Got Organic? Welcome to the Age of 21st Century Organic Farming

By Nancy Pfund and Lucas Strom, December 10, 2018

You can only have so many bad years before you have to do some­thing dif­fer­ent to be prof­itable.” Three years ago, Bri­an Irlbeck—a farmer in Man­ning, Iowa—was not pleased with the prof­its from his con­ven­tion­al row crop acres. Search­ing for ways to boost his bot­tom line, Irl­beck start­ed think­ing about switch­ing to organ­ic farm­ing meth­ods. Like all farm­ers, he knew that diver­si­fi­ca­tion was key to man­ag­ing risk and grow­ing the long-term prof­it poten­tial of his farm.

But tran­si­tion­ing to organ­ic farm­ing was no triv­ial deci­sion. Would his farm real­ly be more prof­itable? Would he quick­ly devel­op the exper­tise need­ed for a whole new sys­tem of farm man­age­ment? And did his farm have the finan­cial means to invest in the nec­es­sary changes? Ulti­mate­ly, Irl­beck con­sid­ered the con­sumer: “As farm­ers, we have to make sure we’re grow­ing what our cus­tomers are look­ing for, and the crops we can get paid to produce.”

Over the past decade, there has been a dra­mat­ic increase in con­sumer-dri­ven demand for organ­ic crops. And while the sup­ply of many organ­ic prod­ucts has risen to meet that demand, row crops like corn and soy­beans have lagged behind. The result is that the U.S. imports huge amounts of these organ­ic sta­ple crops.

So why don’t U.S. farm­ers tran­si­tion from con­ven­tion­al to organ­ic meth­ods? For many of the nation’s large-scale farm­ers, the ben­e­fits of alter­ing grow­ing prac­tices to meet this demand has been rid­dled with uncer­tain­ty. Bri­an Irl­beck­’s con­cerns are com­mon. But due to inno­va­tions in tran­si­tion­al ser­vice pro­vi­sion, financ­ing, and tech-enabled ana­lyt­ics, the tran­si­tion is becom­ing eas­i­er, and more farm­ers are real­iz­ing that organ­ic can be more prof­itable than conventional.

This paper presents the eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty of organ­ic farm­ing and a roadmap for row crop farm­ers to make the tran­si­tion from con­ven­tion­al to organ­ic farming.

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