Regeneration Vermont’s Take: As industrial agriculture commodity prices continue to decline for the third straight year, farmers are converting to organic to avoid losing the farm to bankruptcy on their watch.
Originally published in the Des Moines Register by Donnelle Eller.
Weeds might be the toughest challenge Dustin Farnsworth faces, shifting from growing conventional corn and soybeans to organic row crops.
The Adair farmer battled buttonweed and other unwelcome intruders in his soybeans the first year he moved away from synthetic chemicals.
He’s also fielded some unwanted comments. “My neighbors said, ‘Farnsworth, it’s a weedy mess. It looks like hell,” he said.
The criticism will be worthwhile, though, when the beginning farmer can get double or triple conventional prices for his crops.
Although still a small piece of Iowa farming, more and more growers are shifting to organic corn, soybeans and other crops to improve their bottom line.
The number of Iowa farms and acres certified as organic have each climbed about 5 percent last year over 2015, U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys show.
Iowa had 732 organic farms with 103,136 acres in 2016. Sales climbed 9 percent to $131.2 million.
The state ranks fifth nationally for its number of organic farms, although it’s less than 1 percent of Iowa’s 88,000 farms.
California leads the nation with 2,713 organic farms, pulling in nearly $2.9 billion.
Total U.S. sales for organic grain, meat, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables reached nearly $7.6 billion last year, the USDA data show.
Altogether, the organics industry is closing in on $50 billion annually.
Kathleen Delate, an Iowa State University horticulture professor, said farmers are attracted to organic crops for many reasons, but a leading one is financial.
“Organic corn is $8.70 and organic soybeans are $19,” she said. “That’s definitely an enticement in an era of low commodity prices.”
Conventional corn is selling around $3 a bushel in Iowa, and soybeans are about $9. Both are below the cost to produce the crops, based on statewide averages.
Many Iowa farmers face a fourth year of possible losses.
Looking at recent prices, farmers converting their whole operation to organic over five years would average $206 per acre, said Craig Chase, an ISU Extension local foods specialist.
Conventional farmers would have lost an average of $33 an acre over that time, based on Chase’s models.
Even though organic yields are lower, prices are higher and production costs are slimmer.