May 6, 2022
Organic agriculture continues to be one of the fastest growing sectors of American agriculture. In 2020, the organic food market experienced incredible growth, with sales over $56 billion, a 12% increase from 2019. The organic seed market has also grown in recent years due to the demand for organic food as well as a dramatic rise in gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic. This strong demand for organic food translates into new and growing market opportunities for farmers across the country. Behind the organic label are organic farmers – small and large – who follow strict standards to become certified, and who have needs unique to their growing practices and markets.
The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) recently released the National Organic Research Agenda (NORA) and State of Organic Seed (SOS). These two reports are published every five years to examine organic farming challenges across the US and provide comprehensive assessments and recommendations for ensuring the ongoing growth and success of organic farming. More than 1,100 producers responded to the survey and an additional 100 producers attended 16 listening sessions across the country.
National Organic Research Agenda Highlights
NORA details organic research needs with the goal of informing future investments that support the success of organic farmers and ranchers and those transitioning to organic production.
Findings from NORA showed that organic producers lead the nation in the adoption of soil health management and climate-friendly practices. One striking outcome of the survey is that 68% of respondents, including 76% of respondents who grow field crops, use cover crops regularly, compared to just 10% of conventional field crop farmers. 31% of respondents use some form of intercropping, a practice that is relatively rare among non-organic farmers.
Organic weed management, soil health and fertility, and co-managing soil and weeds with less tillage emerged as top challenges, followed closely by pest and disease management, maintaining yields, and managing production costs. A majority of organic farmers registered concern about climate change,which is already accentuating soil, weed, pest, and disease challenges.
Survey respondents cited other organic farmers (82%) and non-organic farmers (61%) as their most valuable information sources, and focus group discussions elevated farmer-to-farmer mentoring and networking, farmers’ conferences, and other farmer-drived venues as most effective for learning and information exchange. A major opportunity clearly exists to support the organic sector through farmer-to-farmer education, training, mentoring, and technical assistance.
The NORA survey also revealed an urgent need for technical assistance to help transitioning farmers address a broad range of production, marketing, and other challenges. The relatively small number of transitioning farmers in the survey (71 as compared to the more than 1,000 already certified organic farmers) illustrates the steep hurdles that farmers face when considering the transition.
Finally, the greatest concern for survey respondents was organic integrity and fraud. 77% of survey respondents indicated they were concerned or very concerned about organic integrity and fraud (on both domestic and imported products marketed as organic). The process of becoming organically certified can be expensive, but it is an essential step for farmers wanting to meet the growing demand for certified organic food in the US.
State of Organic Seed Highlights
SOS details trends in organic seed sourcing, challenges faced by organic seed producers, public investments in organic plant breeding, and more.
Organic farmers produce food differently, and that means they need different seed for the crops they grow. They need seed developed to thrive without synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and that is adapted to their local climate and soil conditions. Organic seed is also a regulatory requirement. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program requires the use of organic seed when commercially available.
OSA’s recent findings show no meaningful improvement in organic producers using more organic seed compared to five years ago. The report lists a number of reasons why, including specific varieties that are unavailable in an organic form, insufficient quantities in seed, and a lack of desirable traits. OSA’s findings also show an increase in organic producers identifying process/buyer contracts as a barrier to sourcing organic seed, meaning a buyer contract dictates a specific variety be grown, and too often the variety isn’t available as organic. This lack of progress puts both the viability of the organic seed industry and the integrity of the organic label at risk. In particular, the largest organic operations still use relatively little organic seed, and data suggests that organic certifiers’ enforcement of the organic seed requirement could be strengthened.
However, significant public investments have been made in organic plant breeding and other organic seed research initiatives. More than $39 billion has been invested in these types of projects in the last five years alone. This represents the largest public investment in organic seed systems that the Organic Seed Alliance has ever recorded. Some of the largest sources of funding include USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) and Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE), and other federal funding programs.
Racial Equity in Organics
This year in the NORA report, OFRF analyzed production and non-production challenges by region, farming experience, and race/ethnicity. Researchers then went on to compare the experiences of both Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and white farmers, which revealed BIPOC producers are experiencing many organic production challenges at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
However, a low percentage of survey respondents (4%) identified as BIPOC. This number closely aligns with the 3.6% of organic producers in the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) who identify as non-white. This disproportionately low percentage of BIPOC organic farmers shows an urgent need to better engage and assist current and aspiring BIPOC organic farmers in the organic sector.
BIPOC organic farmers reported challenges related to a range of production and non-production issues, especially costs of production and of organic certification, accessing labor, capital and financing, and meeting NOP certification and record keeping requirements. For example 31% of NORA survey respondents cited certification costs as a substantial challenge, and that figure jumped to 58% for BIPOC respondents. In order to improve racial equity in the organic sector, the NORA survey made many recommendations including:
Organics in the Farm Bill
As we approach the 2023 Farm Bill, there will be many opportunities to strengthen the organic sector and address the concerns of organic farmers highlighted in the NORA and SOS reports.