Converting a Conventional Farm to Organic

Here is another of my research papers from my Food Policy and Law course that I took this summer. The assignment was to consider a hypothetical conventional farm and calculate the costs and considerations for converting to a certified organic farm. My scenario is not particularly realistic, but it gets the job done …

Carol and Ron Hinckel, the owners of a conventional 50-acre wheat farm in Damascus, Oregon, want to convert their acreage to USDA-certified 100-percent organic asparagus. They plan to sell this crop at the Portland Farmers Market, which takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays in downtown Portland, 19 miles away. The Hinckels are looking for a seasonal, low-maintenance, high-premium crop that will allow them to spend much of the year traveling to visit grandchildren. Because Carol worked for city government for 25 years, she has a pension, and they have saved enough money to cover the three-year transition period that is required of farmers converting a conventional field into an organic one. They have considered the changes they need to make that will affect the land and their business.

Changes to Their Land

The Hinckels’ soil is volcanic and heavy, and has been planted in wheat since 1973. The wheat was sprayed with a number of chemical herbicides and synthetic fertilizers over the years. In order to rest the soil and prepare it for an asparagus crop, they will first put in a triticale/vetch cover crop, plow that in at the end of the season, add compost, lime and phosphorus, and finally amend the soil with sand to lighten it.

They will need to expand their existing buffer zones, adding native plants, trees, and grasses. They also plan to restore a streambed that was re-routed in the 1960s to create more arable land; they received a grant from their water conservation district for this project. They estimate that their restoration efforts will leave them with 25 acres to plant in asparagus.

They will buy one-year-old organic male crowns to plant in the spring, rather than start from seed (§ 205.204(a)(4), Baier, 2012). The asparagus must not be picked for two additional years after planting in order to establish the root system; this will coordinate with the three-year waiting period associated with becoming certified organic growers.

Asparagus is a perennial plant that can produce for ten to twenty years, and therefore cannot be rotated with other crops; the Hinckels will keep their soil healthy by side-dressing with compost (Hutton, n.d.). Weeding is essential; the first two years, especially, they will hire extra help to hand-pull weeds to ensure that none get established. After the asparagus plants have grown, the Hinckels will switch to an approved fabric row cover. They will keep wide aisles (72 inches) between the rows to accommodate a compact tractor for these tasks and for use during harvest.

They plan to use an integrated pest management system to keep their asparagus plants healthy. Asparagus is generally a low-maintenance crop; the most common pest is the asparagus beetle. Since the Hinckels will have only male plants, they should have less problem with the beetles, as the eggs are laid in the berries of the female plants (Pleasant, 2013). They plan to hand-remove any beetles that appear, or use a USDA-approved insecticidal soap if they have a larger infestation.

Changes to Their Business

The Hinckels will need to invest in refrigeration equipment to keep the asparagus cool once it is picked (U.S. Dept. Agriculture, n.d.a.; Baier, 2012); a van to transport the produce to the market; a tent, tables, displays, signage, and POS equipment (cash register, credit-card reader); and possibly temporary housing for their interns. They will be able to use their existing irrigation equipment. Once they have tilled in the cover crop, added the amendments, and dug the asparagus trenches, they will sell their full-sized tractor and buy a compact tractor. They haven’t decided what to do with their grain bin. They have hired out the spraying and threshing in the past, so they have no equipment to liquidate in that regard.

The Hinckels have “hired work done” in the past, but never had regular employees. They are looking into WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and other avenues for bringing low- or unpaid interns onto the farm to help with hand-weeding, and to send to the market to sell the asparagus. Most farmers they know use migrant workers, but they are hesitant to explore that option.

They will continue to use their existing record-keeping procedures “concerning the production, harvesting, and handling of agricultural products” (Baier, 2011). They will also add personnel records to track their interns, and use the Field History/Previous Land Use form to document past farming practices, and note improvements to the soil and buffer zone (ibid.). They will create an Organic System Plan to which they can refer if they have an outbreak of disease or infestation; this plan will help them fill out the application at Oregon Tilth (Oregon Tilth, n.d.).

Because the farm will exceed $5,000 in revenue (Hutton, n.d.), they are not exempt from certification (U.S. Dept. Agriculture, n.d.b.; Baier, 2012). They will contact Oregon Tilth to apply for “transitional certification” and, once the waiting period is over, apply for full status (Oregon Tilth, 2014b, p. 19). They will welcome an inspector to their farm and follow up on any requests promptly.

The Hinckels’ fees during the first year will be less than $700 (see Appendix, Table 1). After the first year, the base fee is determined in conjunction with gross income (Oregon Tilth, 2014a). For the following two years, there will be no income, as the asparagus will be too immature to harvest. Things change significantly after that. With asparagus currently selling for $6 per pound at the Portland Farmers Market, the Hinckels have estimated their annual gross income to be approximately $21,780,000* (Hutton, n.d.; Johnny Seeds, n.d.). Their base fee will be $4,000 plus 0.05% of sales that exceed $2 million, or $13,890 total. However, the fee is capped at $10,000 (Oregon Tilth, 2014a). They will continue to pay for inspections every year, as well.

* This is not a realistic scenario; they would have to sell 3,490 pounds of asparagus at each market day in order to liquidate their produce and earn this income.

Appendix

Table 1

Oregon Tilth Fees, Year 1

Cost Reason
$75 First-time applicant fee
$399 First-year base fee
$200 Inspection deposit
$674 Total
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