Organic food producers target expanding markets

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Being a certified organic farmer can pay well. In recent circumstances, some area farmers got $4.25 to $5.25 for organic corn when the cash price for corn raised conventionally was $1.70 to $1.79 a bushel.

And there are expanding opportunities in organic meat production-whether beef, swine or poultry-as consumers grow more willing to pay premiums for what they consider to be a healthier alternative.

It’s a matter of giving customers what they want-and collecting more money for it.

The price of organic meat can run 20 to 25 percent higher than prices for conventional methods, although the current high beef market closes the gap somewhat, marketers say.

Dairy producers have been reaping organic premiums for some time now. Marketers say you might get a price of $21 a hundredweight for organic milk compared to a $13 a hundredweight conventional price.

Cautions to consider

But before you commit to switch to organic farming, persons in the industry-such as those in the Kansas Organic Producers Association-caution you to consider it carefully.

KOPA is a cooperative organized “for a sustainable food and farming future.” Earl Wright, marketing director, and Harry Bennett, grain marketing coordinator, working at their Council Grove office, agree with a cautious approach, but are looking for more Kansas organic producers to fill a market demand that is still growing.

Bennett soon will be working part of the time on the job from his home near Marion.

The two men were at Kansas State University in February for a gathering of family farmers interested in the opportunities for organic farming, which now is included in research and promotional programs under KSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Organic farming gained new status with national definitions of organic foods under the USDA National Organic Program begun in November 2003.

They continue focusing on the farmers who want to stick with a commitment to become organic producers, and are planning meetings this spring at Newton and Hutchinson, and at a tour of the Herb Bartel farm north of Hillsboro by Marion Reservoir.

Bartel is vice-president of KOPA.

What does ‘organic’ mean?

To clarify, certified organic farming means a producer uses no chemical fertilizer or pesticides in crop production. In animal production, producers steer clear of implants, hormones or even antibiotics in feed.

Wright said vaccinations to stimulate the immune system are allowed-such as blackleg vaccination in cattle. Breeding stock may be purchased for an organic operation from conventional farms, but if a female is in gestation, the offspring can’t be raised as certified organic unless the offspring is brought in before the last third of gestation.

Organic animals must have access to outdoor pasture or dirt in humane social situations-for instance, no confinement hog production systems are allowed.

Wright said organic farming is still clarifying acceptable practices, and not allowing prohibited ones to maintain certification.

Question to ask yourself

What precautionary considerations should a producer take before becoming an organic farmer? Wright cited several that have been published, some designed for the northeastern United States. But they apply with equal force to farmers here, he said.

First, ask yourself if you enjoy walking your fields on a regular basis-or, as Bennett added, are you a person who would rather work with computerized controls within the tractor?

Can you distinguish pests from beneficial insects?

Are you curious about why things happen on your farm?

Can you tolerate a field that is not weed-free?

Do you have the patience to trade short-term economic returns for longer-term “ecological” credits, perhaps under the new U.S. Conservation Security Program, while building soil health?

Wright and Bennett said it takes an average of three years to return a soil that has been conventionally farmed with chemicals to a state where it has sufficient organic matter buildup to maintain tilth and nitrogen exchange in a natural system that gives more customary crop yields.

It may also take that long for the farm to be certified organic to gain market advantages. The cost of certification is around $500.

During this time of transition, they said, a producer should consider how his or her family might be affected by a lower income. Producers should also consider whether they can withstand social stigma and negative peer pressure from other farmers.

Wright and Bennett said labor considerations and banking needs may become factors as a producer considers being less dependent on chemicals and more dependent on tillage-perhaps even hearkening back to how predecessors worked the ground in the 1940s and 1950s.

Bennett said an organic producer may have to adapt to operating equipment like a rotary hoe, and being able to recognize the right time to use it during weed development.

Producers should remember that they are trading current high prices for inputs (such as nitrate) for other high prices such as fuel required to do more tillage. But a produce does have those better prices, and a high growth market to offset the expenses.

Wright said organic farmers have to develop skills in walking their fields to see needs for inputs.

“It’s a high management skill,” he said.

A small share of the market

Organic farm production accounts for only 1.5 percent of all agricultural production in the United States.

Wright and other association members across the country hope to increase that by just a half percent. He and Bennett are hoping to see KOPA increase by only 10 members in this region this year.

In Europe, organic production accounts for 5 to 6 percent of agricultural production. The willingness of American producers to match the organic requirements in Europe could shape the acceptance of U.S. products in that market.

Those figures might not sound like much until one considers that USDA estimates organic farming in the United States as an $11 billion industry involving more than 2.3 million. It is expected the industry will soon approach $13 billion; in 1990 it was a $1 billion industry.

The U.S. organic food industry in 2000 for the first time saw more organic food purchased in conventional supermarkets than in any other venue-73 percent of all conventional stores. The products also are available in 20,000 natural-food stores.

Retail sales for organic food has grown 20 percent or more annually since 1990.

Making connections

Wright said the demand is there. The two men demonstrated it as this interview was drawing to a close when the phones started ringing with buyers looking for product.

That is their business-to match the farmers who have the product in sufficient quantities to satisfy the needs of the buyers on the other end.

The two men arrange the transportation and take care of collecting the money for KOPA farmers. The process differs from the conventional way agricultural products are sold at the local elevator and market.

For instance, on the day of this interview, the two put together a shipment of 6,660 bushels of wheat for two full rail cars at more than $5 a bushel from three farmers in order to fulfill the specific needs of a mill.

Bennett said he frequently notices that organic prices match the “parity prices” once demanded by the American Agriculture Movement.

Wright said organic farmers are paid better for the quality of crop they produce. They also may specialize more in specific variety crops.

For instance, he said, some farmers may be growing feed-grade soybeans while others are growing food-grade soybeans that are clear-no black spot in them. The lack of black particles can be important in producing a food such as tofu, he said.

An organic farmer has to get used to a new way of life.

“He can’t turn on the radio to see what his market is going to be,” Wright said.

Different demographics

Bennett said demographics change with organic farming. There aren’t “all those gray heads” often seen at farm meetings. He said KOPA farmers tend to be no older than their 40s. Many of them hope to use organic farming to help preserve family farming as a way of life, and to help sustain natural inputs such as soil and water for future agriculture.

Bennett said organic farmers often have looked at rising prices for energy and other inputs, coupled with low commodity prices, and determined they “don’t want to be slaves to the system.”

Wright said there are companies across the United States looking to marketers like him from farm states like Kansas for the organic products they specialize in-from dairy products to grain mills and meats.

As far as the demographics of the customers at the retail end, Bennett said 75 percent are female, which is to be expected in most grocery shopping surveys. But 60 percent of them are younger married women with children at home who are focused on the long-term health of their families.

These women represent the customer base of the future that keeps on growing, he said.

“Beyond social and political considerations, these are people who are concerned with clear answers to their quest for clean, wholesome products,” he added.

Nurturing the soil naturally

On the soil-building side for sustainable agriculture, Wright and Bennett said during the three-year average transition from conventional to organic farming, nitrogen derived from plants through leguminous nitrogen fixing or plowing in plants is stored up.

New legumes, such as field peas, may be added to the mix because they leave more nitrogen behind than crops like soybeans that mostly produce enough nitrogen for their own needs, they said.

Farmers may apply manure to the soil. Microbes and other soil life that formerly was killed by chemicals return to the soil, thus speeding the storage of nitrogen, they said. Many weed species that formerly came in because of the upset in soil balance are reduced in invasive tendencies by the buildup of soil organic matter.

Bennett said genetically modified crops aren’t allowed in certified organic production, but there are increasing problems, especially in crops like corn where the pollen carries a long way, in even formerly unique crop varieties crossing with the new creations.

Making arrangements

In landlord-tenant situations, organic certification might be initiated by either party in consultation with each other. Traditional 50 percent sharing on chemicals might be dispensed with, but other agreements, examples of which KOPA has on file, may need to be substituted.

For instance, landowners may contribute a greater share of costs, or tenants may keep a greater proportion of the crop. In general, unless adjustments are made, the tenant is paying less for fertilizer and pesticides but more for management, labor and fuel.

For membership and general inquiries with KOPA, farmers are asked to contact General Manager Edward Reznicek at 785-939-2032, or to write to KOPA at Route 2, Box 23, Goff, KS 66428.

To contact Wright or Bennett in Council Grove about marketing information, call 620-767-7272.

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