Only 1% Of Farmland In The US Is Organic—This Program Is Changing That

The innovative new program that's easing the financial burden for farmers who want to go organic, and how you can support it.

March 17, 2017
farmer walking in certified transitional almond orchard
John Trice

Our appetite for organic food is at an all time high. In the past two decades, sales in the organic sector have soared from $3.7 billion to 43 billion. Retailers like Costco even report that farmers can’t grow produce fast enough to keep pace with their customers’ voracious organic appetites.

Yet despite rising demand for organics, less than 1% of U.S. farmland is certified organic, forcing the U.S. to import (literal) boat loads of organic food from abroad—even crops that are ideally suited to our climate. Get this: While 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced in California, the U.S. still imported $58 million worth of organic almonds in 2015 from Spain and Italy. Talk about a missed economic opportunity! 

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There’s a big reason we’re lagging behind—but, if a new program takes off, there may also be a solution on the horizon. 

(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)

The Huge Hurdles To Going Organic

handful of certified transitional almonds
John Trice

It’s  not that U.S. farmers don’t want to make the switch from conventional to organic—with organic corn fetching double the price of conventional, for example, the economic incentive is certainly there. But, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group, many farmers find it unrealistic due to the high initial cost of transitioning to organic practices and the lack of financial support from the government. 

 

When a farmer decides to convert to organic practices, there's a 3-year transition period in which they must follow all organic practices, but aren't allowed to sell their crops as organic (and at organic prices). This is to ensure that there's adequate time to rebuild healthy soil biology and produce nutrient-packed, toxin-free produce. And while that makes sense, since the crop isn't certified organic yet, it’s also expensive—in most cases, prohibitively so— due to the increase in labor required for things like natural pest and weed management.

Related: The Organic Label Needs Your Help
 
Many European nations help wannabe organic farmers bridge the transitional years via official organic transition support programs—programs that are partially responsible for 5 percent of Europe’s farmland being organic (compared to our measly 1 percent). The EWG report argues that the United States federal government should do the same–but when and if that will happen is hard to say. 

The Program Helping Farmers—Right Now

certified transitional label
Image courtesy of Kashi

 

In  the meantime, though, companies in the private sector are taking action to ease the financial burden on farmers who want to go organic—and it’s leading to some positive changes. In May 2016, a new certification standard and label debuted: Certified Transitional, which was developed by Kashi in conjunction with the organic certifying body Quality Assurance International (QAI). The first line of certified transitional granola bars bearing that label started hitting supermarket shelves this year.

Per the new standard, any crop can be sold as "certified transitional" instead of "conventional" during year two of the transition process, a full year after the farmer has ceased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These certified transitional crops can be sold at prices somewhere in between conventional and organic produce to food companies to use in their products. Kashi, for instance, uses them in its Dark Cocoa Karma Shredded Wheat Biscuits and new Chewy Nut Butter Bars. If a product is comprised of at least 70% transitional ingredients, it can bear the green Certified Transitional label.

Currently, Kashi buys wheat, dates, sorghum, almonds, and rice from 10 transitional farms across the U.S., which cover a total of 3,500 acres (up from 860 acres last year). That number is expected to climb as Kashi increases its transitional product line, and as other companies start seeking out transitional crops.

Richard Gemperle, certified transitional farmer
Richard Gemperle on his Certified Transitional almond orchard in California's Central Valley John Trice

“Farmers want to diversify, but they are also risk averse,” says Richard Gemperle, an almond farmer in California’s Central Valley who is transitioning his almond orchards to organic and selling his crop to Kashi for about 25% more than he could before. “When you make that conversion to organic with a specialty crop like almonds, you often see a loss in yield. Over three years, that’s quite a barrier to go organic, which is why this program is great.”

Related: 8 Tips For Growing An Organic Vegetable Garden On A Budget

Gemperle’s personal inspiration for going organic was in part due to his orchard’s rat problem. “Some of our branches were pretty damaged, so I went to a demonstration on barn owl boxes, a form of integrated pest management (IPM) that attracts owls that then then eat the rodents,” he says. “We put them up, and it was extremely effective yet still in total symbiosis with the environment—unlike traditional bait.”

“It was sort of an ‘aha!’ moment,” says Gemperle, who took an interest in other IPM practices like winter shaking from there, and realized that farming could be done sustainably and productively—provided that farmers have the right knowledge and support. 

In February 2017, Kashi hosted a panel in New York City to discuss the state of the organic industry. The discussion opened a conversation with thought leaders about the barriers to organic farming, purchasing organics and uncovered some key findings about the role Certified Transitional can play moving forward:

How You Can Support Organic Farmland 

The more organic farmland there is, the more reasonable organic prices will be—something everyone can get behind. So, if you’re able, continue to vote with your dollars and buy organic produce and meats, as well as organic and Certified Transitional packaged foods. “In the end, it’s going to be consumer driven,” says Gemperle. “If there’s a huge demand, farmers will work to fill it and you may see a lot of acreage converting to organic.” 

Related: 6 Processed Foods You Should Always Buy Organic

For Certified Transitional products specifically, you don’t have too many options yet—just the cereal and the bars mentioned above, but that should be changing: "We worked with QAI to develop a protocol that would be open to any brand," says Nicole Nestojko, senior director of supply chain and sustainability for Kashi. "And we're hopeful—since launching in May, several other brands and retailers have already expressed interest."

So keep your eye out for the other green label and know that it denotes a product with high quality standards that helps ease the financial burden of soon-to-be organic farmers. 

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