests – have a reduced overall impact on natural ecosystems as well, allowing beneficial natural predators, pollinators, and soil microbes to flourish. Of course, not all organic farms are created equal, with some agricultural systems proving more sustainable than others.
The sustainability of a farm system depends largely on its management practices, which may or may not fall outside the purview of the organic standards program. For example, tillage falls outside the scope of organic certification, and as such many organic farms find themselves over-tilling to manage weeds.
5. Grow healthier, nutritionally dense, flavorful food
On average, conventional farms apply 2-12+ synthetic pesticides to their crops, with the average serving of conventionally-grown leafy greens, peppers, tree fruits, berries, and grapes containing 3-4 pesticide residues. Residues of some widely used pesticides may trigger subtle changes in a child’s development and have been linked to a wide range of health problems including ADHD, autism, obesity, and certain forms of cancer. Because organic food production prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, consumers generally perceive organic food as healthier.
And although the nutritional content of foods is unpredictable, varying significantly on a farm to farm basis, studies generally demonstrate that organic produce contains higher concentrations of phytochemicals, important antioxidant compounds that protect against cancer and heart disease. By ditching the synthetic fertilizer and instead of improving soil health, farmers are able to grow not only healthier food, but also more flavorful food, with soil health a leading determinant of higher Brix (i.e. sugar) levels in crops. Organic growers also tend to grow more varieties than their conventional counterparts, which adds a greater diversity of flavors to their farm’s offerings.
6. Create healthier working environments for farm workers and rural neighbors –
Farming is second only to mining on the list of the most hazardous occupations. Unless great care is exercised, exposure to toxic pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals will pose risks for many people working on or living near farms. Organic farmers do not use high-risk chemical materials and so workers and rural neighbors have one less health risk to worry about. Interestingly, some studies show that organic farm workers actually have better mental health outcomes than their conventional counterparts, meaning organic farms offer a more healthy atmosphere for workers both physically and mentally.
7. Be part of the solution to global and local challenges
Organic farmers make an impact on both a global and local level, ameliorating pressing challenges such as climate change and eutrophication.
Because organic fields are free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, heavy rain events that cause runoff are less likely to introduce harmful toxins into aquatic ecosystems and groundwater reserves. In this way, organic farms lessen their burden on local natural resources, even serving to mitigate damage by improving soil organic matter and thus the soil’s capacity for filtration.
Additionally, organic farms may have a lower carbon footprint than their conventional counterparts, helping to reduce the severity of climate change. Organic inputs are generally less energy-intensive to produce, and common sustainable agriculture practices like cover cropping and minimal tillage help further sequester carbon in the soil, making organic methods a powerful tool in the fight to address climate change.
8. Innovation is dissolving barriers to entry
The other key challenges for organic farmers – namely weed management and record keeping – are easier to overcome than ever thanks to new innovations in both the agronomic and digital sectors.
Without herbicides, organic farmers must rely on other tools to manage weeds. Combining strategies like cover cropping with tools like roller-crimpers and no-till drills has proven very successful in reducing weed pressure on organic farms; other cultural, mechanical, and OMRI-certified chemical controls can ease weed pressure as well.
Similarly, digital agriculture solution providers like AGRIVI can ameliorate record-keeping woes by providing an easy-to-use platform to track crop rotations, input usage, and crop health – not to mention reporting and traceability tools that increase the transparency of your production while reducing your administrative burden. Farms can easily track their fertilizer, pesticide, and fuel use through such platforms, accessing this information via powerful analytics and detailed reports through the mere click of a button.