Many of the top issues facing organic farmers are those all farmers face: smaller margins, increasing competition from non-traditional growers like hydroponics, a robust regulatory environment, pest control, food safety, the need for research, water, and labor.
Yet the most important issue – critical to the success of every organic grower – is the integrity of the organic brand. Addressing organic integrity and other challenges, Brian Leahy, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, facilitated a panel discussion, “Issues Facing Organic Farmers Today” at the sold-out inaugural Organic Grower Summit. Panelists for the enlightening educational session included Nate Lewis of the Organic Trade Association; Dale Huss of Ocean Mist Farms; Arnott Duncan of Duncan Family Farms; and California State Assembly Member Anna Caballero.
The overall integrity of the organic brand was at the forefront of all panelists comments. “The premiums are what’s bringing a lot of growers into organic,” said Lewis. “Those premiums rely on consumer trust in the label. And consumer trust in the label relies on strict enforcement of strong USDA standards.”
“Organic integrity is critical to the success of our industry,” emphasized Duncan. “People need to hear what that means to us. We need rigorous enforcement…Our industry can’t afford the perception that we cut corners.”
In addition to the critical task of protecting the organic brand, organic farmers wrestle with a variety of issues that impact their daily decision making process. Labor, for example, has become an increasingly difficult proposition across the industry, regardless of the size of the operation. “Our brussels sprouts harvesters are making $22 an hour plus benefits,” said Huss. Yet, the veteran grower acknowledged Ocean Mist still relies on H2A workers because they don’t get enough domestic workers, even at a higher than normal pay rate.
Additionally, panelists said certain aspects of organic farming pose unique challenges. “I thought I was a pretty good grower when I was farming conventionally,” said Duncan “Then we started farming organically and you realize how little you know about agronomy. To this day I’m humbled by how little I know about the agronomics of organic and building and maintaining a balanced ecosystem. It’s a great challenge.”
And while people understand that organic farmers rely on biological controls and ecological diversity to create healthy farms, “No matter how cute a ladybug is out in your field, nobody wants to see it in their bag of salad,” added Duncan.
Assembly member Caballero noted that, despite increased interest from the public in how food is produced, there is are challenges between what organic growers are doing and what consumers know about agriculture. Caballero said the disconnect impacts expectations as consumers put pressure on legislators, many of whom also are not educated about agriculture, to make more regulations, which adds more burdens on the growers.
“There are very few of us from rural California in the legislature,” Caballero said and counseled growers to take an active role in educating and providing regular feedback to legislators and regulators. “Sometimes what we need do is to streamline our regulatory process and there are those of us who are interested in doing that but we just need to know where the soft spot is,” she said.
Caballero also urged growers to take a broad view of collaboration. Speaking to an audience of 150 organic growers and suppliers, Caballero said, “As an industry it’s really important that the conventional and the organic work together, but not just agriculture. You need to build coalitions…the more you can be working with environmentalists, labor and other business organizations and come together to the legislature and lobby for things together, the better and stronger your voice is going to be…You’re one of the economic engines of this state and this country.”
Questions from the audience came back to organic integrity and whether buyers are diligent about verification. Lewis chimed in that those retailers who are invested in the brand of organic “are doing a lot to make sure their supply chains are really secure.”
Lewis noted that organic farming deserves more research funding from USDA. “Organic represents 5% of the food industry but just 1% of USDA research dollars,” he said.