A little bit of everything is happening on the new plot of land Toby Fischer is growing in Middlefield, Connecticut. Owner of Gentle Giant Farm, Fischer moved his organic operation from rented land in another town earlier this year, after purchasing the larger plot in Middlefield. Some of the new plot is not ready for organic certification.
“This year we’ll have 4 acres in production and another 12 acres in cover crop that’s transitioning to organic,” Fischer said. “How crops will grow here is more of a question mark, and I’m a little worried about it. We’re doing a little bit of everything to hedge our bets.”
Fischer started farming organically five years ago, after consulting on a World Bank solar project in Tanzania and running a kitchen oil-to-biodiesel recycling company in California. It was not a linear path, but Fischer said all the skills he developed helped him succeed in farming. “You have to do everything; you’re a small business owner, an electrician, a plumber, a biologist and a chemist.”
Fischer farmed organically for two seasons before applying for certification. He knew he needed to get certified when he decided to enter the wholesale arena. “For CSA and market, you can stand there and explain that it’s grown organically but not certified. The produce manager at a grocery store is not going to stand there and explain,” Fischer said.
Gentle Giant Farms sells produce at New Haven, Connecticut’s two indie health food markets, at two small health food chains in the state and at two farmers markets. They have about 80 community supported agriculture members and expect to grow to 90 or 100 this year. Fischer grosses between $30,000 and $70,000 in sales per acre. That figure varies widely because he combines his high tunnel average with his field average and hoophouses yield far more per acre than exposed fields.
“If your whole farm was protected culture, you could gross a ton of money,” he said. After moving to the new location, Fischer built three hoophouses so he could extend the season into winter, selling leafy greens, herbs and so on.
Fischer and his small staff are currently experimenting with growing flowers in addition to their full line of vegetables. He sells everything he produces, and plans for long-term growth include adding berries to the offerings and expanding his operation from 16 acres to 50 or even 70.
“We’re within 45 minutes of like 3 million people,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of wholesale vegetable growers left in Connecticut and even fewer organic. Every store we went to wanted to do business with us.”
How to succeed in organic
Fischer cited market research as integral to his success. “Going organic only makes sense if you have the market for it,” he said. Conventional growers considering a transition and new farmers starting on uncertified land need to ask: Do I have the financial ability to grow organically without being able to sell my product as organic for three years?
Beyond learning which crops are in highest demand and establishing relationships with buyers, discover which crops can be grown most successfully in your region. It is a long-term investment, with potential returns that exceed financial gain. Brise Tencer, of Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), said demand for organic products is burgeoning, and some manufacturers are offering financial assistance to organic producers during the transition period. Tencer also noted that during the transition, you will be increasing soil health and the sustainability of your operation. “The long-term health and economic benefits to the surrounding community, your workers and the environment are well worth the investment,” she said.
Certification fees are a cost of doing business, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s matching grant of 75 percent up to $750 can help defray some of the expenses.
Research, resources, potential relationships and anticipated business expenses all should be included in a business plan, another key ingredient of success. Fischer still refers to the 50-page business plan he wrote before he started farming five years ago. “That business plan is a living document,” he said. “I go back to it every year, see where things could change and look at what I thought would be a driving force. When I started, I thought we’d be a CSA farm [and] then I saw the demand for wholesale.”
Fischer certified through Baystate Organic Certifiers, one of 48 USDA-accredited organic certifiers in the country. “If you’re farming and keeping records of what you’re doing, which you should be, then as long as those records show you’ve done everything organically – the process is just taking your records and transferring them into a format that fits their requirements,” Fischer said.
It is necessary to reapply every year. The certifier inspects your operation, including records of when you fertilized, what you fertilized, when you sprayed and why you sprayed. Some practices are acceptable in organic farming only after trying everything else. “Spray can’t be the only thing you do. It has to be the last thing after crop rotation, applying a protective cover like Reemay over the plants, etc. You have to show that you’ve done those things,” he said.
“Last year, I got spot checked. They took a summer squash and sent it into some lab for a pesticide residue test. I was nervous for absolutely no reason because we were growing in a field that hadn’t been grown in for like 15 years, so there was no way there would be absolutely anything.”
Oregon Tilth encourages farmers to approach the transition to organic in stages. Infrastructure changes or improvements might be required. Timing and scheduling of daily farm operations might change. Cleaning procedures for equipment and other protocols need to be set to prevent commingling and contamination. Crop rotations, cover crops, weed and pest management plans must be compliant and will likely differ from conventional farm practices.
“It can be overwhelming and expensive not earning organic market prices until certified — but a phased changeover makes it manageable and achievable,” said Sarah Brown of Oregon Tilth.
Challenges and research
Weeds are the bane of every farmer’s existence, but can be even more of a challenge for organic growers. “European cultivation systems are way ahead of us,” Fischer said. “They have more organic; it’s not all huge farms of monoculture sprayed with Roundup and picked with a combine. Our weed control tech is like Stone Age. The stuff coming out of Europe is purpose-built machines for weed control in vegetables, which doesn’t exist in the U.S. for a small- scale operation.”
Oregon Tilth and Oregon State University surveyed over 600 farmers transitioning to organic across the United States. They identified weed management as a major obstacle and ranked information on weed, pest and disease management as the top resource needed. The 2016 National Organic Research Agenda (NORA), informed by over 1,000 certified organic farmers across the U.S., also identified these as top priorities, as well as soil health and fertility management. Researching the most effective organic practices can fill this knowledge gap and help farmers overcome obstacles.
In “Taking Stocking: Analyzing and Reporting Organic Research Investments, 2002-2014,” OFRF revealed farmers’ need for seeds that are bred specifically for their regions and organic cropping systems. Research that fosters collaboration between plant breeders and organic farmers ensures seeds development addresses resiliency, adaptability and flavor.
In May, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA) and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) introduced the Organic Agriculture Research Act to the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time of this writing, the bill had not yet been voted on by the House. If it passes, the USDA will have an additional $30 million annually to spend on organic agriculture research.
OFRF’s 2016 NORA provides comprehensive recommendations for future investment in organic agriculture research. These recommendations are based on a survey of organic farmers, nationwide listening sessions and a review of key documents and recommendations from other organizations. Based on this study, OFRF recommends intensified research funding in the following areas:
- Soil health and fertility management
- Weed management
- Nutritional benefits of organic food
- Insect management
- Disease management
The results of this research will ultimately help farmers increase yield by increasing the health of their soil and reduce expenses by eliminating the use of costly inputs and pesticides.
The last Organic Agriculture Research Act passed in 2002. With the funding, the USDA established the Organic Research and Extension Initiative and Organic Transitions Program, authorizing $3 million annually for five years specifically for organic farming research. Tencer said OFRF completed a thorough analysis of 189 research projects conducted between 2002 and 2014 (totaling $142.2 million). Impacts from both programs are substantial, with a strong focus on improving or expanding operations. Impacts of nearly two-thirds of the projects included farm profitability and half included environmental impacts ranging from improved soil quality and reduced pesticide use to evaluations of net greenhouse gas impacts of different farming systems.
“One of the most important findings in our analysis has been the investment in farmer-participatory plant breeding and cultivar development,” Tencer said. Over one-quarter of the projects created online webinars, short courses and other training materials posted on publicly accessible websites. Twenty-eight projects provided new material on organic production and farming systems for inclusion in curricula for college university courses. At least 44 projects established new networks or expanded and strengthened existing networks linking growers with one another and or with Extension, researchers and other agricultural professionals for mutual learning, exchange of information and ideas or resource sharing.
When he started Gentle Giant Farm, Fischer turned to other produce growers for advice.
“Nothing can replace the value of talking to other farmers who have gone through the organic transition and certification process,” said Sarah Brown, education director for Oregon Tilth, an independent USDA-accredited organic certifier and education nonprofit.
In a joint report released by Tilth’s and Oregon State University’s Center For Small Farms and Community Food Systems, “Breaking New Ground: Farmer Perspectives on Organic Transition,” transitioning farmers identified farmer-to-farmer mentorship as a critical need. Tilth encourages transitioning farmers to think of certifiers as a learning resource before getting started. The organization educates farmers about support services like certification cost-share, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Organic Initiative, and technical resources from nonprofits, research institutes and Extension educators.
“I feel like the rhetoric is that organic and conventional farmers are doing something completely different. The reality is we’re all basically doing the same thing, it’s just the tools we choose to do it with that differ,” Fischer said. “People think, ‘I can’t do it; it’s too hard.’ But I’ve been doing it for five years; I didn’t know anything. If you’re already a farmer and you’re conventional, start small, transition 5 acres, see if you like it.”