The Organic Farming movement while thought of as new or a fringe element in agriculture is really the old and standard way most of our food was grown prior to the mid 1900’s.  Terms can be confusing because Organic farming truly is “conventional farming”.  What we do today is not.  What we do today can be more appropriately called Industrial farming.  Humans have been farming for 10,000 years. Sixty years ago, after World War II, we started industrializing U.S. farming operations through a mix of policy decisions and accidents of history.

Since the advent of inexpensive petro-chemicals we have gone from farming being a Biological process to an Industrial process.  Industrial agriculture treats the farm as a factory, with “inputs” (pesticides, fertilizers) and “outputs” (crops). The end-objective is increasing the yields while controlling costs — usually by using economies of scale (i.e. making a lot of one thing, or “monocropping”), and by replacing manual labor with machines and petro-chemicals like modern pesticides and fertilizers.

This model of farming is inefficient and does not represent the cutting edge of modern farming.  In 1940, we produced 2.3 food calories for every 1 fossil fuel calorie used. By industrializing our food and farming systems, we now get 1 food calorie for every 10 fossil fuel calories used — a 23 fold reduction in efficiency.  Following this path we have become dependent on cheap, abundant oil, and on quick chemical “fixes” for agro-ecosystem challenges that are complicated and require deep, local and hands-on knowledge. In relying on chemical inputs, we have un-learned how to farm. 

Enough of the soapbox, lets look at some specific reasons why Organic food currently costs more than Industrial produced food.

Organic farming is all about improving the soil and increasing its organic matter content thus improving the soil food web.

Soil Quality and Land Use

Industrial ag and “monoculture” works with economy of scale, growing lots of a single crop on a farm or field.  Organic farming requires that diversity be maintained and that a variety of crops be grown for soil health and insect health therefore that economy of scale is lost.

  1. Soil quality is improved by the addition of composts which are more labor intensive to apply and costlier to purchase or manufacture than commercial N-P-K fertilizers.
  2. Instead of the land being plowed after harvest and left bare for soil erosion, cover crops are grown and these are turned into the soil to improve it.  So this amount of growing does not result in a direct cash sale but does incur expenses.
  3. Crop rotation is an important aspect with anywhere from 10-50% of the land on an organic operation not being used to grow crops in a given season.
  4. Biodiversity is a requirement and takes a percentage of land permanently out of “production” and put into the form of windbreaks and hedgerows. In our case currently about 25% of land space is for conservation purposes.
  5. You are required to have buffer zones to keep neighbors possible “drift” away from your crops. This takes a substantial amount of land out of production.

To improve the quality of the land means using a smaller portion of it and also improving with conservation methods those set aside areas.  Obviously the lack of percentage land use puts the Organic farmer at a cost disadvantage.

Insect and Weed Control

  1. Synthetic pesticide use is not allowed in certified operations.  The first step is developing an environment that is in balance as much as possible.  This means attracting beneficial and predatory insects and other species such as birds to control the insect pest population.
  2. Secondly physical barriers may be used such as floating row covers which are like a fine cloth sheet that is put over crop rows to exclude insect pests.
  3. Natural methods such as companion cropping, onions with peas, marigolds with other vegetables etc can be used to help prevent large populations of insect pests.
  4. Manual removal of “bad” bugs, while tedious, may be employed and often must be used to be successful.
  5. Lures, traps and mating disruptions are methods also used to control insect pests instead of a cheap chemical pesticide.
  6. Weeds can be eliminated only by mechanical and physical methods, usually expensive hand labor.
  7. Timing of planting crops is also used to minimize weed impacts.  While weeds often are the most attractive to beneficial insects you must balance the detriments to the crop being grown.
  8. Rotating crops and organic mulches are also used to prevent weed growth

As you can see the Organic Farmer must be way ahead in thinking and planning how to combat or primarily prevent a problem since he isn’t able to just pick up a can of pesticide or herbicide if a problem appears.  The tools which he can use are inherently more expensive than those of the Industrial Farmer and do not guarantee success.

Processing and Transportation

The costs do not end at the farm.  The food must be transported in organically approved containers and in vehicles dedicated solely to organic product.  The tools, containers, vehicles must all be sanitized with approved products. There can be no commingling of product in transportation or of facilities for holding the produce.  A facility which processes the product, for example cans green chili, must also be certified as an organic processor with a strict list of does and don’ts and cannot be used for processing standard produce at the same time.

Paperwork, record keeping and regulation compliance

To be a certified organic producer you must reapply every year.  In New Mexico the cost is minimal.  For us it is $200.00 per year and a percentage of your sales just to apply. It is not refundable if you are turned down. The application is lengthy and describes all details of your operation and operational plans.  Many days are spent just completing the application forms.  You must be available for inspection anytime 365 days per year.  For every item that you purchase must keep not only the receipt but the package label for 5 years.  Every thing that you do, whether it is planting a row of carrots or adding a shovel of compost on a tree must be documented in a field activity log.   All of this paperwork and recordkeeping must be available for inspection. For our small operation this requires two full 3 ring binders along with 2 other binders for labels per year. You will have annual site inspections at a minimum and are subject to soil and tissue testing and analysis to verify you are following the rules.  The seed you plant must itself be certified organic which of course costs more than standard seed.  Time is money and the compliance portion must be figured into overhead like any business.

Government Policies and subsidies

The true cost of a food product is not simply the price for which it is sold. Non-organic food is often influenced by subsidies and other national or regional support schemes. According to the House Appropriations Committee, mandatory spending on farm subsidies was $7.5 billion in 2008, compared with $15 million for programs for organic and local foods.

Retailers pricing 

Grocery stores are all about profit per square foot and shelf facings. They need to make the same amount of money if they devote space to organics that they would on a standard product.  If the organic product moves slower or has less “turns” then they need to get a higher profit margin to compensate.  So often these products are priced higher than they should be because that is the nature of corporate retail.

 This article is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the costs of Organic growing versus Industrial agriculture.  We are seeing prices on organics drop as supply and demand both increase.  However, when you take into account the true “cost” of food production from conventional farming, including replacement of eroded soils, cleaning up polluted water, health care for farmers who get sick, and environmental costs of pesticide production and disposal, organic farming might actually be cheaper in the end.

    Remember, This logo is your proof of Certified Organic products