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Re-Leveling the Field

American farmers can gain global market share by implementing cutting-edge practices with ethical production principles.

By David Knaus

Editors Note: This is an opinion article printed in the December 2023 issue of the Acres U.S.A. magazine 


I was honored to speak again at the Acres U.S.A. Healthy Soil Summit in California this past August. For those of you on the West Coast, I encourage you to go next year — it is growing to be a vibrant and talented community of committed growers, agronomists, academics and industry professionals with much to offer the broader agricultural community.

In my presentation, I shared a short recap of some of the eco-ag pioneers and their brilliant work uncovered since 1950. When taken in totality, the sum total of the eco-ag movement has created a massive dent in the work needed to build a healthy food system on scale in America. Yet, why is this brilliant repository of research being underutilized by the American farmer?

Currently, the demand for organic produce is outstripping domestic supply, and that demand continues to increase. We are now importing organic produce to meet the growing demand here that American farmers are not fulfilling. In addition, the market for organic produce as an export is increasing in many crops, but that demand is being gobbled up by eager farmers in other countries who are more aggressive in the marketplace. This is shameful for American farmers, and we can do better.

In conventional market the story is different, and perhaps more sad. Massive large-scale plantings have gone into remote bioregions overseas, producing market-decimating volumes of specialty crops that undercut American farmers in the global marketplace. I also hear from largescale producers of conventional specialty crops consistently on increased scrutiny of one or more chemicals that may lock them out of critical markets, both domestically and abroad. This is at best a threat to the viability of farming operations of all shapes and sizes in North America — and a national security risk at worst.

It has been over 20 years since the USDA National Organic Standards Board required organic farmers and processors to be certified by a state or private agency accredited by the USDA. This was a huge step forward for consumers, farmers and the government in beginning to allocate resources to promote traditional farming practices on scale. By the creation of a national organization dedicated to this, it seemed to create a bit of a national industry from a local one. While not perfect, it was and is the best we have to date.

Yet today, only 1 percent of farmland in the U.S. is certified, and, depending on the estimate, somewhere between 5 and at most 15 percent of crops are being grown organically. Nearly everywhere you look, you see public approval of eating fresh, local and organic, yet very little government resources, growth capital and recognition are actually dedicated to promoting these type of farms (the Farm Bill is always a good place to look to see where the priorities are).

Many people want to “farm the dollar” — they still want to produce within the USDA NOP standards, but do it at the lowest cost possible. This is not at odds with the original pioneers of the organic movement, however, when budget cutting leads to the erosion of product quality, this dilutes the integrity of the original vision of organic food and the intent of the certification protocols. Additionally, many major brands are rushing to adopt “regenerative” branding into their supply chain or marketing strategy — without even knowing what it really means, or even worse, developing their own definition to suit their own ends.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the organic acreage growth in the U.S. has slowed due to complexities in implementation, significant pest and disease challenges, water quality, soil erosion, weed problems, and more.

The cold hard truth is this:

  • Every type of farming is hard work.
  • Farming without pesticides is extremely hard work.
  • Farming without pesticides organically is even harder and more expensive.
  • Farming monocrops, without pesticides, organically, is harder still.
  • Farming monocrops, without pesticides, organically, on scale is even more difficult.
  • Farming monocrops, without pesticides, organically, on scale, filling year-round demand requires massive amounts of effort and skill annually.
  • Farming monocrops, without pesticides, organically, on scale, filling year-round demand with enough margin for the grocer, packer, distributor, trucker and everyone employed by them is basically impossible especially at the price the consumer wants to pay

The average American consumer has no idea what it takes to pull crops from the ground in the way they want them grown, nor do they compensate appropriately. Additionally, at the moment, there are what appear to be a great number of forces that are stacking the deck against American farmers:

  1. Foreign competition into our markets
  2. Reduced labor costs of foreign competitors
  3. Falsification of organic practices
  4. Extreme weather

When we import organic food, we are forcing our farmers to compete with foreign producers operating with 2 to 10 percent of American labor cost per hour. Yes, that’s right — foreign workers make less in one week than minimum wage workers on some farms in America do in one hour.

This is worse than a rigged game — it is a system that can rob us of our land and livelihoods if we are blind to it. So why are we rigging the game against ourselves, our farms and our communities?

What we need to understand as a nation, and as consumers, is this:

  1. When we purchase organic farm products from inside the U.S., we really help the American farmer, strengthening those we want to support.
  2. When we purchase organic farm products from outside the U.S., we actually hurt the American farmer by strengthening their competitor.
  3. When we purchase any farm product from inside the U.S., we help American farmers
  4. When we purchase fresh, local, organic farm products inside the U.S., we optimize our impact of purchasing dollars.

As strange as it is to realize, it is within the eco-ag community that a MASSIVE opportunity still exists to fix many of the above problems, and it is exponentially easier to do so now than it was 20 years ago. The goal of organic pioneers was and still is to create pesticide-free food, on scale, and distribute to our communities.

To do so we need to get back to the basics and learn to innovate, using their work as inspiration. In other words, we have to push the eco-ag industry beyond where our ancestors did, while maintaining the connection to their core principles and values.

Here are a few opportunities that I think can help to re-level the playing field, open up new markets, and improve th

Learn from and work with nature

I speak often about the power of nature to solve many of our challenges, and I truly believe this. I doubt we will never achieve a truly resilient form of agriculture without paying proper tribute to nature and its many ways to solve problems. There are so many deep levels of functionality in nature that can benefit and increase farm efficiency. These include allelopathy, replicating plant and soil processes, biomimicry, living mulch, and intercropping, just to name a few.

Learn, implement and stack regenerative/organic techniques on top of each other

I often see farmers implementing a single type of agroecological technique: permaculture, natural farming, regenerative agriculture, organic agriculture, etc. It reminds me of the splintering of religious subgroups. This is extremely harmful to the overall future of eco-agriculture, and it is my hope that we can find a way past this. No one is perfect, but perhaps we need some agricultural diversity and inclusion training at organic and eco-ag conferences? Smart farmers don’t see labels; they see options and solutions. Biodynamic and organic have more in common than in difference. The tribalism hurts us all

Achieve certification for your products

Farmers already receive recognition from the market by adopting resource conservation practices and implementing them in a system that creates food grown without synthetic inputs, pesticides and genetic modification. We need to enhance this system and make it more inclusive, rather than splintering an established standard with new buzzwords and more opportunities for greenwashing. Perhaps a tiered USDA organic standard (gold, silver, bronze?) would be beneficial to inspire further differentiation. The original organic method is by its very nature regenerative. Let’s not let herbicide usage or other technical preferences stand in the way of dividing organic and regenerative producers, practices, or terminology.

Find new market opportunities

In most bioregions I’m aware of, there are a huge number of crops that were grown historically, but not in the recent (30-year) past. I believe it is in some of these crops that major local markets can be developed. In the past 20 years I’ve witnessed many successful farmers find a new crop and develop a niche for it — kiwi, figs, microgreens, nuts and more. Many regions are capable of producing many more crops locally, rather than importing them from foreign sources with questionable ethics and standards.

Use appropriate technology

With advances in crop inputs, analysis, agronomy, imaging and robotics, the opportunity is here to help the American farmer integrate appropriate technology and compete in an increasingly unlevel playing field. I have witnessed many earth-shaking experiments in agriculture, where organic/regenerative practices far exceeded the conventional outcomes in monocrops on scale, without pesticides, in a multitude of metrics (yield, size, quality). I’ve also seen modern adaptations of ancient technology help growers to exponentially increase their harvest potential, or to reduce pest and disease pressure to negative (beneficial pest attractant) levels. There are some incredibly exciting and promising advances in robotic technology that may be able to help large producers manage weeds on scale, among other labor-intensive tasks. Lastly, and not without controversy, I’ve seen many situations where seemingly insurmountable conventional pest and disease problems were resolved through the use of a combination of ag-tech and updated organic methods.

The momentum that the organic pioneers achieved has given a tremendous opening in the marketplace for producers of organic food to gain a premium for their work. But perhaps their greatest gift was the knowledge base they have provided that we can use to transform our bodies, farms, communities and nation. If we honor the elders of the movement, and stay connected to the founding principles, we can weather the storm (both literally and figuratively) and gain global market share by implementing cutting-edge practices with ethical production principles. It’s time we rise to the occasion.

David Knaus is the founder and CEO of Apical Crop Science, an agriculture laboratory and crop advising service that provides plant and soil analysis, regenerative crop inputs and ASA-certified crop advising services focused on regenerative and organic crops.