In the next 15 years, OTA anticipates organic sales in the U.S. will approach $90 billion annually with organic food accounting for 10% of all food consumed in the country. In addition, more commonly consumed categories, such as produce, dairy and meat will climb higher to achieve 20% market penetration, it predicts.
But in order to meet this goal, the acreage dedicated to organic will need to triple production – a significant challenge given the barriers that currently are holding back farmers from transitioning to organic, says Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
“Growing crops organically is more difficult and requires more management on the part of the farmer. Without the value-add at the farm gate for producers, we won’t have supply long term,” she said.
She explained that “one of the biggest challenges” in adding organic acreage is incentivizing farmers to undergo the three year transition period during which they must grow organically, which often means lower yields and more effort, but are not paid the higher price of certified organic.
“Right now you gain your certification at the end of your 36 month or three year [transition] period, and we are looking at a program that initiates the certification at the beginning of the transition period so producers have an opportunity to demonstrate to potential buyers that they are in transition and will be coming out with crop in three years,” Batcha said.
The program will help create marketing connections earlier in the transition process and allow farmers transitioning to organic to more easily access programs offered by USDA that support transition, she added.
In addition, the transition program “will help build better organic farmers because they will be working with certifiers getting critical information and learning all the additional management practices that they have to be focused on in the transition period,” Batcha said.
Checkoff could help
OTA also has applied to create a USDA Organic Checkoff program to help encourage more farmers to transition, Batcha said. She explained that if the Checkoff is approved, 25% of the funds it raises will go towards research dedicated to organic farming so that farmers can have the tools they need to maintain high yields and control pests.
“Another 25% of the funds will be dedicated to information services, which is essentially technical outreach. So things like providing matching grant funds so USDA can employ specialists in organic agriculture through their extension services and their research conservation services,” Batcha said.
These specialists would be in the farmers’ communities for easy access, and “to help farmers understand the opportunity if they transition and to help guide them through the process,” she added.
Manufacturers provide a helping hand
Many manufacturers of organic goods that are members of the OTA also are trying to help farmers during the transition by holding extensive communication sessions to find out what barriers are blocking increased transition to organic and to find solutions, Batcha said.
For example, “We are seeing individual companies buy land and begin to farm. We are seeing companies entering long-term contracts … during the transition period to secure the supply of grains into the future,” she said.
Given this collaboration and the potential for help from an organic checkoff program, Batcha is confident the organic industry will find the tools its needs to meet growing consumer demand.
Laughing, she added, “while we have tremendous supply problems, a lot of industries would love to have that problem, which is the demand is there, the public interest is there and that interest is increasing. There could be worse problems to have!”