Preliminary Results of the 2014 Survey of Northwestern Organic Producers
2014 Survey Results
Organic Farmers Cite Financial, Environmental Reasons for Transitioning; Weed Control and Soil Fertility as Biggest Challenges.
While the organic movement is not new, public research and Extension support for organic growers is still lagging behind that of conventional growers. In response to a question regarding the research and Extension needs of organic farmers, one grower said, “Once we went organic we basically fell off the radar of all local agronomists or their employees.”
WSU researchers conducted a survey in 2014 to improve public knowledge of the experiences and needs of organic growers, as well as the current challenges they are facing. The survey targeted certified organic growers in five northwestern states: Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. The survey was limited to operations producing field crops and/or livestock and dairy products. Survey questions were designed to identify:
- Motives for operating organically
- Type of organic farming operations (e.g., crops produced, size of operation, producer experience, etc.)
- Management practices currently used to control weeds and manage soil fertility
- Problematic weeds in the region
- Research and Extension needs of organic producers in the region.
The survey questionnaire was distributed to 432 organic operators in February 2014, and responses were collected through May 2014. Some early findings are reported below.
Motivations for Going Organic
While financial risk is often mentioned as a disincentive to convert an operation to organic, financial and economic factors also seem to play a large role in the decision to adopt or convert to organic practices.
When asked in a free-response question, “What was the primary reason for your decision to farm organically?” 51% of survey respondents mentioned financial motivations. Their responses cited money, improved cash flow, niche marketing, and responding to market demand as the primary drivers of their decision to produce organic products. Several respondents wrote that they decided to switch to certified organic production as a way to keep farming: a grower in Montana wrote that they converted to organic production “because I was broke & had to rethink how to better stay in the farming business.” Others reported responding to market or customer demand, which nationally has been consistently increasing for the last two decades.
The second most common motivator to “go organic” (mentioned by 21% of respondents) concerned environmental impacts of agriculture. Respondents cited soil quality and improvement, agroecosystem sustainability, and ecosystem diversity as reasons to operate organically. Many respondents emphasized the importance of soil health in maintaining yields and weed control, and some reported dissatisfaction with their soil quality while operating conventionally.
Several respondents reported that multiple factors were influential in their decision to farm organically, and some mentioned that their motivations changed over time. For example, a farmer in Montana wrote, “Initially it was for economic reasons. After a couple of years I realized that I really didn’t want to ever go back to synthetic fertilizers and chemicals.” While there are many economic and knowledge barriers impeding the adoption of organic farming, it seems that once producers have converted, they have encountered many incentives to continue to produce organically.
Thirdly, respondents mentioned concerns about the use of chemicals in agriculture as a motivating factor to operate organically. Respondents in this category mentioned concerns about the impact of agricultural chemicals on soil, animal, and human health. Many respondents discussed the use of organic practices as a way to protect employees, families, and their customers from the effects of chemicals.
Other motivating factors mentioned included human health, philosophical reasons, animal health, and operation diversification.
Survey recipients were asked which weeds have proven difficult to control and/or have negatively impacted their organic products.
In the lead was Canada thistle, followed closely by field bindweed (morningglory). These two perennial weeds are generally effectively controlled using systemic herbicides on conventional productions, but seem to be especially troublesome to organic growers. Some respondents mentioned that recommended organic control practices, like incorporating alfalfa into rotations and intensive tillage in a fallow year, have not reduced the spread of these weeds. Control of Canada thistle and field bindweed was mentioned the most often as being a weed control issue needing to be addressed by regional researchers and Extension specialists.
Russian thistle was mentioned by respondents in dry areas of the surveyed region as being a problematic weed. The other most commonly mentioned weeds were mustards (purple, blue, and Jim Hill), pigweed, wild oat, lambsquarters, and kochia. Organic alfalfa producers mentioned annual (downy brome/cheatgrass, jointed goatgrass, and foxtail) and perennial (bluegrass and quackgrass) grasses as being difficult to control while lowering the quality of their forage.
Problematic weed species reported differed between the states surveyed. Table 1 shows the top 4 most commonly-mentioned weeds in each state. Canada thistle and bindweed were mentioned consistently in all five states, but other weed species commonly mentioned were state-specific, like kochia in Idaho and mustard species and pigweed in Oregon. This finding could impact research efforts and recommendations within the five states, in order that researchers and Extension specialists may target weeds most problematic in their own states.
Achieving adequate soil fertility, namely available nitrogen, is often reported as a challenge for organic grain producers.
Survey recipients were asked what soil fertility issues they would like to see addressed by researchers and Extension specialists to improve fertility management. 17% of respondents mentioned the need for the development of fertilizer products they could apply on their organic operations. Respondents in this category emphasized the need for affordable organic fertilizers, as many options currently on the market come at a prohibitive cost. Respondents demonstrated great interest in cover crops as a fertility source, but reported the need for more research and information. Acquiring available nitrogen and phosphorus was also a concern for respondents, who reported frustration with the slow release of nutrients from organic fertilizers.
Phosphorus was also commonly mentioned as a long-term issue by those producers not utilizing manure amendments, whereas producers applying manure were concerned with drawing down soil phosphorus levels.
Respondents also expressed an interest in research concerning the development of organic products for animal management, compost application and composition, management of soil pH, and the development of soil tests tailored to organic producers.
Stay tuned for more information regarding the findings of the 2014 Survey of Northwestern Organic Producers. Analysis is ongoing.
Our researchers would like to extend our thanks to survey participants for their responses. We sincerely appreciate the time they took to complete this questionnaire and share their experiences.
By Nicole Tautges, Graduate Student, WSU. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.