U and partners help organic farmers

A new grant will evaluate the costs of the transition to organic farming.

Ashley Bray

Christa North of Minneapolis has been buying organic foods for 10 years.
âÄúInitially I bought [organic] because the quality was better, but the more I shopped, the more I learned about pesticides and the health links associated with it,âÄù she said.
Now North said it would be very hard to switch back to buying nonorganic foods.
As the number of consumers looking to feed their families organically in Minnesota increases, the number of farmers looking to switch from conventional farming methods to organic methods is increasing as well.
However, making the switch is filled with uncertainty and often discourages farmers from making the change, Robert King, University of Minnesota professor of applied economics said.
The University, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Minnesota State Colleges and University system are hoping to change that and, with the aid of a new $1.2 million grant, are looking to better understand the process of transitioning from conventional farming to organic farming.
The project has two central goals, said King, the project leader. First, researchers will collect data on how farms perform during the
transition period.
âÄúWeâÄôll look at economic performance and production records during that three-year period when they are converting to
organic,âÄù King said.
Researchers will then use information from individual farms to paint a bigger picture, said Meg Moynihan, an organic
specialist with the MDA.
The second goal is to develop educational material for other farmers to answer their questions about how to transition in the future.
King and Moynihan agree that, as it stands, there is very little economic information available to farmers
about the transition.
Project coordinators hope to enroll about 80 farms in a program called the Farm Business Management program, offered through MnSCU. The grant will provide up to 90 percent of the tuition costs to enroll in the program, said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator with the UniversityâÄôs Southwest Research and Outreach Center.
âÄúMnSCU will be working very carefully with the farmers so that the individual farmers will benefit from this project,âÄù
Moynihan said.
In order to become certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a farmerâÄôs soil must be free of prohibited materials such as pesticides and other chemicals for three years, Riddle said. Many farmers are unsure about how to grow crops
without them.
Glen Hill, executive director of the Minnesota Food Association, said he remembers the complications that arose when the farm he works with became certified organic in 2008.
Hill works with Big River Farms,  which is essentially a farmer training program, he said.
âÄúWe train new farmers in sustainable [farming],âÄù Hill said. âÄúWe have immigrants from Kenya, India and Cambodia all farming a quarter of an acre to three acres for each farm.âÄù
Collectively, the individual farms make up a 10- to 15-acre piece of land.
âÄúThe transition part was very difficult,âÄù Hill said. âÄúFarmers were really not sure what to do when there was a disease or insect or different things came up, but somehow we got through it, and 2009 was a lot better.âÄù
Farmers making the transition also take on financial risks.
Often when switching to organic crops, farmers have to introduce additional crops such as alfalfa into their rotation, Riddle said. Adding crops usually means farmers have to buy additional equipment to harvest or process the new crops, which can be âÄúvery expensive,âÄù King said.
Hill said making the transition is also time consuming, especially when it comes to weeds.
âÄúControlling your weeds is a significant factor that will take up a lot of your time,âÄù he said. âÄúIt may mean you have to plant less, as weeding [without herbicides] is very labor-intensive.âÄù
If farmers are more passionate about the market value than growing food, they shouldnâÄôt switch to
organics, he said.
While the transition may prove difficult, Riddle said he believes that going through the trouble is worth it.
âÄúThere are very few farmers that go back once they have made that choice,âÄù he said. âÄúTheir animalsâÄô health improves, their personal health improves, their soil health dramatically improves.âÄù
Hill said making the switch was âÄúabsolutelyâÄù the right decision.
At the end of the project, researchers hope to have better information so farmers can make better, more informed decisions,
Moynihan said.
The project is important now, because the demand for organic products is steadily growing, King said. Organic consumers like Christa North are not going anywhere.
A decade and one baby girl later, North said she will continue to make organic foods a No. 1 priority in the budget to ensure the health of her family.
âÄúI want the best for her,âÄù she said of her daughter.