Farm Fresh Perspectives: Organic food does not require a silver spoon

I was over at my parents’ farm working with the calves when a friend of the family stopped by to lend a hand. Having not seen him for a number of years, we got to talking about what I’m doing for a living. After a moment, he looked at me and chuckled, “Organic food, huh? I love organic food; it simplifies my shopping. Whenever I go to the grocery store, and I see anything labeled ‘organic,’ I know I can avoid that section because everything costs more!”

I grinned politely, and kept working. I didn’t want to launch into a discourse about true costs of production and the many values inherent in certified organic food products. There are some very good reasons organic food costs more than conventional food, but that certainly doesn’t mean organic is out of reach for the average consumer.

Some believe that since organic farmers do not buy synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, their costs of production should be lower and organic food should be cheaper. In reality, since organic farmers cannot use these synthetic agrochemicals, they have to rely more on hand labor and mechanical tillage for weed control, so they often have as much, or more, expense in wages and fuel than they would have had in chemicals.

Also, organic farmers generally have to plant some non-food crops, use long crop rotation schemes, and rest parts of their land to help maintain the fertility of their soils, so they generally have to keep a smaller portion of their ground in the crops that return the most money.

Even if an organic farmer does decide to use an organically-approved off-farm input (such as kelp or fish emulsion for fertility), that input is generally much more expensive than synthetic options, which provide more nutrients for a lower price.

Manufacturers and distributors that deal with organic food have to go through a rigorous certification process, just like organic farms, to ensure they are using ingredients, equipment and cleaning procedures that will maintain the integrity of the raw organic foods. They have to make sure organic and conventional foods never commingle, and sometimes train retailers how to maintain that same level of segregation within the actual stores.

Even sourcing organic ingredients can be a problem for these folks. There are some food products that are simply not yet available in an organic form, and those that are available are often in short supply. Therefore, the high price of organic food comes back to simple economics: there is not a large enough supply of organic food to match the current demand for organic food. So organic food will be selling at higher prices at least until production can catch up, but even then some extra cost will likely be necessary to provide incentive for farmers and manufacturers to adopt the more management-intensive practices and paperwork.

Despite the higher price, organic food is not just “yuppie chow” intended for those with higher incomes. The retail price premium is going to depend on where you shop and what types of organic products you buy. Although high-end stores constitute a significant portion of the organic food retail market, much of the organic food being purchased today is from conventional grocers who have begun to pay attention to the demand for organic alternatives. Even my comparatively tiny, rural grocery store has introduced a few lines of organic goods, and the manager said the products are selling quite well.

Also, the price tags on raw, fresh and bulk organic foods are likely to be less intimidating than those on gourmet, packaged or off-season products. For instance, it may be much easier to pay the extra few dimes or quarters for organic carrots, broccoli, apples, pasta or grains than it is to pay the extra few dollars for organic cheese, steak or boxed dinners. As a society, we need to begin buying more raw, fresh produce and grains anyway and learning how to cook again, rather than loading up our carts with cellophane-wrapped convenience food.

Some retailers and distributors are getting innovative to make organic food more available and accessible to the general public. Some stores and farmers’ markets are beginning to accept food assistance vouchers such as LINK and WIC. Others are allowing shoppers to form buying clubs so customers can order organic food in bulk quantities at lower prices and divide the products among themselves, thereby also eliminating the cost of extra packaging to the company.

When I was studying at the University of Illinois, I volunteered for three hours a week at a wonderful little food co-op that, in exchange, gave me a substantial discount off the sticker price so I could eat fresh, local, organic food, even on a graduate student’s salary! Plus, it gave me the opportunity to meet the farmers who were growing my food.

So, although organic food will probably always cost at least a little more than conventional, there are ways you can make it work in your budget. Start out small; determine which organic products are most affordable and most important to your diet. Buy more fresh, raw and bulk foods, and make preparation of healthy meals part of your routine. Most importantly, buy more locally whenever you can, either on farms, at farmers’ markets or in stores that source their food directly from nearby farmers.

By eliminating some transportation and processing costs, you are paying less for the organic food you eat, and the farmers are earning more for what they grow.

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 May 24-30, 2006, issue

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