Helping farmers transition to organic

Facing supply shortages of organic crops, the US organic industry has launched initiatives to encourage more farmers to transition their land to organic. Stonyfield Farms, a manufacturer of organic dairy products, and Organic Valley, an organic farmer-owned cooperative, have established a fund to help dairy farmers transition to organic. The two companies expect to spend about $2 million on incentives and technical help this year. Whole Foods recently announced a $10 million loan program to support organic farmers.

At organic cereal manufacturer Nature’s Path Foods, Dag Falck, organic program manager, works full time to encourage more farmers to transition to organic. He provides organic farmers with access to organic agronomic resources, and growing and harvesting techniques to ensure the highest quality organic crops. Educated as an agronomist in Norway, Dag has 17 years direct experience in organic farming and processing.

The Organic & Non-GMO Report recently spoke with Dag about the need for more organic farmers and the challenges facing those that make the transition.

What are some of the things you do to encourage farmers to transition to organic?
We assist farmers in finding agronomic resources. We get them in touch with organic groups and certifiers in their area. I serve on the boards of Canadian Organic Growers, Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, and the Organic Trade Association, which all aim to assist farmers wanting to transition. I represent Nature’s Path at farmer conferences and give presentations about organic farming. I also attend farm field days organized by organic certification chapters and farming research stations and meet with farmers.

Are you seeing more farmers interested in transitioning to organic?
Yes, farmers call us and ask about getting into organics to increase premiums. Sometimes they don’t have much of an idea of what organic is.

Some farmers tell us they don’t use agricultural chemicals, and I try to help them transition. I tell them about organic certifiers in their area and help them understand what to look for when choosing one. I am also happy to conduct a mock inspection to help them prepare for what an organic certifier and inspector will look for.

What are some of the challenges facing farmers that transition to organic?
The biggest challenge farmers face is changing their thinking. Most current organic farmers switched to organic before there were financial incentives. They had environmental concerns. There are not as many farmers from that segment left. Most farmers transitioning to organic today do it for financial incentives, which is fine. But they have to adopt the organic philosophy and mindset. Otherwise it will be difficult for them to make it through the three-year transition to organic. Many farmers who transition based on economics alone don’t last two or three years because there is not enough motivation for them to last. But it’s often not until the fourth and fifth years when the real transition in the mind of the farmer happens.

Some experts recommend transitioning a farm to organic gradually instead of all at once to avoid economic risks. What do you think of this approach?
From a financial point of view it makes sense to ease into organics and not risk financial disaster. The problem is you can’t change your approach or mindset to organic if you’re still farming conventionally. You wouldn’t be open to organic solutions to pest control if you’re still spraying pesticides. You can’t think both ways.

Organic is an art form, while the whole process of conventional farming has been put into an oversimplified approach where decisions are often made by fertilizer salesmen and chemical company reps.

Organic is totally different. There are hundreds or thousands of ways to farm organically. You must learn, observe, and experiment to find the style of organic that works best for you.

Doesn’t organic farming also involve some marketing skills?
Marketing organic crops is very different than marketing conventional. Most conventional farmers just sell their grain at a grain elevator. Organic farmers have to find buyers.

There is a lot of organic product that is not selling because the connections haven’t been made. The farmer doesn’t find a buyer and dumps the grain as conventional.

A lot of farmers don’t like to market. One farmer may get on the phone and search the internet making connections, and another may sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. In organic, you have to develop networking skills.
I think organic marketing avenues will increase as the industry grows.

What do farmers need to do to successfully transition to organic?
They need to study the standards or talk to someone who understands them. They need to understand what organic is. They need to develop a transition plan and identify things in their farm that must change and plan how those changes will affect their farm.

To start, I recommend using more organic methods to build the health of the soil before switching to only organic management methods. If the land is dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides and you suddenly remove them, there will be withdrawal with low yields and weed pressure. You may need two years of preparation to get the soil into more organic condition before applying for organic certification, which will start your three-year transition. This will help smooth the transition and minimize financial losses due to low yields.

Network with other organic farmers and learn everything you can from them. It’s likely they’ve already learned all the things you’re facing.
A very good resource for farmers thinking about transitioning to organic is the book “Gaining Ground” published by Canadian Organic Growers. It’s available at

What are the benefits for farmers who make the transition to organic?
Some benefits farmers will start noticing on their land during the transition are that the soil becomes softer with less compaction, an increase of beneficial insects and bird populations, and weeds, although present, do not affect crop yields in the way you might expect. Also the farmers and their workers will be spared hours of exposure to toxic chemicals, which are confirmed causes of cancer and other human diseases.  Financially there will be less pressure from financing input costs, and the net income tends to be higher in relation to input cost than in conventional farming.
Copyright 2006. The Organic & Non-GMO Report (August 2006).