March 16, 2017
Farmers enter into organic production for many reasons, chief among them are typically a concern for the conservation of natural resources and environmental protection and a desire to benefit from the higher price points that organic products typically demand. With consumer demand for organic products continuing to grow, one might expect more and more farmers would be turning to organic production. Like most things in agriculture, however, the decision to transition to organic is not a simple one. There are many significant obstacles and barriers to transitioning that farmers must take into account when considering this shift.
Oregon Tilth, a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), sought to identify and address opportunities and barriers to farmers interested in transitioning to organic production in their newest report, Breaking New Ground: Farmer Perspectives on Organic (“Breaking New Ground”). Utilizing results from a nationwide survey, this report identifies farmers’ motivation to transition from conventional to organic farming, the major barriers impeding them from making this transition, and the support farmers would need to make transitioning easier. Breaking New Ground is an important resource for policymakers and organic stakeholders to better understand the challenges and opportunities associated with the transition process.
Below we dig into some of the report’s key findings.
Survey Basics and Demographics
Oregon Tilth administered their survey in partnership with Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems, and garnered input from over 600 producers nationwide. Participants for the survey were targeted based on their participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative (OI) between 2010 and 2015, and by those who they identified as “transitional” farmers.
While survey respondents came from various farming systems and had varying levels of experience, 60.5 percent of the sample identified their operations as small-scale farms, and 55 percent as vegetable farms. Nearly 56 percent of survey respondents identify as beginning farmers (i.e., farmers who have less than 10 years of experience). Given the demographics of the survey sample, the report particularly highlights opportunities and barriers for beginning and small-scale diversified growers.
This survey also profiles four pools of farmers and highlights how the motivation, barriers, and support needs may differ for each category. These categories include: (1) farmers who are 100% certified organic, (2) farmers in the process of transitioning from conventional to organic farming, (3) farmers who engage in a both organic and non-organic farming on their farm, and (4) farmers who attempted to make the transition, but then decided not to pursue organic farming.
Overall, the Oregon Tilth survey found that motivation to transition to organic production was largely driven by farmers’ values. In fact, 91 percent of surveyed farmers said they had made or are making the transition simply because it aligns with their values. 87 percent reported that they were making the shift because they believe that organic production can address concerns about the environment and enhance farm sustainability.
In addition to values-based motivations, market drivers were also a significant factor for farmers making or considering making the transition to organic production. Over 60 percent of farmers surveyed cited both accessing the growing market for organics and the potential to increase their profit as reasons to transition from conventional to organic farming.
As part of their survey, Oregon Tilth presented a variety of potential obstacles that were either farm-level, infrastructure-based, marketplace-based, or administrative and policy-based. Participants were asked to categorize these challenges as major, minor, or insignificant in terms of their effect on the farmers’ ability to transition to organic production.
Two challenges rose to the surface as “major” challenges across a majority of survey participants: weed management and the cost of organic certification. Obstacles that were primarily marked as “minor” by participants included: the learning curve associated with transitioning to organic farming; record keeping requirements associated with certification; managing soil health; and the availability of organic inputs such as seed and fertilizer. Other proposed barriers, including reduced yields, finding buyers and markets for organic products, and accessing knowledge and expertise, were not seen as obstacles by a majority of surveyed farmers.
However, it is important to note that every farmer’s experience is different, and what may have been true for a majority of participants in the survey may not necessarily reflect the challenges faced by all farmers. This was especially evident in the case of surveyed farmers who identified as “no longer pursuing organic farming.” Farmers in this category identified more proposed challenges as “major”, approximately eight on average compared to an average of two for other survey participants.
Resources and Support
The last piece survey participants were asked to speak to was which resources would be most useful in helping them make the transition to organic production. The survey provided a list of resources that both help with the production as well as the marketing side of a farm operation. The top five resource needs, listed below in order of preference, reflected a strong desire for both production and marketing resource assistance:
In addition to these resources, farmers also noted that they would like to see more direct and interactive support, especially by way of mentorship with experienced, certified organic growers. Survey participants also indicated a need for one-on-one technical assistance, in-person workshops, books and printed resources, and online courses and webinars.
As policymakers consider what priorities to support in the upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2018 appropriations and 2018 Farm Bill processes, these resource needs of farmers should be kept front and center. With an agricultural economy in downturn and a rapidly aging farmer population, the needs of beginning farmers and ranchers (who were majority respondents in this survey) should be especially heeded.
Recommendations and Moving Forward
In its conclusion, Oregon Tilth’s report identified nine major recommendations for policymakers to consider. These recommendations seek to address many of the obstacles outlined in the report.
NSAC supports these recommendations and encourages Congress and USDA to advance new organic transition policies to advance natural resource and environmental goals while simultaneously helping to minimize market shortages of organic crops and livestock and increase farming opportunities for the next generation of American farmers.
To learn more about organic agriculture and relevant programs on organic-based conservation, crop insurance, marketing, and research, click here. To find the full report Breaking New Ground, click here.