“As part of organic, we have crop rotation,” as a way to replenish and build soil that otherwise would require the addition of synthetic fertilizer to support the repeated production of the same crop, Nate Powell-Palm, a farmer with Cold Springs Organics in Bozeman, Mont., told Congressional staff during a round table discussion on Capitol Hill Feb 5.
He explained that his crop rotation includes pulses, such as beans and lentils, which help “fix” nitrogen into the soil naturally, which is needed to support other high-demand cash crops, such as wheat and barley.
The problem, however, is the current food system does not pay as well for many of the alternative crops that organic farmers need to rotate with cash-crops to run a sustainable farm, Powell-Palm explained. As a result, he added, they are sacrificing potential revenues in an industry that already has notoriously tight margins.
But, he noted, with help from innovative manufacturers there is an emerging solution that allows organic farmers to grow crops sustainably without sacrificing revenues.
He explained: “Over the past few years, some brands have been interested in what keeps farms from being really economically viable. And a big component of that for organic grain farmers, is we have to grow these alternative crops, like peas and lentils and other legumes, so we can feed nitrogen into our cash crops, but wouldn’t it be great if we could also sell those crops?”
General Mills, through its brand Annie’s, answered this call for help by creating limited-edition products that incorporated the rotational crops used by the organic farmers who also grew the traditional cash-crops, like wheat, that the brand needed.
Specifically, Annie’s launched a boxed elbow mac & cheese, which includes about one-third yellow peas and two-thirds durum wheat grown on Powell-Palm’s farm.
“By doing that, I was suddenly able to make a different economic reality on my farm. I was able to say, everything I am growing is going to have some revenue potential and in doing so, I am able to suddenly realize a lot more revenue and thus grow my operation,” in a way that otherwise might not have been possible, Powell-Palm said.
Annie’s has applied this model to other products as well, such as limited edition organic Honey Bunny Grahams made with wheat and oats from a single farm in Fort Benton, Mont., that follows regenerative practices, including crop rotation.
Another brand that has stepped up to the plate to support farmers following organic crop rotation practices is the organic salad supplier Earthbound Farms, noted Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director at OTA.
She explained during the round table that Earthbound Farms has innovated products such as ‘riced’ cauliflower and broccoli in order to create an increased demand for the brassicas that strawberry farmers on the West Coast use as rotational crops.
Brassicas suppress fungal pathogens so that strawberry farmers do not have to fumigate their fields as often, but they do not command the same high price point as strawberries, Batcha explained. But, she added, by creating added value products, consumers are willing to pay more for these rotational crops than before creating a win-win for farmers and manufacturers.
Ultimately, Batcha said, these examples show that even though rotating crops is complex, it creates additional opportunities for economic development up and down the supply chain when innovative manufacturers and organic farmers work together to create outlets for alternative crops.