CHURDAN, Iowa (AP) – In the 1970s, when George Naylor said he wanted to grow organic crops, the idea didn’t turn out well.
Back then, organic crops were a rarity, relegated to health food stores or perhaps a few farmers markets.
“I told my dad I wanted to be an organic farmer and he said, ‘Ha, ha, ha,'” Naylor said, noting that it wasn’t until 2014 that he was able to embrace his dream and start making it happen. from standard to organic crops.
But over the decades, something unexpected happened: the demand for organic produce began to rise so rapidly that it began to outstrip the supply produced in the US.
Now a new challenge has emerged: it’s not about getting consumers to pay the higher prices, it’s about convincing enough farmers to overcome their green reluctance and start taking advantage of the incoming income.
Instead of growing to meet demand, the number of farmers converting to organic is declining. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pledged up to $300 million to recruit and help more farmers make the switch.
“It feels good,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of organic certification organization Oregon Tilth, referring to the government aid. “It is a milestone in the arc of this work.”
Schreiner, who has worked at the Oregon-based organization since 1998, said the expansion of technical training is important given the vast differences in conventionally and organically farmed land. Schreiner noted that one farmer told him that converting a conventional farmer was like asking “a foot doctor to become a heart surgeon.”
The key difference is the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as genetically modified seeds. Most conventional farms rely on these practices, but they are prohibited on organic farms. Instead, organic farmers must control weeds and pests with techniques such as rotating different crops and planting cover crops that pull out weeds and add nutrients to the soil.
Crops can only be considered organic if they are grown on land that has not been treated with synthetic substances for three years. During this period, farmers can grow crops, but they will not receive the additional premium that comes with organic crops.
According to the USDA, the number of conventional farms that have made a further transition to organic production fell by about 70% between 2008 and 2019. Organic represents about 6% of total food sales, but only 1% of the country’s farmland is devoted to organic production, with foreigners. producers occupying the gap.
In the U.S., “There are so many barriers for farmers to make that leap to organic,” said Megan DeBates, vice president of government affairs for the Organic Trade Association.
While farmers seem hesitant, American consumers are not. Annual sales of organic products have roughly doubled in the past decade and now exceed $63 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales are expected to rise up to 5.5% this year.
This growth is evident to anyone pushing a cart in the average supermarket, past bins of organic apples and bananas, past dairy and egg sections, and shelves full of organic beef and chicken.
The new USDA effort would include $100 million to help farmers learn new techniques to grow organic crops; $75 million for farmers who meet new conservation practice standards; $25 million to expand crop insurance options and reduce costs; and $100 million to help organic supply chains and develop organic markets.
Nick Andrews, an Oregon State University extension agent who works with organic farmers, called the USDA’s effort a “game changer.” It should be particularly attractive to farmers with small plots because the added value of organic crops allows significant money to be made even on farms of 25 to 100 acres (10 to 40 hectares), much smaller than commercial operations that they provide the majority of the country’s product.
“I’ve seen organic farmers keep families in business that would otherwise go out of business,” Andrews said.
Noah Wendt, who in recent years has transitioned 1,500 acres (607 hectares) of land in central Iowa to organic, noted that the transition has been “rocky” at times for him and his farming partner, Caleb Akin.
But he and Akin recently bought a grain elevator east of Des Moines to use only for organic crops, the kind of project the USDA program can help. They hope the elevator will not only be a nearby place to store grain, but provide a one-stop shop for learning about growing and marketing organic crops.
Seeing all the organic activity is rewarding for George and Patti Naylor, who farm near the small central Iowa community of Churdan. But they say they still value most of the simple benefits of their choice, such as evenings spent watching hundreds of rare monarch butterflies flock to their herbicide-free farm.
As Patti Naylor said, “It really helps to believe in what you’re doing.”
Sign up for the Features of Fortune email list so you don’t miss our top features, exclusive interviews and research.