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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