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Survey ranks needs of organic farms

Issue Date: June 15, 2022
Ching Lee
Farmer Ben Lyons harvests elderberries on his organic farm in Solano County. Being small scale, he says accessing affordable labor remains a problem. A new survey of organic farmers shows he’s not alone, with 55% of those in California ranking access to labor as a top nonproduction challenge.
Photo/Ching Lee
Solano County farmer Ben Lyons, right, picks apricots to fill a produce box for customers Juju Arredondo, center, and Luke Fraser.
Photo/Ching Lee

Because he's not allowed to spray for weeds, Solano County farmer Mike Wilkinson says his biggest challenge as an organic farmer is trying to get rid of the unwanted plants that could overcrowd his crops and rob them of nutrients.

"It's even crazier with me because I'm not tilling," he said. "The first few years of no-till is the hardest for weed management. I'm still in the thick of it. It's supposed to get better."

Having to pull or cut the weeds by hand, Wilkinson says labor is another primary challenge for his organic farm, which he and his wife started in 2019.

The Wilkinsons are not alone. According to a new report by the Santa Cruz-based Organic Farming Research Foundation, controlling weeds and accessing labor ranked among the leading five production and nonproduction challenges for California organic farmers.

The report also listed managing production costs, controlling insect pests, and maintaining soil fertility and crop nutrients at or near the top.

The California Organic Research Agenda, or CORA, represents a companion to the research foundation's national organic study, which surveyed some 1,200 organic farmers and ranchers across the U.S., including 144 California organic farmers.

The foundation has been surveying U.S. organic farmers for more than 20 years, with the current survey representing its seventh, said OFRF Executive Director Brise Tencer. It first released findings specific to California in 2016.

Tencer noted that California leads the nation in organic production but has been "slow to emerge as a leader in providing needed support and infrastructure for the organic sector." She said the California report "serves as a roadmap to those folks working with and for farmers to make sure producers are getting the support that they need."

Houston Wilson, director of the University of California Organic Agriculture Institute, said the CORA survey will help guide development of the institute's work. It was created in 2020 to develop a research and extension program for organic agriculture.

"My biggest takeaway was that every cropping system needs help in every category," Wilson said. "That, to me, is really reflective of the lack of investment to optimize (organic production) systems."

Compared to the amount of research that has been devoted to conventional farming, Wilson said, historical investments in organic agriculture has been "quite low." But that is changing.

In addition to creation of the institute, the UC now has an organic production specialist, the first of its kind for the university. New funding will also allow the institute to conduct a more detailed statewide needs assessment of organic agriculture that will go "a lot deeper" than the CORA study, Wilson said.

With information from CORA, Joji Muramoto, the UC's sole organic production specialist, said he will be traveling the state during the next two years to establish a network of organic researchers and work with farmers on specific needs.

He noted that in the past, organic growers "almost always" put weed management as a top priority. In the current survey, what stood out to him is how high it placed labor, though he said, "it's not a surprise."

In addition to accessing labor, the top five nonproduction challenges were: finding and developing markets for organic products; meeting record-keeping requirements; cost of organic certification; and managing business activities.

For Ben Lyons, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer in Solano County who's been operating for 10 years, regulatory challenges have been his main concern.

Lyons farms about 70 different crops on 10 acres, and he said his regulatory load includes egg-selling registration, water monitoring, federal food-safety rules and various certifications.

"I do one farmers market, and I have probably $1,500 to $2,000 in regulatory fees before I even sell one zucchini," he said. "It's just amazing the amount of regulation I have for a small certified organic farm."

Lyons said he disagrees with current federal organic rules that allow hydroponic producers to sell their crops as organic, adding, "It's just really gotten polluted and convoluted as far as what really is organic."

Farmers who participated in the CORA survey ranked organic fraud and integrity of the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label as their top concern on topics related to organic agriculture.

Other concerns include lack of skilled labor; imbalance of domestic certified organic supply and demand; industrial organic; and crop contamination.

Wilkinson said record-keeping requirements for his farm's organic certification remains a top challenge for his small operation. But he said he maintains it because "it's a fantastic marketing tool" and the certification allows him to charge a premium for his produce.

His main marketing channels include community-supported agriculture produce boxes, a weekend farm stand and restaurant accounts.

Because organic farmers cite a broad range of technical assistance needs, Wilson of the UC organic institute said he's looking to the survey to prioritize them.

"If you look at what comes out at the very, very top, frequently it's crop nutrition and weed management," he said. "If you push me in a corner and said, 'You have to choose just one or just two,' that's probably where I would start. That's what I see in these surveys."

Wilson and Muramoto agree that the work they're doing is not exclusive to organic farmers and could help to inform conventional and other types of production systems.

For example, use of compost and cover crops could help water conservation by improving soil quality and soil organic matter, which in turn helps improve the water-holding capacity of the soil, they pointed out.

Muramoto noted that some small-scale organic farms incorporate no-till techniques with applications of compost and mulch, which can "save a lot of water" and "could change water management systems."

With increasing regulatory and market demands that all growers face, Wilson said so-called organic practices are important for everyone in agriculture.

"You don't have to be a certified organic farmer to farm organically or to use a number of these organic practices," he said. "I think a lot of growers are starting to understand that."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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