Organic Agriculture at Scale
”Are you an organic farmer or a conventional farmer?” someone might inquire.
“Both!” is the answer John McKeon would proudly share about his employer, Tanimura & Antle.
Tanimura & Antle is a 30,000-acre vegetable producer/packer/shipper based in California. They have converted 5–8% of their production to certified organic so far. John is the Senior Manager for Organic Compliance and Consolidation a the company.
Many assume farmers choose to be either conventional or organic. But farming both organic and conventional acres allows for diversification of markets and the ability to capture premiums that certified organic produce can command.
Additional benefits include the ability to utilize the same transportation and logistics for both their organic and conventional production. This allows them to maximize space on a trucks to meet both organic and conventional demand.
In other words, when a retailer needs a shipment of lettuce, they can get the right amount of organic and conventional lettuce on the same shipment without having to go to two different suppliers or track two different shipments.
Scaling organic production can be challenging due to factors such as a more reactive approach to fighting pests and diseases. But John is quick to point out new technologies that are making things easier. (I profiled some of these tools, biopesticides, in this post).
I had a chance to speak with John about organic certification and the challenges and benefits to organic production.
The demand for certified organic food is still only around 5% of total food sales in the U.S., but continues to grow rapidly. This demand, as well as the perception of higher quality, has commanded premiums for organic producers. What once may have seemed like a fad, has now become big business.
Many in conventional agricultural circles do not agree ideologically with the organic consumer. But should that matter? Farming is a business that exists to provide valuable goods and services to a paying customer. If that customer is willing to pay enough to incentivize compliance with an organic standard, that should probably warrant some consideration.
Too many times the conversation about organic reduces to a battle of ideologies. More practically, expansion of organic production will come down to sound business decisions. Is there enough of a premium in the market to justify the production changes? Is that premium likely to be there by the time acreage is transitioned?
A farmer does not have to decide to be an organic farmer or a conventional farmer. They can be both, as evidenced by Tanimura & Antle’s approach.
Obviously, a conventional producer doesn’t wake up one day and just decide to fully convert to organic. It takes at least three years to certify acreage as organic, which means that a grower will likely spend three years growing with organic practices but receiving conventional prices. This remains one of the biggest barriers for farmers to try organic production.
There are a lot of details in the organic regulations, and the learning curve can be steep. There has to be return on investment for a farmer to want to take the time and effort necessary to convert some acres over to certified organic.
John points out that the end-consumer is not their only customer. They need to also think about what’s best for their wholesaler and retailer customers. Many of these customers are happy to be able to buy both conventional and organic from the same producers due to keeping a broad supplier base and maintaining close vendor relationships.
If demand for organic products keeps pace, the industry will need to scale to keep up. This could come from new organic farmers entering the industry or existing organic growers increasing their acres. But it could also come from conventional farmers deciding to dedicate some acreage to organic, as Tanimura & Antle has done.
There are a lot of practical reasons for organic and conventional production to both play a part in the future of agriculture.