Growers talk changing marketplace
Conventional, organic farmers both see increasing emphasis on 'local'
By STEVE BROWN
MARYSVILLE, Wash. -- It's not easy being an organic farmer.
For that matter, it's not so easy being a conventional farmer, either.
Four organic and conventional farmers sat down to compare notes during the recent Focus on Farming Conference.
What they found was the marketplaces for organic and conventionally grown foods are both changing, but in different ways.
Organic growers see much smaller price premiums, while conventional farmers see increased interest in how food is produced. Both see more interest in locally grown food.
Posing the questions was Bob Gore, deputy director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Putting the discussion into perspective, Gore said organic operations now cover about 1.5 percent of the state's harvested cropland, having grown from 64,000 acres in 2006 to 108,000 acres now.
Gore asked about consumer interest in organic certification versus locally grown.
"Both are important to our operation," organic grower Jeff Miller of Monroe said. "About 25 years ago organic was more important, but in the past five years, local may edge out organic by a slight margin."
Andy Werkhoven, who milks 1,000 cows at his conventional dairy near Monroe, said most consumer choices are driven by price but that local is still important.
"Local is something we hear quite often from consumers," he said. "Local is a big-ticket item."
Conventional grower Rick Williams, from Stanwood, talks to a lot of customers at his corn and pumpkin stand. "They know we're good stewards of the land. They see our style and know it's a safe product."
In response to a question about the marketing advantage in being organic, Miller said, "I see the net margin getting a little bit smaller over the years."
Large-scale growers are shrinking organic premiums, he said.
Darrell Hagerty, an organic farmer near Roy, said he has seen a 21 percent decrease in prices over the past couple of years.
Werkhoven said the margins in all ag commodities are shrinking, and he sees fewer dairies going organic.
"Customers are balking," he said. "Milk is a price-sensitive product. The demand is to deliver a quality product inexpensively."
"What crops or commodities have the best chance for success as organic?" Gore asked.
Miller recommended beginning farmers start with crops such as salad greens, broccoli, corn, tomatoes and carrots. "Pick crops that are easy to grow," he said.
Hagerty said it's more important to find a market before selecting a crop.
Dealing with dairy cows, Werkhoven said, the question is how will you take care of your animals. "Like kids, when they're sick, they'll see a doctor. They will be taken care of."
All of the growers agreed that the biggest cost of organic farming is labor.
"We spend $200 per acre in weeding," Hagerty said. "And we burn a lot of fuel. You can kill a weed with herbicide or diesel."
Gore posed a hypothetical question: "If organic farmers were allowed one conventional practice without losing organic certification, what would it be?"
Miller's answer: "A selective herbicide."
"It's funny how popular Roundup is. It works slick," Werkhoven said.
Williams also said organic growers should be allowed to use a fungicide to protect their grain. "Rust can move in overnight," he said.