What You Get When You Vote With Your Dollar: The Case of Organic Wheat

Steven Rosenzweig, Ph.D. student, , UCS | April 20, 2016, 11:27 am EST
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If you buy organic food with the intention of catalyzing change in agriculture, it may be paying off. To address the wide gap between supply and demand, the nation’s largest flour producer Ardent Mills announced an initiative at the end of last year to double US organic wheat acreage by 2019 – a plan that could encourage a shift toward organic agriculture on hundreds of thousands of acres of American farmland.

This new Organic Initiative appears to be the manifestation of the goals of “green consumerism”—the idea that more informed and responsible shoppers can transform the way goods are produced. But in the case of organic wheat, what seems like a straight line from consumer demand to physical reality is not so straightforward. In other words, the votes have been cast, but what happens next is unclear.

Organic runs deep

The Hedigers harvest millet on their farm in Colorado. Millet is one of the most drought-adapted crops, making it an important rotational crop for dryland farmers in the semi-arid Great Plains. But, there is only a small market for organic millet. Photo credit: Golden Prairie Inc.

The Hedigers harvest millet on their farm in Colorado. Millet is one of the most drought-adapted crops, making it an important rotational crop for dryland farmers in the semi-arid Great Plains. But, there is only a small market for organic millet. Photo: Golden Prairie Inc.

The economic incentive for farmers to go organic is substantial. Today, organic wheat sells for almost 3 times as much per bushel than conventional. But as the chasm between supply and demand indicates, this incentive has not been enough. Ardent Mills hopes that they can ramp up organic wheat supply through long-term contracts for transitional and organic wheat, and greater access to educational resources for making the transition.

But there may be deeper reasons for the lag in supply.

“Organic farming is a philosophical and emotional commitment.”

This is what Jean Hediger told me when I asked her why more wheat farmers weren’t growing organic. Jean has been a dryland organic wheat and millet farmer at her family farm in Nunn, Colorado for almost 30 years.

“The truth of the matter is it’s really hard to be an organic farmer if your heart is conventional, and the other way around.”

In part, this is because organic farmers are prohibited from using some cheap and easy solutions to unpredictable and devastating problems.

Put yourself in Jean’s shoes: it’s the summer of 2015, weeks away from harvesting the largest wheat crop you have ever grown. Then, in a matter of days, the whole field turns bright orange, the result of a fungal pathogen called wheat stripe rust. Fungicide would be a quick and inexpensive solution for conventional producers, but the organic standards prohibit the use of these synthetic pesticides. It takes a deep commitment to watch a fungus take over hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of wheat and not give in to the desire to spray fungicides. But Jean held on and it paid off. Though she didn’t know it at the time, the rust had arrived too late to cause much damage.

The Hedigers transitioned to organic in 1989 before there was a large economic incentive to do so. They did it to keep their son safe from harmful chemicals, and they are truly proud of how they farm.

“Even if you told me conventional wheat was 8 times the price of organic wheat, I still don’t think we would do it.”

The Hedigers’ long-term commitment to the organic standards suggests a worrisome prospect for the Organic Initiative. Most of the farmers who are motivated by reasons other than economics to go organic have already done so. For farmers who go organic in pursuit only of economic gain, what will they do if organic practices aren’t in their immediate economic interest? Compared to conventional, the organic toolkit for handling pests and pathogens is inconvenient, and it can be extremely difficult to justify a holistic management approach when nature threatens this year’s bottom line.

Ardent Mills is connecting prospective organic producers with experienced ones to help prepare them for situations like these, but undoubtedly there will be producers who realize too late the depth of the organic commitment.

Organic and sustainable: The organic ideal

Growing millet. The Hedigers’ rotate wheat and millet to break weed and disease cycles. Photo credit: Golden Prairie Inc.

Growing millet. The Hedigers rotate wheat and millet to break weed and disease cycles. Photo: Golden Prairie Inc.

While meeting organic demand is an important goal, rushing to meet it by reaching minimum standards risks losing sight of what “organic” means to many producers and consumers alike. After decades of simplification and industrialization in the organic sector, new calls to ramp up organic production need to be vigilantly matched by the call for environmental sustainability if organic is to stay an ecologically preferable alternative to conventional.

Some organic wheat production practices are already falling far short of the organic ideal.

There are a hundred ways to farm organically, but I doubt if wheat-fallow belongs in that category. Wheat-fallow is a crop rotation that involves planting wheat one year, leaving the land bare (fallow) for the next 14 months, and then planting wheat again.

According to the USDA organic regulations, farmers are required to implement a crop rotation that maintains or builds soil organic matter, works to control pests, manages and conserves nutrients, and protects against erosion. Wheat-fallow achieves none of these goals, but accredited certifiers in states like Wyoming and Colorado are certifying wheat-fallow, citing the semi-arid climate as a sufficient reason for its permission.

A cover crop of yellow sweet clover emerges in millet stubble to compete with weeds and fix nitrogen in the soil. Photo credit: Golden Prairie Inc.

A cover crop of yellow sweet clover emerges in millet stubble to compete with weeds and fix nitrogen in the soil. Photo: Golden Prairie Inc.

For dryland farmers like the Hedigers, lack of rainfall is a barrier to diversifying crop rotations beyond wheat-fallow. But there are enough examples of diversified producers to show that wheat-fallow isn’t a necessity. In the same dry climate where wheat-fallow is an acceptable practice, the Hedigers grow a rotation of wheat and millet with a cover crop of yellow sweet clover to provide the soil with a natural source of nutrients.

With growing American concern about the realities of climate change and biodiversity loss, hopefully more consumers will be looking to agriculture to become part of the solution instead of its role today as a massive part of the problem. Organic agriculture is often touted as a path to move us closer to achieving environmental goals, but for this to be effective, the commitment to ecological sustainability shouldn’t be an afterthought. Hitching the organic wheat wagon to ongoing movements in soil health or agroecology could help prepare a new wave of organic producers for the difficult road ahead, and more closely align the outcomes of the Organic Initiative with the organic ideal.

 

Steven is a Ph.D. student in Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University. He is researching the socioeconomic and political barriers to diversifying crop rotations, and assessing the impact of more diverse crop rotations on soil health. You can find him on Twitter @zweigST

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