Last fall the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed standards for organic foods and received more than 200,000 comments during the public comment period of the revision process -- the most public input the agency has ever received about a new regulation. Because of the comments, the USDA may exclude various practices from organic food production that have nothing to do with chemical use, including growing genetically enhanced crops, using irradiation for food safety reasons, or applying sludge as a fertilizer.
Despite the controversy, many people say that interest in organic production is as high as it has ever been.
Ron Roller is president and chief soybean buyer of American Soy Products in Saline, Mich., the nation's largest producer of organic soy food products. He says the current status of the organic market is unlike anything he's seen in his 25 years in the business.
"The organic soybean market is exploding at the moment. It's just going nuts," he says. "I'm amazed at the speed at which farmers are getting into this market. In the years past, we had a hard time finding suppliers, and it's still difficult, but that's because the demand for the crops is so high. But there's been a surge of farmers coming into organic farming."
The demand for organic soy products, such as soy milk and tofu, has driven organic soybean prices much higher than regular soybeans. This has not gone unnoticed by farmers in the Midwest. According to Roller, prices for organic soybeans are ranging as high as $25 a bushel, compared to just below $7 for conventional soybeans.
"The Japanese market is the driving force," Roller explains. "They make a lot of products out of soybeans, and the past few years, they have been demanding organic products. It's spurred a huge demand in organics."
A second major reason for the heightened interest in organic farming is the upcoming revision of the USDA's standards for organically produced foods.
Roller says that the new standards could significantly increase the number of producers and products. "Right now there are 30 or 40 certifying groups, but if the government sets a uniform standard, that will speed the entire process," he says. "Not everyone is happy that there will be one standard applied by the federal government, but if you are a multinational manufacturer of food products, and you make products that use many ingredients, it'll make it easier for these companies to move into the organic marketplace."
According to Petritz, although organic farming may look simple, it is surprisingly complex for farmers who haven't tried it. "For example, if you plan to sell organic meat or milk, you have to have organically produced feed for the livestock," he says. "Producers need to know the basics of producing their particular crop. They can't go from doing nothing with organic to producing crops overnight."
Cissy Bowman, spokeswoman for the Organic Farmers Marketing Association and herself an organic farmer in Clayton, Ind., agrees that producers considering organic farming should proceed cautiously, and identify exactly where they plan to sell their crops and what those markets are buying.
"There are market complications that can disappoint growers if they are not well-informed about markets prior to planting," Bowman says. "In 1995, the founders of the Organic Farmers Marketing Association did a survey of market barriers and found that many potential and new growers quickly became disillusioned when the time came to sell their crops. If growers are well-informed ahead of time, then markets can be good and the 'conversion' to organic works. As in any other form of agriculture, the new organic growers must have a local infrastructure in place or they will likely revert back to conventional methods and markets."
Roller agrees that there can be pitfalls. "Most of the buyers want specific varieties of beans, and these are grown under contract," he says. "People who are interested in getting the right prices need to grow the right kind of beans. It's really the end-user who is determining what the producers plant."
Written by: Steve Tally
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