Organic Broadcaster

Efforts underway to support domestic organic grain production

By John Mesko, MOSES

As has been noted in this publication before, the production of organic grain in the U.S. falls far below the aggregate domestic demand. This is due to several factors, including the rate at which demand is growing, and the rapid increase in demand for organic meat, such as chicken and pork.

Companies that rely on organic grain for food products, the USDA, and educational organizations such as MOSES all are working on efforts to facilitate an increase in the supply of domestic organic grain.

Transitional Label
While farms are engaged in the three-year transition from conventional to organic production, they sometimes undergo a yield decline as soils adjust to new management systems, become less dependent on the addition of synthetic materials to improve yield, and begin growing soil life. However, until the land is actually certified as organic, there is no price premium for the grain produced.

The result can be a serious economic challenge for most farms. In fact, farmers have said this potential loss of production is part of what keeps them out of organic, decreasing the likelihood of the U.S. closing the current gap between supply and demand.

Recently, the USDA announced the National Certified Transitional Program (NCTP) in partnership with the Organic Trade Association. Buyers eager to build their supply chain hope this certification will entice producers to transition to organic by creating at-the-ready market channels. This program has the potential to provide a moderate price premium to farmers who are in the middle of an organic transition, which could reduce the risk associated with the three-year transition.

Additionally, the NCTP will help grow relationships between organic meat, milk, and egg producers with the burgeoning number of soon-to-be-organic grain producers who are producing feed for animals.

Beginning Farmer Programs
Many factors are contributing to a growing need for new farmers. The average age of farmers is higher than that of the rest of the labor force, causing some concern for the future of farming as a career. This, combined with fewer farm-raised young people with a desire to return to the farm means new farmers are increasingly coming to the profession with less relevant farming experience, thus causing the learning curve to steepen.

Beginning farmers are a key audience for MOSES, and we work to develop new farmers in multiple ways. Our New Farmer U trainings, funded by the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, address the key issues for farmers getting started. Last fall, New Farmer U helped more than 100 new farmers learn about farm business planning, machinery basics, soil fertility, farm law, and much more.

While these trainings cover a broad range of knowledge that beginning farmers need, workshops and all-day courses at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference can focus more specifically on organic grain production. At the recent MOSES Conference, the topics included innovative weed control, organic corn and soybean hybrid selection, and growing small grains for artisanal food and craft brewing markets. There were also a number of workshops focused on cover crops and soil-building practices. In addition, the day-long Organic University included a course on managing risk during transition to organic.

Reaching Non-Organic Farmers
Through these more advanced workshops and courses, MOSES can encourage non-organic grain farmers to consider organic production. We’ve also been collaborating with the University of Wisconsin-Madison on field days through OGRAIN, the Organic Grain Resources and Information Network. We offered four OGRAIN field days last year. Each featured presentations from farmers, researchers, agency personnel, and industry representatives, with discussion and networking among farmers attending.

Collectively, these field days covered many agronomic aspects of organic food and feed-grain corn, soybean, and small grain production. Participants indicated a high level of learning, especially with regard to organic systems, weed control, soil health, and crop rotations.

We’re working on two more OGRAIN field days to take place this summer. Watch for details in this newspaper as we develop plans for those events.

Organic Grain Imports
Part of MOSES’ mission is to empower farmers to thrive in organic production systems. While we do much to address on-farm and in-the-field issues organic and transitioning farmers regularly face, farming does not occur in a vacuum. Issues beyond the context of the farm directly impact the success of sustainable, organic farmers.

For example, because of the gap between the supply and demand of organic grain in the U.S., imports of organic grain have been on the rise. When food companies use imports to meet product demand, the resulting downward pressure on domestic prices tends to discourage U.S. organic grain production.

Recently, the integrity of some organic grain being imported has come into question. The Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing (OFARM) hosted a panel at the 2017 MOSES Conference to discuss this topic. The panel consisted of Miles McEvoy, director of the USDA’s National Organic Program, Andrew Trump, grain sales and purchasing manager for Organic Arable, and John Bobbe, executive director of OFARM. The panel was moderated by Jim Riddle, a longtime organic expert, farmer, and advocate. Over 200 grain farmers attended this panel discussion, and learned about the impact imported grain is having in Europe, how the USDA is ensuring the integrity of imports into the U.S., and what U.S. farmers can do to help hold other nations to the same high standard of organic production we have in this country.

Industry-Based Response
General Mills, Coca Cola, Unilever, and other food companies have launched sustainable sourcing campaigns recently. Among the sustainability factors these campaigns consider are greenhouse gas emissions, treatment of farmworkers, water usage, water quality, synthetic fertilizer usage, and other sustainability benchmarks.

These campaigns are designed in part to direct a certain percentage of raw food inputs to be sourced from certain production practices, such as “sustainable” or “organic.” For example, General Mills has committed to obtaining 100 percent of its domestic corn, oats, wheat, and fluid milk from sustainable sources by 2020. This move, along with its push for more organic ingredients and products, represents a huge opportunity for sustainable and organic
producers in this country.

While those of us in the sustainable and organic community might not agree with everything these food companies are doing, we can applaud these kinds of initiatives in moving our food system further towards a sustainable future.

John Mesko is the executive director of MOSES.

From the March | April 2017 Issue

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