The United States is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of conventionally grown grains. America’s farmers grow and ship out to foreign destinations vast amounts of cereal grains and grain legumes. But the production of organic grains in this country has been slow to take off.
The U.S. Organic Grain Collaboration, in partnership with the Organic Trade Association, on Wednesday released a report looking at the state of organic grain in the United States. The report, titled “U.S. Organic Grain – How to Keep It Growing,” drills down into the key barriers in expanding domestic organic grain production, and identifies specific industry solutions to overcome the hurdles.
The report reflects three years of collaborative work between a group of leading organic food makers and organic businesses. It highlights three top challenges to growing more organic grain in the U.S., and recommends proven strategies the industry can adopt to address each challenge: new contracting mechanisms for growers to reduce financial risk, the development of markets for essential fertility-building and-weed-suppressing crops that are necessary in organic rotation, and more organic coaching and technical assistance for organic growers.
“This insightful and useful report is an example of what happens when organic companies work together to help empower other organic stakeholders,” says Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association. “For organic to keep advancing, everyone in the organic supply chain has to collaborate, and this new information provides a roadmap to ensure and improve the future of organic grain production in the U.S.”
It would be hard to overestimate the role of grain in the human diet, in the advancement of agriculture and in the development of civilizations. Grain provides more food energy than any other food group, it keeps nutritious grains on our tables and feeds the world’s livestock herds, and it is the fundamental underpinning of the organic agriculture and food industry.
But while organic grain production in the United States is growing, it is not doing so fast enough to meet the needs of the nation’s robust and expanding organic livestock industry, and it is not always growing in such a way to ensure a sustainable supply into the future. Because of that gap between domestic output and demand, the volume of imported organic grains has skyrocketed in the past several years.
The U.S. Organic Grain Collaboration was formed in 2014 by a group of leading organic food companies and the Sustainable Food Lab. Its goals are to address the issue of the short supply of domestically grown organic grain, and to collaborate to develop strategies and tools able to be adopted by other stakeholders in the organic supply chain to improve the resilience of organic grain farmers and boost organic grain production.
It is a project of the Organic Trade Association’s Grain, Pulse and Oilseed Council, and its members are Annie’s, Ardent Mills, Clif Bar, Stonyfield, Organic Valley, King Arthur Flour, and Pipeline Foods.
“We recognize that we can’t change the world alone, so it’s important for us to work with industry partners such as the Organic Grain Collaboration,” says Shauna Sadowski, senior manager of Sustainability, Natural & Organic Operating Unit at General Mills, of which Annie’s is an operating unit. “Annie’s is a founding member of the Grain Collaboration because we believe that industry collaboration is imperative to address agricultural sustainability challenges and scale positive impact.”
This new report, done in coordination with the Sustainable Food Lab, is an update of a study the Grain Collaboration commissioned in 2014 on the U.S. organic grain sector. It provides current information on organic grain production and market trends, along with specific recommendations and on-the-ground examples of ways to increase the supply of organic grain.
“As organic food companies work to expand their offering of organic products, the organic grains industry faces the challenge to ensure stable, profitable and sustainable growth,” says Elizabeth Reaves, Senior Program Director for the Sustainable Food Lab and one of the authors of the report. “Organic grain crops are a financially viable choice for American farmers, and the industry is mobilized to reduce the barriers and increase the number of organic grain producers while supporting sustainable growth and farm viability.”
Why aren’t American farmers growing more organic grain?
From 2008 to 2016, the amount of U.S. farmland devoted to the production of organic corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and barley grew by over 20% from 626,000 acres to 765,000. Over a similar period, however, the U.S. organic livestock products industry nearly tripled in size, with farm gate sales jumping from $1.2 billion to $3.3 billion.
Because of the inadequate supply of U.S.-grown organic grain, imports of organic grains and soybeans have soared, ballooning from $42 million in 2011 to $401 million in 2016.
Like conventional grains, the price of organic grains can be volatile, and prices from 2011 to the present have been described as an “unstable rollercoaster” relative to the difference between the organic premium and conventional prices. In addition to the boom-bust cycle that can limit growth in organic, the report identifies three key barriers that make it especially challenging for farmers to convert to organic grain production:
- The risk associated with the high cost of transitioning to organic and the uncertain market guarantee at the end of the transition period
- The lack of markets for necessary lower value rotation crops that boost soil fertility and suppress weeds
- Insufficient technical assistance and farm management resources
Recommendations are made, and organic industry finds solutions
It takes an organic village to enable a meaningful boost in domestic organic grain production. As stated in the report, “The issues and barriers organic grain producers face cannot be addressed by individual farmers alone. To meet the needs of the market and increase organic grain production, growers need coordinated industry assistance to address the systemic challenges.”
The report identifies three industry solutions that “can improve farmers’ ability to enter organic, optimize production and eventually stay in organic,” and illustrates how Organic Grain Collaboration members have put into action strategies in their own supply chains that could be developed into industry-wide practices.
One: Employ pricing and investment mechanisms.Organic grain production is more expensive than conventional, and the mandatory transition period for farmers can be a huge and daunting obstacle. Developing pricing mechanisms to help producers reduce risk and make long-term investments can help improve competitiveness and successful transition.
For example, forward contracts – agreements to buy the product at a certain price on a certain date--provide the confidence needed to transition more acres to organic production. Forward contracts are the foundation to creating a stable organic grain supply. Once in place, they can be leveraged in several ways to help finance or offset the costs of transition.*
In action: Organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley’s Organic Transition Premium program.
Two: Develop markets for lower value crops that increase soil fertility and suppress weeds.
Organic grain farmers don’t just grow one type of grain. To control weeds and maintain soil health, organic grain rotations cannot be limited to corn, soy, and wheat. Smothering forage crops are essential to control perennial weeds, and extended crop rotations with nitrogen-fixing cover crops can improve soil health and break pest and disease cycles. To add such crops to their rotations, farmers need to have a market for those crops.
In action: Annie’s “Limited Edition” line that uses rotational crops in its products.
Three: Increase the number of trusted advisors and farmer networks for organic farmers.
Conventional farmers have a strong network to go to for support and guidance, but not so for organic. The report recommends a new model of extension support for organic farmers, calling it “adaptive knowledge networks.” These networks would support farmers to learn and innovate together around solutions and research that have been adapted for regional conditions.
The report also notes that since not all farmers rely on extension or publicly supported farmer education services, training crop consultants – i.e. train-the-trainer programs -- to become more knowledgeable about organic practices should be a priority goal of the sector.
Learn More: There will be a webinar on Thursday February 28, from 1:00 - 2:00 PM EST offering an in-depth look at the findings of the organic grains research papers. The authors will discuss the challenges and potential solutions to help new farmers transition to organic and ensure long-term productivity and profitability for existing organic farmers. This webinar is offered at no charge to media and Organic Trade Association members. Register here.