Farmers and ranchers transition to organic production for a wide range of environmental, economic, and production reasons, but throughout the transition process, they may also encounter challenges regarding labor requirements, input supplies, weed management, yields, or cash flow.
A new publication, Making the Transition to Organic: Ten Farm Profiles, highlights organic opportunities and offers strategies to address the unique challenges that transitioning producers face. It features livestock, crop, and vegetable producers who were in the process of transitioning or were recently certified organic between 2012 and 2015.
The publication is a part of the Tools for Transition Project, a research project at the University of Minnesota, which received funding through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to generate valuable resources on organic transition.
The producers’ profiles highlight their motivations to transition, significant challenges encountered, and the outcomes they deemed most satisfying.
EQIP Organic Initiative Supports Transitioning Producers
Of particular relevance to the challenges and opportunities that transitioning producers encounter is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative. The Organic Initiative, administered by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), provides financial assistance to organic, transitioning to organic, and exempt producers looking to address resource concerns by implementing and installing conservation practices.
As the publication illustrates, examples of conservation activities eligible for funding through the Organic Initiative include developing conservation plans, grazing plans, or transition-related production plans as well as establishing buffer zones, grazing resources (fencing, pipeline, and watering facilities), or pollinator habitat. The Organic Initiative can also be used to improve irrigation efficiency or enhance crop rotations and nutrient and pest management.
One featured cattle rancher, Christina Linn, explained that the EQIP Organic Initiative provided cost-share for much of their pasture seeding, ultimately enabling their operation to become more self-sufficient. It became expensive and time consuming to source feed from certified organic suppliers, so they began renting more land for additional pasture in order to raise their own hay for winter feed. The Organic initiative provided critical cost share support for this additional pasture.
Rory Beyer used EQIP to address transition-related challenges on his family’s 130-cow dairy farm in Southeastern Minnesota. A new National Organic Program (NOP) pasture rule requires that 30 percent of animals’ dry matter intake come from pasture grazed over the course of the growing season (at least 120 days), which presented a major financial challenge for the Beyers, because they needed $100,000 in pasture improves and had to rent another 100 acres of certified land to raise grain to offset protein expenses. Fortunately, the Beyers were able to use EQIP to help with the cost of horse fence rails, water lines, land establishment, and pasture seeding.
Organic Initiative Improvements Needed
While the Organic Initiative provides valuable support for transitioning and organic producers as highlighted in Making the Transition to Organic, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) continues to advocate for improvements to the program. Despite continued interest and growth of the organic sector, total enrollment in the Organic Initiative declined significantly between fiscal years (FY) 2009 and 2014. Financial assistance distributed in 2014 was 15 percent of 2009 awards, and the 388 contracts awarded in 2014 were approximately a quarter of those awarded in 2009.
In order to address these downward trends, NSAC submitted recommendations to NRCS on the implementation of the Organic Initiative for FY 16. The recommendations highlight opportunities to improve the Organic Initiative through changes to how funds are allocated, the frequency and timing of application periods, and increased capacity and support for transitioning and organic producers.
As demand for organic production continues to grow, it is more critical than ever to ensure that conservation practices are accessible and incentivized for certified and transitioning organic producers.
For more information about the Tools for Transition project and other resources, visit http://eorganic.info/toolsfortransition.