Do you love organic produce and wish there was more selection in your store? Organic is typically the best choice for your family for so many reasons. But the processing and farming of organic produce is complicated, and the reasons why we don’t have more in our grocery stores is even more complicated. But we’ve studied this issue and have found eight reasons why there isn’t more organic produce in your store. Don’t worry, there is good news and room for growth, but let me take you through the facts to give you a better understanding of what is happening and what you can do about it.
First some background– The average household spends $323 on produce each year and 43 percent of organic food sales in 2012 was produce, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. More than half of parents buying organic produce are between the ages of 18-34, making millennials the biggest driver of organic food. They tend to be well-educated on the products and reasons for choosing organic produce, including environmental friendliness and the health of their families.
But satisfying the needs of families can be difficult for organic companies when faced with insufficient supply lines, lack of organic materials and the challenges of acquiring farmland.
Organic sales have more than doubled in the last ten years, but only 170,000 acres are currently transitioning to organic.
Why aren’t we keeping up with the demand?
1. There isn’t enough farmland devoted to organic produce
Less than 1% of farmland in America is organic. Over 40 percent of the nation is farmland, creating a dilemma. Organic consumption is growing quickly, but the conversion to organics is time-consuming, taking three years for land to transition from conventional farming to certified organic.
The vast majority of America’s farmland is controlled by a small number of farms, with ten percent of farms accounting for 70 percent of the used cropland, and the top two percent alone takes up over a third.
Retailers and brands are securing their own supply chains to ensure further organic development.
For instance, Costco, who sold 6.1 billion worth of produce last year, is supporting organic farmers and producers to guarantee sustainable lines of supply in the future. They have started with a large farm in Baja California, helping secure farm equipment and 12,000 acres for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, based out of San Diego. The move helps Costco keep up with demand for organic produce – the deal will secure 145,000 cases of organic raspberries.
Take a look at this map to find organic produce grown in your area.
2. Single-crop harvests have taken over
Focusing on a single crop, such as corn or soy, can be more profitable, and more farmers are turning to corn and soy to help secure their financial status. Most of the corn grown is destined for livestock food or making corn syrup and other products. The US is the highest global producer and exporter of corn, exporting 10-20 percent of the yearly crop.
Soy is the biggest crop in the US after corn, and its success with bioengineered soy that is herbicide tolerant is causing them to look to export to other countries. However, there is a risk, as even though the US exported half of its soybean crops overseas, the US’s global export share in soy products has diminished in the last 40 years.
3. Farmers are committed to GMO harvests with no financial way out
The cycle of taking loans or leasing land from companies like Monsanto, buying their seeds yearly, which can cost $150 more a bag than their conventional counterparts, and using their chemicals on crops can be a vicious cycle a farmer cannot afford to get out of. Farmers also focus on the highest cash crop for their farming efforts, since farmland rent, seed and farming costs, as well as paying off loans are high agriculture costs. GMO seed has been seen as a ‘safe’ investment for farmers financially. And as weeds and pests adapt to new technology, farmers are having to spray more and more to combat the change.
4. Organics are seen as too risky for some, even with profitability
Organic crops can be a riskier than conventional counterparts. California grows 80 percent of the nation’s strawberries, a high risk crop that is conventionally laden with pesticides and fungicides. Out of the 39,073 acres of strawberry crops in 2014, only 3,060 were organic produce. And growers also contend with human encroachment on farmland, and the problem of fumigants wafting into homes and schools. However, according to the California Strawberry Commission, one out of five California farmers grow both conventional and organic strawberries.
Organic farming has a bigger amount of loss due to pests and unavoidable circumstances, but even with that and fluctuating premium pricing, farmers can make more profit with organics, but with more labor and work. Farmers are also worried the gap between organic and conventional pricing will shrink as organic produce becomes more available.
5. Farmers see transitioning to organic as too hard
Farmers must be able to financially afford the transition as well as take the risk of losing the occasional crop due to untreatable circumstances. Organic certification is expensive in time and money – the transition process takes three years, and certification can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars (with some available for reimbursement afterwards). Several steps have to be taken, as well as paperwork, inspections, ad registration with state agencies, such as is the case in California.
With transitioning, farmers face a difficult financial choice as they lose profit while waiting for the hopeful bigger handout when paid the premium organic produce prices.
The USDA is supporting American farmers transitioning to and strengthening organic farming with microloans, education, grants for offsetting certification costs, and other support for the transition. Programs like this and other financial incentives and support may help rally more farmer to the organic cause.
Kashi has partnered up with Quality Assurance International to support transitioning farmers, even selecting a product, Dark Cocoa Karma cereal, that will be made exclusively with transitional wheat.
6. We can only ship in so much
The current and quickest solution for supporting the growing organic demand is to bring in organic products from other countries, including those which would not grow in the US.
In 2013, $1.4 billion worth of organic products were imported for developed and developing countries across the world including Mexico, Italy and France. The USDA certifies these as organic under the same rules as applies to American crops. The top imports included bananas, coffee, olive oil, mangoes, wine and soybeans.
Soy is the US’s biggest crop after corn. What is ironic is that the soybeans being imported are often going to organically raised livestock here. Organic livestock farmers cannot find steady enough streams of feed domestically, and the amount of organic soy and corn doubled in 2015, with over 300,000 metric tons of each imported.
Organic milk sales have tripled over the last ten years, 22% more organic chickens were slaughtered last year than the year before, and egg output has risen dramatically. All this plus the need to import organic feed has caused a chronic shortages of organic feed grains this year.
7. The argument that science will feed all
Conventional farmers see themselves as more scientific, following the formulas given by seed companies of herbicides and pesticides or working to maximizing the monoculture crop they want on their land.
More invasive and technical procedures, such as moisture sensors and targeted fertilizing to protect almond cultivated in drought-stricken California, are making farms less hands-on and amplifying crop yield with computers and chemicals.
More sustainable practices, such as crop rotation, are more often embraced by pesticide-free or organic farms in effort to cultivate and enrich soil for future crops.
The Rodale Institute’s 30-year study concluded that sustainable organic practices will provide for more into the future as soil conditions, water supplies and weed and pest issues continue to drive farming into more technology based and chemical-dependent territory.
8. An “Us Vs. Them” Mentality
I’ve spoken at length with conventional farmers, and what I’ve found is there is a serious cultural divide between organic farmers and conventional farmers. Conventional farmers are the majority and they don’t really like organic farmers at all. Here are the words I’ve heard to describe organic farmers from the mouths of conventional farmers: “hippies”, “foodbabe worshipers”, “idolaters”, “idiots”, “non-farmers”, “heathens”, “godless”, “opportunists”, etc. Even farmers who I’ve met who are grassfed ranchers have a certain disdain for organic ranchers. You get the eyeroll when they are asked about the differences. It’s an interesting world out there.
I’ve spent the past three years visiting organic farms and talking to organic farmers in the United States and overseas about this scenario and they have some concerning stories as well. Mostly what is happening is organic farmers feel ostracized from their community and ridiculed for farming organic. They are the new kids on the block and conventional farmers are threatened by them. The farming community has rejected them, similar to how new minority groups are rejected by the general population when they immigrate. And what is even more concerning is sometimes their children are harassed in school because they come from an organic farm as opposed to a conventional farm. This is a problem.
In addition, farmers are a proud bunch and they don’t like government interference on their land and property. I don’t blame them for that part. The idea of having the USDA come on to their land to tell them what to do with their resources and property isn’t a welcoming proposition, but organic farmers understand that this process is needed for transparency. I’m sure the organic farmers don’t like it either, but they are willing to do it to be organic. So there is another cultural divide between the idea of farmers who welcome “big government” and farmers who don’t like government intrusion, creating an even larger gap between the two sides.
But there is GOOD NEWS TOO!
There Is Room For More Farmers
Even with over 22,000 certified organic operations in the US, there is still plenty room for growth and change in the market. There are less farmers coming to replace the baby-boomer and Gen X generations that dominate it, even though the land is available for the taking.
Nature’ Path bought 2,760 acres of organic farmland in Montana to help secure organic crops, partnering with Vilicus Farms to train new organic farmers. Their hope is by investing in future organic farmers more would be interested on growing organic produce.
There is 3 percent less farmers now than in 2007, and according the USDA agricultural census the shift up in age is dramatic, with as many farmers ages 45-64 as there is any other age ranges combined.
More millennial farmers are also coming into the market with an ideals-based business plan, focusing on sustainable practices and local distribution instead of profitability.
The future is looking bright. The organic industry is in it’s infancy and growing every year. And every year it grows more, larger companies get into the business of providing consumers with organic and that is starting to turn the heads of conventional farmers. The past two years I’ve met conventional farmers turned organic farmers who described a scenario where larger companies are providing them with more security and trust in the system. They are making more money and are more optimistic about their future than they used to be.
And recently the USDA announced a special program where farmers who want to make the transition to organic can apply for help. More of these programs are expected to pop up as the demand for organic produce and food forces us to import more and more from other countries. Ultimately, our government wants us eating food that comes from our own fields.
What can you do? Buy more organic produce. The more you purchase and the more the demand grows, the more things will change.