GRANVILLE, Ohio — Around 1,200 producers and vendors attended the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) conference, Feb. 13-14, which is billed as the largest gathering of organic and sustainable farming enthusiasts in Ohio.
“There are a lot of things going on here,” said Carol Goland, OEFFA executive director. “Our main priority is to provide education and assistance to organic and sustainable farmers.”
Two awards were presented to outstanding members of OEFFA and good stewards of the land. The 2016 Stewardship award went to Jim Croghan, of Clinton County, and the Service Award went to Steve Sears and Sylvia Upp, of Pike County.
More than 90 workshops took place at Granville high and middle schools, representing everyone from the backyard poultry enthusiasts, gardeners and foodies to large scale organic grain and livestock producers.
Workshops were presented by researchers and Extension specialists as well as farmers, which Goland explained is reflective of the grassroots organization — “farmers teaching other farmers.”
Encouraging young and beginning farmers was a reoccurring theme throughout the conference. Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director and co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition, spoke Feb. 13 about the importance of helping the next generation overcome hurdles in farming.
Of the 1 to 2 percent of the U.S. population that is represented by farmers, a mere 36,000 young farmers (classified as 35 years and under) make up this demographic. “Getting Americans to farm is no small task,” she said.
The coalition has identified the biggest hurdles to young farmers as: the rising cost and availability of land, student loan debt and a lack of money dedicated to preserving farmland.
The coalition is exploring solutions to these problems by rallying young farmers together and encouraging them to work with their area congressmen. Some of their policy initiatives include:
- Extending student loan forgiveness to young farmers because, “farming is a public service. We’re feeding people, building soil, protecting clean water and air,” she said.
- In making land more affordable, Shute is asking for an expansion of conservation land trusts. “Land trusts hold the key to making farmland more affordable,” she said.
- The coalition is also asking more low-cost loans be made available to farmers to make improvements.
“We have quite a bit of work to do before the next farm bill,” said Shute. “We need young farmers.”
With a rising demand in organic foods, young and beginning farmers are needed to meet that U.S. demand. According to the USDA, from 2008-2014, organic field crop acreage increased by only 2 percent.
John Bobble, director of Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, showed workshop-goers how imports are setting the stage for U.S. market prices. Forty-one percent of organic corn, 72 percent of organic soybeans and 12 percent of organic wheat is imported. Bobble explained a lot of those grains are going toward an expanding organic livestock sector, but is driven by a mixture of demand and cheaper foreign prices.
Organic farmers face the challenge of getting consumers and producers to consciously purchase more U.S.-grown organic food and grain products. “A lot of buyers are using imported price to dictate domestic price,” said Tim Boortz, NForganics agent.
Transitioning to organic
Bobble also said the higher premium for organic products is enticing conventional producers to go organic. “We are just getting back our acreage. Now we have people considering organic for the wrong reasons.”
He warns having a large volume of conventional farmers transition to organic for better prices could mean a market collapse like organic farmers experienced in 2008. “You can’t go into (organic farming) because of the price,” said Boortz. “You have to believe in the institution of it,” adding that organic farming is “tough work” and requires a lot of careful management.
Boortz also said having large companies like Cargill transitioning to organic could mean a dilution of organic standards. “Our preference would be smaller processors and mills,” said Boortz.
Miles McEvoy, USDA deputy administrator for the National Organic Program, provided an update on USDA organic programs and projects.
The Sound and Sensible Initiative was created in 2013 to help simplify the organic certification process. “The overall goal of this new initiative is to make organic certification accessible, attainable, and affordable for all operations,” McEvoy stated in a USDA blog. McEvoy reported an 11 percent growth in organic certifications in 2015.
“We know that, as a segment of the food industry, organic has a double digit growth,” said Goland.
“It is expensive to get into farming,” she added. “A lot of people are doing the math and it just makes plain old business sense (to go organic).”
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It’s deplorable that so much USDA certified-organic food is being imported. It is not being “driven by a mixture of demand and cheaper foreign prices.” As with all global trade, it all boils down to price.