Easing The Transition To Organic Production

Despite the overall weakening economy, U.S. sales of organic products grew 17% to $24.6 billion by the end of 2008, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2009 Organic Industry Survey. This surge in sales has prompted an increasing number of Florida’s fruit and vegetable growers to enter the organic arena.

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One such operation is SunnyRidge Farm, headquartered in Winter Haven. The operation is in the process of transitioning part of its Georgia blueberry acreage to organic production. Jason Berry, organics farm manager for SunnyRidge, says the company’s motivations for wanting to enter the organic market were several.

“It allows us to offer more choices to consumers to let them select products they’ll feel most comfortable with — for themselves and their families,” says Berry. “It also appeals to environmentally conscious and health-minded consumers and retailers who are increasingly interested in the methods used to grow their fruit. And lastly, it allows us to provide third-party verification to those who are increasingly wary of ‘green’ claims being made by more and more companies.”

When asked about the benefits of organic production over conventional production, Berry says organic production greatly reduces the chance of groundwater pollution from nitrates and is more sustainable as the soil is improved over time.

Considerations And Costs

Although it’s clear organic production has its advantages, growers must do their homework first. An excellent starting point is the UF/IFAS Extension document at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/AG246. Excerpts from the document can be found in the “Transition Tips” sidebar in this article.

“Many things should be considered when implementing an organic farm plan, foremost being weed control and building the soil life,” advises Berry. “Also, ask yourself if you can sustain a reduction in yield until the soil is in shape to support a heavy crop load. This could take one to five years depending on expertise in management.”

The biggest organic production challenge for Berry has been weed control. “We hope to manage the problem efficiently by using wheat straw mulch and reducing hand labor. On my vegetable farm, we use more mechanical cultivation and cover crops.”

When it comes to dollars, Berry says some organic growers have very high costs compared to conventional production, while others are on par or lower than their conventional counterparts. “In our case, we will spend more on weed control and less on pest and disease control. Fertilizer inputs are about even.”

Upcoming Organic Events

Conventional growers are invited to learn more about organic production at an upcoming workshop and farm tour.

Florida Organic Growers (FOG) and UF/IFAS are hosting an “Operation Transition” workshop Sept. 25 at the Alachua County Extension office in Gainesville. Topics to be covered include organic marketing, research-demonstrated benefits of organic farming, Farm Bill programs that support transition to organic production, and National Organic Program regulations.

FOG’s “Operation Transition,” with support from EPA, provides free technical assistance to Florida farmers who commit to transition to organic production or reduce pesticide use. Participants are paired with crop advisors experienced in organic approaches to pest and disease control, soil fertility management, and other key aspects of production.

A farm tour on Oct. 21 will give growers firsthand knowledge of a diversified organic production system at John Beville’s farm, Promised Land, in Brooker. The 100-acre mixed vegetable operation is certified organic.

For more information on these events, visit FOG at www.foginfo.org or call 352-377-6345.