Jul 5, 2022
Weeds, soil health top organic growers’ concerns, survey shows
Gary Pullano, contributing writer

It should be no surprise that controlling weeds remains the most pressing production challenge for organic produce growers, and that nemesis was identified once again in the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda (NORA), released earlier this year.

The broader topic of “soil health” was second only to weeds in response to the open-ended survey question. Focus group participants discussed difficulties managing weeds without degrading soil health, which underscores the need for additional research in organic weed management strategies that require less cultivation.

In addition, focus group discussions revealed that climate disruptions can accentuate other challenges in managing weeds, pests, soil and water resources. These challenges appeared especially intense for Southern organic farmers, while producers in the moisture-limited Great Plains and Mountains found cover crops and other organic soil management practices more challenging than producers elsewhere. Production costs, pests, diseases, and climate change proved especially challenging for producers of specialty crops.

“Organic farming has been historically under-invested in, in terms of research, education and extension,” said Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) Executive Director Brise Tencer upon release of the reports in mid-March. “The 2022 National Organic Research Agenda presents incredible feedback directly from organic farmers and provides a compelling roadmap for how to best support the growth of this important sector of agriculture.”

Survey respondents provided input and perspectives on their current organic production systems, including the use of regenerative soil health management practices, water conservation, organic inputs, and organic seed. Findings confirm that organic producers lead the nation in adoption of soil health management and climate-friendly practices.

The OFRF and Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) released the National Organic Research Agenda (NORA) and State of Organic Seed (SOS). The two reports are published every five years to examine organic farming challenges across the U.S., identify research needs and better understand the organic seed needs of producers.

The organic food market experienced incredible growth in 2020, with sales surpassing $56 billion, a 12% increase from 2019. The organic seed market has also grown in recent years due to this demand for organic food as well as a dramatic rise in gardening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reports identify challenges

The reports provided comprehensive assessments and recommendations for ensuring the ongoing growth and success of organic farming in the U.S. Specifically, NORA details organic research needs with the goal of informing future investments that support the success of organic farmers and ranchers and those transitioning to organic production. SOS details trends in organic seed sourcing, challenges faced by organic seed producers, public investments in organic plant breeding, and more.

In 2019, OFRF and OSA were jointly awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) for the NORA and SOS projects. The following year, OFRF and OSA launched a national survey of organic farmers and ranchers, in addition to a survey targeting transitioning-to-organic operations, to better understand these producers’ challenges, needs and perspectives. 

More than 1,100 producers responded to the survey and an additional 100 producers attended 16 listening sessions across the country. Overall, farmer participation reflected the same demographics of those in the U.S. farming sector as documented in the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Services 2019 Organic Survey.

Buying patterns stabilize

Following an unprecedented year marked by pantry loading and supply shortages, the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) latest Organic Industry Survey released in June showed consumers returned to more stable, buy-as-you-need shopping patterns in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021, organic sales surpassed $63 billion, with $1.4 billion (2% total growth over the year). Food sales, which comprise over 90% of organic sales, rose to $57.5 billion (roughly 2% growth), and non-food sales reached $6 billion in sales (7% growth).

“Like every other industry, organic has been through many twists and turns over the last few years, but the industry’s resilience and creativity has kept us going strong,” said new OTA CEO and Executive Director Tom Chapman. “In 2020, organic significantly increased its market foothold as Americans took a closer look at the products in their home and gravitated toward healthier choices. When pandemic purchasing habits and supply shortages began to ease in 2021, we saw the strongest performance from categories that were able to remain flexible, despite the shifting landscape. That ability to adapt and stay responsive to consumer and producer needs is a key part of organic’s continued growth and success.”

Fruits and vegetables 

Organic fruits and vegetables accounted for 15% of the total product market and brought in over $21 billion in revenue in 2021; an approximately 4.5% increase over 2020. Fresh produce and dried beans, fruits, and vegetables drove growth in the category, showing 6 and 6.5% growth over the year, respectively. Frozen and canned foods declined slightly as consumers reduced pantry loading. Packaging on produce has increased since the beginning of the pandemic, as some shoppers perceived that it might better protect food from airborne viruses. It is yet unclear if this trend will continue, however, as organic food shoppers historically have preferred less packaging and plastic use.  

In the 2022 National Organic Research Agenda, certified organic survey participants identified the following production challenges:

  • Controlling weeds – 67% of respondents
  • Managing production costs – 59%
  • Maintaining adequate yields – 48%
  • Managing soil fertility and crop nutrition – 43%
  • Controlling insect pests – 41%
  • Finding appropriate organic crop varieties and seeds – 38%
  • Controlling disease pressure – 36%
  • Adapting to climate change – 36%

Regenerative soil approaches

Organic survey respondents were asked to indicate how often they implemented three types of regenerative soil health management practices related to cropland diversification, including cover crops and green manures, crop rotations and intercropping. 

Crop rotations were the most intensively implemented soil health management practice by organic survey respondents; 63% of respondents reported using crop rotations very often and an additional 23% sometimes or often rotate crops.

Cover crops and green manures were used by 88% of survey respondents, with almost half of respondents indicating they cover crop very often. In contrast, only 19% of respondents indicated they intercropped very often and 36% reported never intercropping.

Cover crops, rotations

More than three-quarters of respondents who produce organic vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, or field crops plant cover crops regularly (i.e., “often” or “very often”), and nearly all of them routinely rotate crops. These percentages are notably higher than for respondents who do not produce these commodities.

The survey results show that organic producers of annual crops understand that cover cropping and crop rotation are especially important for soil health, pest and disease management, and long-term productivity in annual crops. Understandably, a lower percentage of tree and vine crop growers indicated that they rotate crops more regularly than other respondents; however, they may implement other stewardship practices as noted above. Intercropping is one example and organic producers of tree and vine crops as well as other specialty crops intercropped somewhat more often than other organic farmers.

Respondents who produce seed for planting utilize all three practices at markedly higher rates than other respondents.

This suggests that these growers have found diligent rotation and high plant diversity essential for the production of high-quality seed, likely because these practices break pest and pathogen life cycles and potentially provide habitat for natural enemies of arthropod pests.

Organic seed challenges

OSA’s recent findings show no meaningful improvement in organic producers using more organic seed compared to five years ago. This lack of progress puts at risk the viability of the organic seed industry and the integrity of the organic label. In particular, the largest organic operations still use relatively little organic seed and data suggests that organic certifiers’ enforcement of the organic seed requirement could be strengthened.

“The findings are clear, and they underscore the urgent need to modernize organic seed policy, support the success of existing and new seed producers, and confront the dire risks climate change poses to our seed supply,” said OSA’s Kiki Hubbard, lead author of the report.

The 2022 NORA report can be found here

Top photo: Certis Biologicals

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