Shrene White, director of specialty/risk for Ardent Mills, which is based in Denver, CO, told FoodNavigator-USA the plan is intended as a way to help meet anticipated market demand. Organic advocates have long held that market demand will drive an increase in organic acreage as farmers are attracted by higher prices. But the long transition time from conventional to organic—three years—has been a hurdle in the past, White said.
Not keeping up with demand
“Our whole focus is to meet market demand and to connect growers to that market,” White said. “Growers are looking for ways to add value to what they are doing on the farm.”
“When you look at US food sales and where the trends are going we expect to see continued growth for organic and we can see that we are not keeping up with that demand. Right now the US organic wheat crop is about 1% of total acres,” she said.
Ardent plans to help famers clear the transition hurdle by offering them contracts at guaranteed prices for wheat from transitional acres. White said that in many growing regions the yield from organic acres can approach that of conventional, which is about 30 bushels an acre, but that organic techniques generally yield somewhat less. A key facet of maintaining yield is to have a good rotation system in place, alternating wheat crops with corn, potatoes, legumes or alfalfa depending on the growing region. That diminution of yield combined with an expected learning curve as far as organic fertilization and integrated pest management techniques are concerned adds up to a risk that many farmers are unwilling to take without help and incentive, White said.
“We really started talking about this early last spring and we stared to identify some of the gaps in the market. We have taken the time to talk to our growers and to fill out what are their barriers to entry are and what might be their opportunities,” White said.
Some longtime conventional growers at first showed little interest in taking part in the transition program, White said. Education has been a key facet of opening eyes to the opportunities the organic market affords.
“We have had talks with grower, with state wheat commissions, with elevator operators to make sure we understood all aspects of the markets,” she said. “You do have growers who are up on market trends, but we have seen some mixed reactions. Some of our growers were not very keen on growing organically, but I have been very pleased with their reactions after we educated them on it,” she said.
Ardent plans to extend the program to all wheat types, hard and soft, summer and winter, grown in several western and Great Plains states such as Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. Branded as Organic Initiative 2019, the program will also connect growers with educational resources and workshops offered by organic certification organization Oregon Tilth in addition to the transitional contracts, which will offer growers a price premium over conventional wheat.
"Oregon Tilth is eager to share best practices and share knowledge among farmers working through the challenges of transition to organic agriculture. We believe that collaborative education – peer-to-peer learning, model sharing and capacity building – serves to support successful entry into organic farming, offering buyers and farmers a solid path to connect market opportunities with on-the-ground efforts to implement sustainable conservation practices on the farm,” said Sarah Brown, Oregon Tilth education director. In additional to Oregon Tilth, the program also has the cooperation of the National Wheat Growers Association.