In fact, less than 1% of US farmland is organic today – a figure that doesn’t jibe well with the Organic Trade Association’s projection that organic sales in the next 15 years will grow from an estimated $43.3 billion in 2015 to $90 billion annually in 2030, and its prediction that organic food will account for 10% of everything consumed in the country.
So what gives? Why are farmers slow to make the move on what appears on the surface to be a sure bet in terms of consumer demand and solidly higher prices?
Well, a major barrier is the three years it takes farmers and ranchers to transition from conventional to organic, during which time many will experience lower yields and higher production costs without the benefit of the higher price fully-certified organic commands.
To address this issue, many industry stakeholders – including the Organic Trade Association, USDA and manufacturers and farmers – are exploring the idea of Certified Transitional – a protocol that would allow transitioning farmers to charge slightly higher prices to offset the switch from conventional to organic and also assure manufacturers that the ingredients they are buying are being farmed organically.
One of the leading players in creating Certified Transitional Organic is the natural food manufacturer Kashi, which teamed with organic certifier Quality Assurance International to create an open-source protocol that any brand, manufacturer or farmer could follow for certification.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Kashi’s senior director of supply chain and sustainability Nicole Nestojko, and Richard Gemperle, president of Edelweiss Nut Company, which supplies almonds to Kashi, explain what the certification entails and how it is helping farmers.
A three-year struggle
As a farmer currently making the switch to organic, Richard explained the hand-wringing he felt about the transition period and how the Certified Transitional protocol developed by Kashi helped tip the scales in favor of the move.
“It is not a mystery to me that there is only 1% [of organic farmland] because, pardon the pun, but it is a tough row to hoe,” Gemperle said. “Through that three-year period, you have rising input costs, you have the production cost is increasing, your labor cost is increasing and simultaneously, in my experience … you do see lower production. And those two make it very difficult to pencil out that three-year period. So, I look at it as an equation where that premium for the transitional organic kind of solves the equation in favor of making that leap of faith and going with an organic program.”
He further explained that in order for organic to really work it needs to not only be sustainable for the planet, but also economically sustainable for the farmer to ensure the survival of both.
A helping hand, not a hand out
Helping farmers, like Gemperle, balance these needs and goals is why Kashi worked with QAI to create the Certified Transitional program. Nestojko explains that the genesis for the program came about two years ago after hearing a similar story to Gemperle’s from another farmer about how difficult the three-year transition period can be.
“It was this lightbulb moment for us that really kicked off this journey for us,” she said. “We started thinking about this and how we could create a solution to what is really quite a big challenge in our industry…. So, we worked with QAI to develop the protocol that really helps, again, eliminate that journey and allows consumers to a make difference and, you know, increased accessibility to organic.”
As for the specifics of Kashi’s program, Nestojko explained there are two components – a protocol that sets the standards for farmers and everyone who touches the crop through the manufacturing process, and a label that helps consumers understand how the product was made and how buying it can help transition more farmland to organic.
To further support the program, Kashi launched last year is Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits made with certified transitional hard red winter wheat, which was sourced from 860 acres of transitional farmland. And the company’s efforts immediately paid off. Nestojko notes that the launch was the company’s most successful new product launch in five years.
She explained that many consumers likely picked up the cereal because it sounded delicious and then, once they brought it home, they read on the back of the box about the wheat farmer Kashi supplies from and his journey as Certified Transitional organic.
Building on that success, Kashi is expanding the program with the launch of four Chewy Nut Butter Bars, which are made with Almonds from Gemperle’s farm, as well as Certified Transitional dates and sorghum from other farms in the US.
In addition to expanding its portfolio, Kashi has expanded the acres of Certified Transitional farmland from just two farms last year to 11 farms currently – bringing the total Certified Transitional land Kashi is sourcing from to nearly 3,500. But Kashi isn’t done yet.
“We have an aspiration overtime to move the needle on this less than 1% of US farmland [being] organic, so our aspiration over time is to get to 100% of our portfolio as Certified Transitional or organic and so every year, in our plans, we have new products that will Certified Transitional and organic,” Nestojko said.
Gemperle commends Kashi for its open source Certified Transitional program and says it is a better option than manufacturers signing long-term agreements with farmers to buy from them if they transition to organic because it expands the overall pool of organic.
A national certified transitional program
The Organic Trade Association and USDA also are pushing forward this idea of a Certified Transitional.
Earlier this year, USDA announced a new National Certified Transitional Program that will use standards developed by the Organic Trade Association. The goal of the program is to harmonize standards currently used by different certifiers and create a consistent set of rules.
Also notable is USDA’s decision last year to offer farmers transitioning from conventional to certified organic an option to insure their crops at a higher price than traditional crops. This is just one more way that the government is trying to ease the burden of the financial strain during the three-year transition period.