March 15, 2007: Just as there are many reasons
for farmers to convert to organics, there are many reasons that
farmers allow their certification to lapse. Some quit farming altogether
and some revert to non-organic systems because they found the learning
curve to comply with organic production, certification and marketing
too steep or not worth the effort.
Analysis by the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) concludes
there is no one specific reason why farmers who had previously sought
organic certification chose not to reregister.
The researchers studied farmers who had discontinued their registration
with the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture
Organic Program. (A complete version of the study of decertifying
organic farmers can be obtained from the California Institute for
Rural Studies www.cirsinc.org.)
Conventional, Mixed and "'Deregistered" Farmers:
Entry Barriers and Reasons for Exiting Organic Production in California
is based on analysis from more than 100 interviews conducted over
the past year. More than 70 conventional, mixed, and deregistered
farmers were interviewed, representing more than 1,200 acres of
In order to have a wide range of views, researchers sought out
respondents who were actively using either organic or conventional
practices, or were in the process of expanding or contacting their
organic acreage. The average farm size was 63 acres.
While the data was derived from primary work done by CIRS, data
recently compiled by the state ag department’s organic program
indicates 523 organic farmers deregistered between 2003-2005—a
time when 600 new farmers entered organics. In 2005, the state had
1,738 certified organic farmers operating on 222,557 acres, state
agriculture department figures show. The deregistered farmers listed
a total of 16,889 acres, for an average of 33 acres each. A spokesman
for the office cautioned that the figures are somewhat general in
nature, as farmers can report their certification (or decertification)
and acreage at any time of year.
The study found that half of the deregistered growers interviewed
had left farming entirely—mostly for personal reasons unrelated
to the decision to transition to organic (lost lease on land, health
problems, divorce, retirement, grown kids, etc.)—while the
other half had reverted to conventional production.
The farmers who continued farming said they decertified due to
a combination of factors including higher production costs, reduced
yields, disenchantment with the federal organic rule, lack of access
to organic markets in general or lack particular price premiums
necessary to cover their higher production costs and/or lower yields.
Some farmers said lack of access to information and technical assistance
prevented them from transitioning into organic into the first place.
"I could use some help navigating the transition," one
farmer stated, "I've got one field close to being certifiable,
but where do I go? It feels like you're out there on your own."
Several farmers cited a lack of support from certifying agencies.
Beauty is in the eye…
Some farmers experienced an increase in production costs coupled
with lower yields and higher rates of either second-grade or unmarketable
product due to a smaller size or minor cosmetic imperfections that
customers wouldn’t accept.
"Organic might be sweeter, but it's smaller and definitely
more expensive," stated one respondent. However, other growers
indicated that both creative marketing and personal relationships
with consumers can resolve these issues. One farmer with a longstanding
relationship with local stores found that those outlets bought his
scarred peaches when he labeled them as "nature kissed."
Customers accepted the imperfections and purchased the peaches.
Growers who had adopted organic
farming practices primarily for economic gain, rather than a
philosophical commitment to organic, were more likely to revert
to conventional production with changing economic circumstances.
A number of farmers said they faced steeply higher costs for weed
management when they relied on hand weeding along with additional
tractor passes. As labor substitutes in part on organic farms for
other capital costs and purchased synthetic inputs, the study indicates
that wages can typically account for more than 50 percent of all
As one mixed-enterprise farmer explained, "This is all labor.
I've had a few partners that backed out once they saw they had to
spend $1,800 an acre weeding spinach compared to $150 an acre in
An organic farmer in Ventura County stated that "when I farmed
conventionally, I had six employees on 300 acres. Now that I'm farming
organically, I have 15 employees on 30 acres."
CIRS study authors Ron Strochlic and Luis Sierra found that growers
who had adopted organic farming practices primarily for economic
gain, rather than a philosophical commitment to organic, were more
likely to revert to conventional production with changing economic
circumstances. For example, when the price of conventional almonds
shot up, a number of organic almond growers reverted back to conventional
"I think a lot of farmers also entered into organic practices
unaware of the need to shift their mindset to a ‘whole farm’
system based on soil health and the inter-relationship of all on-farm
systems,” Strochlic said. “Many were also unaware of
how much more management-intensive organic farming is in terms of
needing to monitor crops constantly and make decisions based on
conditions on the ground, rather than according to a set calendar
Strochlic found that the decertifying farmers found that “the
transition to organic production is complex, and that there are
no guarantees of success.
"In particular, we've seen that the ‘input substitution’
approach is often not that successful. Transitioning farmers must
understand that organic is a different farming system, which requires
a deep understanding of the importance of soil health and the interconnectedness
of all on-farm systems.”
There’s a continuing need to explain to farmers considering
organic transition that they will face a lot more independent decision-making.
The authors said transitioning farmers will benefit from “much
more support for existing and transitioning organic farmers, including
technical assistance, market regulation and green payments to reward
organic farmers for their environmental contributions."
When Karen Klonsky, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist, studied
the organic dropout phenomenon several years ago, she came up with
about 300 farmers who had not renewed their organic certification,
out of a total of more then 1,750 in California at the time.
She found some of those changes were technical, such as farmers
having been bought out, changing a farm name or consolidating with
a registered handler. In terms of acres farmed or the farmers farming,
nothing may have actually changed but the paperwork.
Time, diversity stabilize organics
For the substantive decertifications, her research concluded that:
- The longer someone farms organically, the less likely they
are to drop out.
- Highly diversified organic produce farms are more likely to
remain in the organic sector.
Klonsky said that many of those dropouts may be attributed to the
farmers just not feeling a compelling need to bother with formalizing
their organic farming status.
"If it was a hobby or roadside farmer, or a smaller organic
farmer who knows all of his/her customers at a farmers market and
through a CSA, why would they bother with the expense and paperwork
of certification? A lot of very small farmers don't need certification,
but are still using organic practices."
Klonsky's study found that organic farmers tend to "build
long-run reputations as part of their marketing strategies and are
likely to be able to maintain their markets once they have developed
CIRS analysis concluded that the principle barriers to farmers
transitioning into organic are:
- Financial losses associated with the transitional period
- Higher costs of production
- Potentially lower yields overall, and reduced marketable yield
- Challenges accessing stable, profitable markets
- Costs of recordkeeping associated with certification
- Limited access to technical assistance and marketing expertise
- Lack of communication with other organic farmers
- High labor costs
- Lack of access to organic prices and markets
- Higher management requirements
- Limited access to credit and financing
- Opportunity costs associated with cover cropping
- Difficulties accessing organic inputs
- Reluctance to transition land with unstable tenure.
What can help? Klonsky cites the USDA's organic certification cost-share
program, which provides up to $500 for converting farmers, as a
current support for the process, as well as the USDA Crop Insurance
Support for transition
The CCOF Foundation in California is providing needed support for
farmers in transition to organic. The foundation received a grant
from the California State Water Board, which recognizes that organic
farming practices can improve water quality and reduce non-point
pollution sources. The multi-year, $650,000 support program includes
one-on-one farmer mentoring, regional workshops and other focused
The Going Organic (www.ccof.org/goingorganic.php)
project matches experienced organic farmers with a beginner by crop
type to help with production and marketing management. The farmers
receive $500 to have reciprocal visits, talk on the phone and cultivate
an effective support system, said CCOF program manager Fred Thomas.
"We have found that existing mentors, reassuring the beginner
farmers, reduces the risk factor. We now have specific mentors for
The Foundation works with partners to produce a series of Central
Valley grower panel meetings with packers, marketers and representatives
from University of California Extension, USDA, Natural Resources
Conservation Service, the local Agriculture Commissions and nonprofits.
These turn out to benefit all the farmers involved. Thompson offers
Organic System Plan training classes, or "OSP 101," for
"We are seeing increasing numbers in these classes”
including farmers, agriculture commission members, commodity group
representatives and farm advisors who are seeking more knowledge
on cutting-edge organic agriculture systems, Thomas said. “What
transfers knowledge to farmers is getting together” in each
of the program’s venues.
Speaking of the next Farm Bill, "We really need to compensate
organic farmers for the value they provide our environment: clean
water, clean air and habitat creation,” Thomas said, perhaps
with tax credits.
Ultimately, Strochlic would like to see California adopt an approach
along the lines of the European Union. These include explicit recognition
in public policy of organic farming benefits, targets for organic
acreage as well as various supports and incentives for existing
and transitioning farmers. (See sidebar: ”To keep organics