Farm Fresh Perspectives: Organic farming is a serious business in today’s market

There has been a major stigma on organic growers in the traditional agricultural community. It has relaxed a bit as organic proves its viability, but for many, it’s still as if they’re wearing a scarlet “O” on their coveralls.

Well, for folks who think organic farmers are inherently and/or outwardly weird, I bet I could drop many of the organic farmers I know in with a group of conventional growers, and no one would be the wiser. They could talk about market prices, equipment repairs and the lack of rain while leaning on the bed of their pickup trucks and smoothing their hair under their seed corn caps.

However, I could also drop in organic farmers with dreadlocks and homemade clothes smelling of patchouli that only farm 2-5 acres. Certified organic growers are an eclectic bunch, but many have proven themselves as qualified farm managers and businesspeople; the negative preconceptions aren’t always accurate.

Some people think organic farmers are just hippies and bad managers who don’t know how to control weeds. Although the term “organic” may have its roots in 1960’s and 1970’s counterculture, more mainstream growers and new farmers are adopting this production system every year.

Admittedly, weed control is a constant challenge in certified organic production, but it is also a challenge to conventional growers. Organic growers must be incredibly diligent managers, using stale-seedbeds, tillage or intercropping (just to name a few practices) to keep weeds below an economic threshold; they cannot resort to spraying a glyphosate herbicide to which their crops have a built-in resistance.

Clean fields are a deep-rooted aesthetic in the farm community, but I have seen conventional fields overrun by 9-foot ragweeds and organic fields without a single unwanted plant. I have also seen the opposite. Most fields are going to be somewhere in between these extremes, but a few weeds do not a bad farm manager make.

Other people are convinced that growers who switch to organic will see their yields plummet and go broke during the transition because they have to let their fields sit fallow for three years. There is, indeed, a three-year transition period from conventional to organic during which prohibited substances like most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers cannot be applied to the fields. Some growers do choose to let their fields sit fallow and get a job in town for these three years, some do not.

That time can be a great opportunity for buildup; buildup of soil structure through increased organic matter and soil life, buildup of soil fertility through green manures and leguminous crops, and buildup of organic management skills through trial and error, if nothing else. And there is definitely a market for the GMO-free crops that come off that land even before it is certified organic. Plus, long-term university research has shown that organic and conventional systems, when managed well, display comparable yields of corn and soybeans.

Although there may be an initial drop in yields, as the farmer and his/her soil both become accustomed to producing without chemical inputs, the fields under organic management are likely to produce 90 percent or more of what they did under conventional management. Still, 90 percent yields with 100-200 percent price premiums look pretty good on paper.

Still others think that certified organic production is a fad and that the market is already saturated. Well, the market share of this “fad” has been trending upward by an average of 20 percent per year since the early 1990s. How long does a trend have to continue before it is no longer a fad? Of course, I don’t know how long this kind of fast-paced escalation can continue, but annual growth in demand for organic food products continues to outpace increases in supply.

Whether or not there is a “ceiling” on the market share of organic food products, we certainly are not there yet. Price premiums may be slightly smaller for organic products now than they were 10 years ago, but that is always going to be true when more players enter any market; the largest rewards always go to the earliest adopters.

If you can, pass this info along to growers with biases against organic. Farmers don’t all have to do things the same way; they just have to understand one another’s motivations to make decisions. Even if all this doesn’t persuade them that organic can be a good farm business decision, casually mention things like “$6/bushel corn” or “$11-$14/bushel beans” or “$22-$27/hundredweight milk.” These prices for certified organic products may not mean much to the lay person, but I guarantee they will get an Illinois farmer’s attention.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the Feb. 15-21, 2006, issue

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