Profitable Organic Farming
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At the Alexandre Family Farm, newborn calves are individually housed and nurtured in white crib-like hutches for the first two months of life, before transitioning out to pasture. The Alexandre farm's 55, birds, separated into 18 flocks, produce an average of 21, eggs per day. The farm recently doubled its hens based on Costco demand. Organic corn is at the top of that list, with imports jumping more than percent in , according to USDA; the vast majority of that is to feed animals raised for organic meat or dairy operations.
The country does a little better with produce, but organic still represents just a fraction of the fruit- and vegetable-growing cropland nationwide.
At the Alexandre dairy farm, 1, cows are milked twice daily and spend roughly 18 hours a day at pasture, with less time during winter. In addition to grazing on pasture, the cows are feed a supplement of corn, sileage, and alfalfa. The farm produces an A2-A2 variety of milk, which can be consumed by those with a milk-protein intolerance. Bailey had left the farm for college, where he studied music and philosophy, but he returned during summers. When he moved back full-time in , he decided to try farming without chemicals.
He started with a small plot of lentils, then grew alfalfa on another 50 acres. That fear helps illuminate why organic farmland is scarce. The choice to go organic is complicated and risky, and barriers prevent many farmers from switching. Most turkeys are processed between September and December at Jaindl Farms, which manages the entire operation, from growing and harvesting feed grains to slaughter.
Jaindl Farms has supplied the White House with Thanksgiving turkeys for more than half a century. Jaindl's organic market is growing five to eight percent annually; its turkey is sold through Whole Foods. Most fundamental are that organic farming requires different equipment and other costly up-front investments—and it requires more labor, mainly to tackle weeds. USDA organic certification also requires crop rotation , which limits the crops farmers can produce in a given year, whereas a conventional producer can select a crop that appears to be most profitable that year and plant it.
And funding for organic research pales in comparison to conventional support, which means organic farmers have fewer tools available to them, such as improved crop varieties and strategies for battling weeds or disease, as well as fewer experts to consult. Illinois, for example, has one; California, the largest agricultural state—and the state with the highest number of organic farms—has none.
A study of 1, farmers transitioning to organic agriculture pointed to mentoring and one-on-one technical assistance as both critical and hard to come by. A tractor passes over organically grown strawberries with an attachment that vaccums unwanted insects at Driscoll's near Watsonville, California. The technology, piloted by the company in the s, is used by both conventional and organic growers.
Driscoll's produces about 20 percent of the U. The transition period to organic farming itself can be a money-losing proposition. Farmers need to keep their land free of most chemicals for a full three years before they can be certified as organic. Transitioning to organic adds a burden to the pressures already facing U. And real estate development is gobbling up farmland, particularly around urban areas. A number of companies with a stake in the organic movement have stepped up to help farmers confront the myriad challenges they face.
It commits to buying crops from growers before they embark on the organic transition. Near Thermal, in California's Coachella Valley, a worker, paid by the crate, harvests organically grown lemons. These green, early-season lemons will turn yellow in a ripening facilty before being sent to market. Native pollinators and perennial wheat at General Mills?
Near Paicines, California, broccolette, a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale, is grown for Earthbound Farms, one of the country's largest organic producers. Workers are followed through the field by a trailer, where the greens are boxed for transport to a nearby packaging facility.
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Earlier this year, it announced a plan to convert a 34,acre conventional wheat farm in neighboring South Dakota to organic production. Organically grown green oak leaf lettuce is harvested for Earthbound Farms near Hollister, California.
The process begins before dawn and concludes by midday to keep the greens as fresh as possible. The harvester, preceded by workers on foot who scan for debris, cuts the lettuce within an inch of the ground with a bandsaw-like blade. The greens are air blown to remove soil or other contaminants before being put on a refrigerated truck.
Organic farming more profitable than conventional agriculture
The machine can harvest 10, pounds per hour with a crew of 12, a process that used to take an entire day with a crew of An early adopter of organic agriculture as well as heirloom grains, Quinn has hosted researchers and farmers from around the world who come to observe his operation. He started organic on 20 acres in , used his last chemicals two years later, and has turned his farm from something of an experiment into a 4,acre commercial success. It took a while, he says, to find his successors, those willing to manage the more unpredictable aspects.
Fasteson moved here from a conventional farm, where he grew tired of sitting in a tractor. Quinn compares organic farming to a game of chess. In Kutztown, Pennsylvania, crop experiments with corn and soybeans at the Rodale Institute compare the productivity of organic and conventional agriculture. The Farming Systems Trial, begun in , has shown that after an initial decline in yields for the first few years, organic systems can match or surpass conventional systems. The conventional systems may perform better in a favorable year, but organic often does better under challenging weather conditions.
Based in Pennsylvania, the institute is home to a long-running side-by-side experiment in organic and conventional agriculture. The Farming Systems Trial , which has grown corn and soybeans since , has shown that after an initial decline during the three-year transition, yields on the organic plots have matched or exceeded the conventional-crop yields—and performed even better during drought years. Rodale says the trial has also demonstrated that organic farming uses less energy, produces fewer greenhouse gases, and builds soil health rather than depletes it.
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Last year, the institute launched a vegetable trial. California-based Earthbound Farms , one of the biggest organic growers in the country, has similarly found that yields continue to increase over the years.
The Big Switch
Farm manager Ross Duffield harvests conventional corn at the Rodale Institute, which measures the productivity of organic methods, using both manure and legume fertilizers, to conventional synthetic fertilizers applied to GMO seeds. Till and no-till methods are also compared. That motivated Crowder and Reganold to analyze dozens of studies comparing the financial performance of organic and conventional farming. It was kind of surprising that no one had looked at this in a broad sense. Organic price premiums give farmers an incentive to adopt more sustainable farming practices.
The authors suggest that government policies could further boost adoption of organic farming practices and ease the transition for conventional farmers. The actual premiums paid to organic farmers ranged from 29 to 32 percent above conventional prices. Even with organic crop yields as much as 18 percent lower than conventional, the break-even point for organic agriculture was 5 to 7 percent.
The analysis represented 55 crops in 14 countries on five continents. The published article provides the criteria used to select the studies as well as a list of studies that were rejected. The authors consulted with three agricultural economists to confirm their findings. To be sure, past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes — particularly if there is a major shift to organic production, which could result in lower prices due to increased supply.
Organic farming: why we don’t have more organic farms
The study did not attempt to forecast future scenarios. Unique to the analysis was inclusion of yield and economic data for crops grown as part of a rotational system, in addition to data for single crops. The study included profit data for multiple crops grown over several seasons, a more accurate reflection of how farmers profit from agriculture. None of the comparison studies accounted for the environmental costs and benefits of farming.
Environmental costs tend to be lower and benefits higher in organic agriculture.