The Organic 1%: Sustainable Farming in a Broken System


3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

A farm worker sprays insecticide on newly planted strawberries, on a farm along the Pacific Coast.

By: Cyndie Hoffman
Local, sustainable food has become a regular part of our everyday culture as demonstrated through the growing interest in school gardens, Community Supported Agriculture, local farmers’ markets, underground dining clubs, and organics in general. This enduring trend in sustainable food reignites a question posed on Triple Pundit two years ago: “Is Sustainable Farming Going Mainstream?” Unfortunately not at all as the sustainable food hypetrumps the numbers.

In 2008 organic cropland represented only 0.7 percent in the United States and, at the current growth rate, it is expected to reach not more than 2.5 percent by 2050.

Much of the momentum and buzz in the organics industry has been sparked by key icons and influential leaders who have driven the conversation through thought-provoking books, films, TV shows, and other media engagements. Storytelling about food issues has changed the way Americans view and think about food. Since Michael Pollan unveiled Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, vivid images of cattle crammed together in CAFOs and swimming in antibiotic-infused manure occupy the minds of many. And, when Jamie Oliver visited schools in 2010 and discovered that kids confuse potatoes with tomatoes and school bureaucrats call french fries a vegetable, education about where food comes from has become increasingly popular.

The work continues as sustainable agriculture advocacy groups like Roots of Change are at the frontline strategically mapping a path to a sustainable food system in California. Yet, major impediments to significantly scaling sustainable farmland beyond the <1% share remain:

  • A significant amount of our nation’s farmland is being turned over for development. For example, 23 million acres in farmland were lost over the period from 1982 to 2007.
  • The average age of a farmer is approaching retiree age, 57 years old, but the  pool of young farmers inspired to step up to the job is lacking experience.
  • The biggest challenge of enthusiastic, aspiring farmers in starting new operations is access to land and the cost of capital.

With less farmland, lack of access, insufficient capital, and limited expertise, how will organic farming gain any traction in the grand scheme of broad scale agriculture? In the face of many challenges, what will it take to propel success and considerable growth in local, sustainable food economies?

Well-respected agriculture research outlets like Rodale Institute and the Agronomy Journal recently published long-term studies, 30 years and 18 years respectively, revealing the benefits and business case for organic farming. The key takeaways from the reports are that organic agriculture outperforms conventional in terms of ecological benefits, resiliency against crop loss, profitability, long-term food production capability, and soil fertility. Important data like this could help make the business case for organic farming to skeptics, including bank loan agents, who may perceive it as a risky, unworthy pursuit. Building awareness about the value of organic farming could help break down these barriers.

Advocating for the young farmers of America, grassroots organizations like non-profit The Greenhorns provide a library of guidance to help recruit, promote, and support this new workforce. The Greenhorns helps build the skill set of the future farmers of America who will take over for the aging farmer workforce. Another solution new to the mix is an investment fund for increasing the amount of sustainable farmland by acquiring and transitioning conventional farmland. This novel tool developed by Farmland LP also helps young farmers lacking capital by providing access to the land and a low-risk opportunity to develop expertise in sustainable farmland stewardship.

Given all the energy, creativity, and passion devoted to building a stronger sustainable food system, what strategies do you think will be most effective? What will carry this movement to the tipping point? The momentum up to this point has been tremendous, but there is still far to go.

[Image Credit: Humbolt State University]

—–

Cyndie Hoffman is an MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School. You can reach her at Cyndie.Hoffman@presidiomba.org and follow her on Twitter here.