In a study by the Organic Produce Network and Nielsen, it was shown that sales of organic fresh produce items reached almost $5 billion in 2017, an 8% increase from the previous year (1). In fact, a bill was recently passed to increase the funding of organic farming research to meet this growing demand.
By the year 2023 the annual funding is supposed to increase to $50 million. Yet as organic remains the fastest growing sector in grocery, particularly fresh foods, it will require creativity and more private partnerships to meet demand with reliability.
General Mills just announced it is creating South Dakota’s largest organic crop farm and will convert 34,000 growing acres to organic production by 2020. The company will grow organic wheat for its popular Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese line, reports the StarTribune (2). But it will take more than that.
Recently Annie’s also announced a new project where they are partnering with farmers to launch limited edition versions of Annie’s Mac & Cheese and Honey Bunny Grahams, sold exclusively at Sprouts. Carla Vernon, president, Annie’s operating unit at General Mills states, “the products represent a big innovation in the food industry. On each box we celebrate the specific farm, farmer, and regenerative farming practices that went into that very box.”
“Convenience stores, college campuses and airports are all increasing their selection of organic items,” says Lewis Goldstein, VP of brand marketing at Organic Valley, La Farge, WI. “Restaurants and other food service outlets are also offering more organic items. Consumers want to eat healthier food when they’re outside the home, too.”
Goldstein says meat and dairy are growing tremendously in the organic industry.
“Consumers recognize that when cows eat well, people do, too…turns out butter isn’t the devil. We’re seeing increased market demand in butter, cream, whole milk and whole milk yogurt,” he says. In turn, increasing numbers of farmers are converting to organic.
Conventional vs. Organic
So what separates conventional farming from the organic variety?
Ron Rosmann, owner and operator of Rosmann Family Farms in Harlan, IA, explains that organic farms typically have a much smaller acreage than conventional. His farm is relatively smaller (700 acres) while conventional farms are thousands of acres. Rosmann says it is an advantage for them using less land while still making a living.
Rosmann Farms stopped its use of pesticides in 1983 and believes a huge advantage of organic farming is eliminating harsh toxic chemicals on crops. This was even before an organic label or market existed, but the family believes this method better serves the environment, their livestock, family and community. Rosmann says that a benefit of organic farming is being “able to work with nature and allow nature to use the eco-services that it makes available to protect your crops and nurture soil quality and productivity.”
Crop rotation plays an important role in organic farming. On a particular piece of land different crops are cultivated systematically for optimal benefits. Soil nutrients and health are sustained, pest populations are controlled and weeds are suppressed. This system allows for soil health to be maintained naturally rather than using chemicals. Crop rotations cycle through cash crops (vegetables) and cover crops (grasses or cereals).
Farmers using this method need a vast knowledge of different crops and their contributions to soil. For instance, “nitrogen-fixing legumes such as soybeans and alfalfa in crop rotations fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil through root nodules. This nitrogen is then available for subsequent crops” (3). Having this knowledge and practice is a useful way for farmers to prevent certain issues without the use of chemicals.
Of course there are pros and cons to both conventional farms and organic farms from a business perspective. Farmers may choose to stick to conventional practices because the cost of food production is low, more job opportunities are produced, and the yield is greater. There are also differing opinions on genetically modified crops and nutrients. Some say that altering crops can cause a loss of nutrients in the agricultural community while others say this could be from many other factors. However, in organic certified farming there can be no use of GMOs in any stage of farming.
A New Wave
Hydroponic farming isn’t anything new—it’s been around for quite some time but recently spiked in popularity. Plants are grown using water systems and are fed minerals, instead of soil. Those in favor of this practice argue there are many benefits unique to hydroponics not seen in traditional farming. The plants grown are high quality and do not consume the same resources as farming on land. Indoor and vertical farming requires less space than traditional field crops and can bring plants to areas they may not normally be. This innovative technique can be beneficial for these reasons, but is facing criticism in the industry. Some question this method because it is so drastically different than traditional farming.
Farming without the use of soil has recently become more controversial especially in terms of labeling. Rosmann, who won a Farmer of the Year Award doesn’t believe that hydroponic should be considered organic because of the lack of soil use. “I am not opposed to them having their own unique label in the marketplace,” he says, “but it should not be labeled as certified organic.”
A divide has become evident within the industry regarding hydroponics. In November, organic farmers protested in Florida asking the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to uphold a ban that would exclude hydroponic farming from qualifying for organic certification. Despite the protest, NOSB voted against the ban.
Traditional organic farmers believe caring for soil is a huge part of the organic process, and that crops grown without roots should not be considered organic. On the other hand, hydroponic farmers feel they abide by organic regulations since they grow their plants without chemicals or pesticides. In addition, they believe there are benefits to hydroponics like the ability to grow crops year-round with less water usage than traditional farming (4).
Another trend on the rise is indoor vertical farming in which plants are stacked on vertical shelving on trays to conserve space. Rather than using traditional soil and sunlight to grow the plants, they rely on LED lights and minerals instead.
An article in The Atlantic focused on vertical farming as a positive source of food and possible protection from natural disasters (5). For instance, Hurricane Harvey destroyed many lands and crops so perhaps this type of farming is one solution for dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters. Those in favor of hydroponics say the food is actually fresher since the produce can go directly from “farm” to table. It eliminates the need to transport and possibly damage produce, and are said to last longer. This could be especially popular for younger generations of produce growers as they are moving steadily away from rural areas and more towards urban settings (5). The debate continues over whether these newer practices can be labeled as organic or not.
Similar to organic farming is the method of biodynamic farming. Biodynamic also does not use pesticides or chemicals on crops. Herbs and minerals are combined with animal waste to create a compost and field spray for the crops. The more controversial side of biodynamic farming and the difference between it and organic is the calendar used for farming. A lunar calendar is used to study the cosmos before planting and harvesting crops. Biodynamic is big on conservation and using as many resources as possible from inside the farm. The biodynamic standard is used more extensively in Europe but growing in popularity state-wide. Although there are some similarities to organic, the practices are quite different, with biodynamic placing greater emphasis on regenerative agriculture and soil health.
Regenerative agriculture is a method of farming that is said to have many benefits like restoring soil, trapping greenhouse gases and improving water cycles. Excess carbon dioxide is pulled from the atmosphere to store in plants and soil where it can be harnessed and used for crops. This approach addresses many issues and how to reduce negative effects. Cover cropping and crop rotation are used to cover exposed ground between planting, composting naturally supplies nutrients to soil, perennial plants and diverse crops are used to provide harvests for several growing seasons from a single planting, livestock is rotated and managed for soil health and zero or low-tillage is used to protect soil and disturbance (6). Many of these methods are used in organic and other farming practices, showing to be effective.
Transition to Organic
The transition from conventional farming to organic can seem daunting for farmers. However, the challenges are not stopping farms from transitioning over as the demand grows. Although organic farms can triple their profit as opposed to conventional, the costs associated with transitioning could be a roadblock for some (7). Another challenge farmers face is lack of knowledge about the organic industry.
There is a three-year transition period until a farm can be officially considered organic. Physical, chemical and biological properties of soil can take over a year to fully take effect.
According to Rodale Institute, “These changes enhance nutrient cycling, enrich soil life and restore soil organic matter and water holding capacity” (7). During this three-year transition products can be labeled as transitional or conventional. Another shift farmers have to make is the way they view weeds. Although a challenge, weeds can actually have beneficial qualities: “They add organic matter to the soil when they are turned under, they keep the ground covered and they contribute to the richness of the root zone where an abundance of beneficial microbial activity takes place” (7).
How is this transition period regulated? An inspector employed by a certifier schedules visits to the farm to make sure all the regulations are intact. A report will be written up and then submitted to the certifier. Even after a farm is certified, it will still be visited and inspected throughout the year. Since 2002 all certifiers have shared regulations under the USDA (7).
There are very mixed opinions in the mainstream on whether organic farming is sustainable when comparing it with conventional farming practices. Along with land coverage, there is concern over how billions of people will be fed organically in a growing population.
Goldstein believes sustainability is integral to organic farming, and that it all begins with the soil. “A handful of organic soil contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.” When this soil isn’t treated with chemicals, it becomes a nutrient-dense base for plants to thrive into robust root systems that require less water. This growth continues and feeds livestock like dairy cows.
“Good stuff in, good stuff out,” says Goldstein, “but sustainability also means a fair living for family farmers so they can produce healthy food and pass on their farms to future generations.”
Goldstein adds that Organic Valley’s philosophy is that agriculture should benefit everyone—farmers and their financial health, consumers, animals, crops and the environment. “We also feel that cooperation is the best way to do this, by working together for the common good of all.”
He sums up the ideology of organic farming as the belief this way of farming relies on a holistic system built literally from the ground up. “Healthy soil is the basic building block of organic as we practice it.” WF
- Organic Produce Network, “Exclusive: Nielsen and OPN Announce Organic Fresh Produce Retail Sales Reach Nearly $5 Billion in 2017,” http://www.organicproducenetwork.com/article/384/exclusive-nielsen-and-opn-announce-organic-fresh-produce-retail-sales-reach-nearly-5-billion-in-2017
- Steve Karnowski, “General Mills deal to create South Dakota’s largest organic farm,” http://www.startribune.com/general-mills-deal-to-create-south-dakota-s-largest-organic-farm/476026653/
- Reza Shamim, “Crop Rotation – A Vital Component Of Organic Farming,” https://permaculturenews.org/2016/06/15/crop-rotation-a-vital-component-of-organic-farming/
- WholeFoods Magazine, “Hydroponic Methods Create Divide In Organic Farming Industry,” https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/news/breaking-news/hydroponic-methods-create-divide-organic-farming-industry/
- Meagan Flynn, “The Promise of Indoor Hurricane-Proof ‘Vert ical’ Farms, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/02/vertical-farming-houston/552665/
- The Carbon Underground, Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, CSU, “What is Regenerative Agriculture?” https://www.regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/
- Rodale Institute, “Transition to Organic,” https://rodaleinstitute.org/transition-to-organic/