State of the organic industry part 3

Closing organic & conventional yield gap is ‘golden ring’ to pull organic sector forward

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Closing organic & conventional yield gap is ‘golden ring’ to pull organic sector forward
Manufacturers and other stakeholders must find ways to help close the yield gap that many farmers experience when they transition from conventional to organic, or else risk domestic production of organic crops -- and the lower prices they often offer – falling behind imports, suggests an industry leader.

“In 2012 and 2013, organic prices were strong and now there is a lot of land that was in transition to organic coming on line. As a result, we are starting to see some declines in imports, particularly corn is starting to decline quite a bit, but soy still remains relatively high,”​ Matthew Dillion, director of agriculture policy and programs at Clif Bar & Company, said at Natural Products Expo West in March.

But, he added, in order to close the import-export gap, farmers need help making ends meet during the three transition years in which they must farm organically and often experience lower yields than under conventional methods, but do not yet qualify for the higher price premium of organic to compensate for their losses.

“One of the challenges that US farmers are having is the cost of transition is going up. It used to be about $300 to $500 an acre lost for a farmer during transition years. That has gone up to about $500 to $1,000 an acre lost during transition for farmers,”​ he explained.

He added that many US crops transitioning to organic have a yield drag of about 30-40% below conventional crop yields, which “is not really acceptable to farmers long-term when you look at their economics.”

As such, he asked, “How can we provide financial tools, education and technical assistance to farmers during transition, market outputs for their cash crops that they are transitioning and research, so that they can be as efficient and high yielding as possible?”

At Clif Bar, the company is tackling the yield gap by investing in plant breeding, contributing to an agriculture fund that helps provide technical assistance to educate growers and investing in infrastructure that will help reduce the distance that organic producers must transport their crops from the farm gate to the aggregator or processor, which is a significantly longer distance than for most conventional producers, Dillion said.

“It costs an organic grain grower about 15 cents a bushel for every 50 miles they ship their grain. So, if we can shorten that distances from the farm gate to the aggregator, that is a great value,”​ he emphasized.

Join OTA on Capitol Hill

Another way that industry stakeholders can help close the yield gap and increase domestic production of organic crops is to actively lobby political representatives to include more funding for organic research in the next Farm Bill, added Melody Meyer, vice president of policy and industry relations at UNFI.

This research can help find ways to improve organic farming techniques and cultivars so that yield increases without compromising the values of the USDA certification, she said, noting that while the acreage of organic apples produced in Washington state have climbed 37% in 2017, the output of boxes was up 43%.

“This is the key,”​ agreed Dillion. But he underscored it isn’t enough simply “to keep your finger on the pulse about what is happening in the Farm Bill and to be active as individuals, companies also must invest,”​ and one way to do that is to visit representatives in Washington, DC, with the Organic Trade Association this spring to ensure politicians understand what is at stake and who it impacts.

OTA members will visit representatives on Capitol Hill May 23​ as part of a full week of policy events and educational activities. 

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