Organic Food Grower The Buzz


Organic farming is farming "the natural way." That means no herbicides or pesticides, no chemical fertilizers and no genetic modification. Instead, farmers use natural methods of pest, disease and weed control.

Advocates say organic food has a number of benefits. These include better taste, more vitamins and nutrients and less impact on the environment.

"It's a lifestyle," says Peter Benner. He works with an organic growers' organization. "It's a commitment to the Earth and to ensuring that at least in their sphere of influence, which is their farm, that things are as healthy, safe and nutritious as they can be."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the term "organic." All producers and handlers must be certified by a USDA-accredited agent to sell products labeled "organic." Farmers with a gross annual income of less than $5,000 don't have to be certified.

Certification protects the consumer. It ensures that people get what they pay for. For farmers, it involves filling out lengthy application forms. An inspector often visits the farm to make sure the standards are met.

"You have to have all your information on inputs, how you create your fertility, what procedures you use for weeding, disease control and all that kind of stuff," says Brian Hughes. He owns an organic farm.

Growers pay the certification body an initial fee of several hundred dollars. Then growers must file detailed reports every year, along with annual fees.

Hughes says new farms usually pay an initial fee of about $300. The annual fee for his farm is about $500. The fees are based on the production volume.

The annual reporting can be a lot of work. But Hughes says it's necessary to give consumers confidence in the products.

"I've been doing it for years and years, and just to renew it each year takes me about a week's worth of work, just to put the application together," Hughes says.

"You have to keep records on everything you do on the farm, basically. Everything you put on the land, how often you put it on, how much you put on, when you put it on. If you're composting, how often you turn your compost pile, what you use for material to make the compost."

Hughes started his farm over 15 years ago. He had been working in commercial real estate before he moved into farming.

"With a small family at the time, with the kids small, we decided we would get some land and go organic," he says.

"I have a science degree, and I just got very concerned about just how food was going, with all the junk that was being put on it. This tremendous emphasis on food looking good and all the stuff they use to make it look good -- fungicides and all that stuff."

Hughes' organic farm is 30 acres. It's one of the larger ones in his area. The farm produces a wide range of foods, including strawberries, apples, vegetables, eggs, chicken, pork and salad greens.

Hughes suggests that aspiring organic farmers go to conferences to learn more about "the field," so to speak. More and more regional conferences are being held. Also, some community colleges are starting to offer courses in organic farming.

Besides a few courses, all you need is some land, a strong back and some equipment. "If you start from scratch, you probably need $1,000 to get yourself things like a rotary tiller and some decent hoes and forks and shovels and stuff like that," says Hughes.

In fact, owning some land is optional, thanks to some new programs. These programs link up people who want to work the land with people who have land that isn't being worked.

Imagine a retired person who owns some land but no longer wants to work their garden. They're happy to allow use of the land in exchange for a share of the produce.

Income largely depends on the production volume. The more land, the more you can potentially earn.

"It really depends on your operation," says Hughes. "There are big growers in the Okanagan [in British Columbia], for instance, growing tree fruits, and they would have a turnover of a million dollars a year. And there's all the way down to somebody who has sales of $5,000 a year.

"I don't think you get into organic growing to make a pile of money," Hughes adds. "I think you do it from a belief perspective. You believe in what you're doing, that you're doing the right thing for yourself, your family, the environment and your neighbors."

For many organic farmers, the farm doesn't provide a living. On about 70 percent of the farms Hughes is familiar with, at least one of the partners has a job off the farm.

It takes a lot of work to succeed. "It's a hard grind," Hughes says.

"First of all, you have to have the volumes to make it work, so you need lots of land. Second, you need to have a certain amount of luck along with your knowledge, in order to deal with the things that happen -- weather and various pests and whatnot that you have to deal with, [and] weeding."

Because you don't use herbicides and pesticides, there's extra work. And extra expense.

"We grow a lot of strawberries, for instance," Hughes explains. "It costs us about $2,000 an acre to weed the strawberries.

"The extra work and expense leads to higher prices for consumers. But many consumers are willing to pay more for food they believe is tastier and more healthful."

Barbara Haumann is a senior writer for the Organic Trade Association. "Sales of organic foods and beverages have grown 20 percent to 24 percent each year over the past decade," she says. "We're not seeing a decrease and we expect to see that growth continue."

The OTA represents the organic industry in Canada, the United States and Mexico. Members include growers, processors, shippers and retailers.

According to the OTA, the most popular organic products are vegetables, fruits and cereals or grains.

Givens says the average size of an organic farm is about 140 acres. The average for a non-organic farm is 268 acres. She says the sizes vary widely, and therefore so do the incomes of the farmers. There are 3,000-acre farms and there are one- or two-acre farms.

And bigger isn't necessarily better. "I met this farmer in Mississippi who was doing less than an acre," Givens says. "She had organic herbs and she had found a market for them with the restaurants in New Orleans."

Many farmers earn additional income from other jobs.

"It could be supplementing [income], or a way to have a 'voluntary simplicity' lifestyle for some people," Givens says. "If a lot of money is important to you, farming might not be the best choice."

Hughes predicts there will be a lot of opportunity for 'budding' entrepreneurs.

"It's becoming more and more mainstream," Hughes says. "Fifteen years ago, there was very little organic growing. Everybody thought we were a bunch of crazies to do it, but they don't think that anymore."

Links

Soil Association
News and research about everything organic

National Organic Program
Certification info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture