Young farmers tap opportunities in organic market
For Benina Montes, the goal was to diversify her family's mix of crops. Todd Hirasuna wanted to meet his customers' needs.Both saw opportunities in organic agriculture and joined a number of other young farmers who have gravitated to the specialized market. Both say they plan to stick with organic production even as the recession has bitten into the sales increases that the market sector had previously seen.
Third-generation farmer Todd Hirasuna of Sunnyside Packing Co. in Selma responded to customer requests by diversifying the family's farming operation to include a number of organic vegetables, including eggplant.
In order for the next generation of farmers to be successful with organic commodities, they will need to demonstrate as much marketing savvy as production skill, according to the head of the University of California Small Farm Center.
After graduating from college in 2001, Montes returned to her family's farm near Denair and suggested that her parents further diversify their operation by adding organic almonds to their mix of commodities. After watching her two siblings each become successful in the organic dairy business, she approached her parents with the idea of transitioning a small block of their conventionally grown almonds into organic.
"I said 'Dad, what do you think?'" Montes said. "Transitioning to organic is a total change in paradigm, but my parents are totally on board and supportive."
Montes said her parents became intrigued and were open to her transitioning a small block of almonds to organic. That was three years ago and now, of the 950 acres that the family grows, about 250 acres are planted in almonds that are certified organic or are currently in transition.
"Organic agriculture is something to get excited about. It is a way that smaller and younger farmers who are just getting started can make it because it is tough," Montes said. "If it wasn't for my family already working in farming, I have no idea how I would be able to do what I am doing."
Montes' decision to take a leap into organic was based on her desire to diversify the family farming operation, Vista Livestock, which produces milk, beef, feed crops and almonds.
"Diversification offered us a safety net," she said. "It is just another challenge and something new and I feel really good about it."
Given the economic slowdown, Montes confirms that organic almonds have taken a hit in price, but she said she believes this slowing is temporary.
"The economy is affecting us. The price has dropped and that also has a little bit to do with supply," Montes said.
Although sales of organics have been impacted by the economy, Shermain Hardesty, director of the UC Small Farm Center in Davis, said the demand for organic products will bounce back.
"As listed in the 2007 USDA census, California has reported organic sales of $657 million and that is with 3,235 farms, so that is pretty significant. The number of organic farms in 2002 was 1,443 and the dollar volume was $149 million, so that is pretty dramatic," Hardesty said.
She said it's crucial for young farmers to tap into the right marketing channels.
"People start with farmers markets typically as a new organic producer, especially if they are small. You can also have the producer that is transitioning into organic and that is a whole different ballgame. Community-supported agriculture is definitely a growth area," Hardesty said.
Third-generation farmer Todd Hirasuna, general manager at Sunnyside Packing Co. in Selma, phased out the company's permanent fruit crops three years ago and now concentrates on vegetables. The family farm offers a number of crops grown both conventionally and organically, including green beans, eggplant, winter squash and summer squash. The family also experiments with planting a few organic commodities each year to determine if they are a viable fit with the farm's growing program.
"As far as growing organic, a lot of the crossover is encouraged by customer request. Our customers want it and we see it as a new market that you can at least explore to increase your profit margin," Hirasuna said.
He acknowledges that growing commodities for his organic customers is challenging at times, and getting it down to a perfect science takes some trial and error.
"With organics you just don't have as many tools in the toolbox—especially for what we are trying to grow—and the heat of the summer makes it more challenging because that is when all of the bugs come," Hirasuna said. "Conventionally you can put fertilizer in the ground and in 7-10 days you see the difference, whereas with organic you have to have a lot more patience."
He said the farm strives to provide a consistent supply during its eight-to-nine-month production season.
"Achieving a consistent supply is one thing we've struggled with due to our climate," he said.
A few influences have impacted the market for organically grown produce, Hirasuna said, and those include the stressed economy and other food movements gaining momentum.
"It is a bad year to judge organics because of the economy; even on the conventional side we've noticed slower movement. Production and volume have been up, but it is just not leaving our warehouse as quickly as we would like," he said. "I think people that were kind of on the fence on whether to buy organic or conventional are watching how much they spend and have gone back to conventional because it is cheaper."
Hirasuna said he has also noticed that the locally grown movement has taken center stage.
"Locally grown has stolen the spotlight from the organic sector recently and a lot of that correlates to food safety. I've read that people prefer locally grown and shopping at farmers markets because they can attach a face or a person to their food and they have a personal connection," Hirasuna said. "Organic is always going to have a place in agriculture, but I don't see it really continuing to gain market share at the pace that it did previously."
Whether the next generation of farmers chooses organic or conventional or a combination of the two, Hirasuna said that they will have to be more well rounded than ever before when dealing with environmental and legislative issues.
"There's so much more that the next generation will have to deal with on a day-to-day basis than my parents' generation or my grandparents' generation. They were getting a taste of it probably over the last 15-20 years, but now these issues are becoming more important," Hirasuna said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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