Problem: Crop farmers who transition to certified organic grains report increased profitability, improved soil health, and improved quality of life through enhanced economic stability, key factors used to determine sustainability in agriculture. However, certified organic land accounts for less than 1% percent of the U.S. farmland, and even less in Indiana.
Approach/methods: We will survey and interview Indiana grain farmers (including conventional, those interested in organic certification, and those certified) to identify the most salient constraints and facilitators. Key informant interviews with organic grain buyers, such as processors, wholesalers, and distributors, will identify the marketing opportunities and bottlenecks for organic grain in Indiana. A farmer-to-farmer education and outreach component will include workshops with panels of experienced farmers, and farm visits focused on topics that have been identified as key challenges and strategies for sustainable grain operations. The construction of a farmer-buyer gap analysis will provide needed information on marketing outlets for the workshops and other outreach, to increase the viability of organic grain production in Indiana. Our methods will inform development of a farmer-to- farmer based education initiative that accounts for a range of systems and scales, and provides resource publications to be used across the state and region. In order to increase farmer participation, a farmer advisory board will be formed to guide both the research and outreach components of the project.
Outcomes: Indiana grain farmers will gain knowledge about new market opportunities and support programs for the transition period. New linkages forged between farmers, grain buyers, extension, and other education and certifying agencies, will support the adoption of enhanced sustainable agricultural practices.
Relevance: As the demand for organic grains continues to outpace supply, conversations with Indiana farmers highlight the importance of research and education on organic grain transition. Organic certification offers important economic opportunities for crop farmers in the North Central Region (NCR), as certified farmers tend to be more profitable due to price premiums. Wider adoption of organic practices would also contribute to the long- term sustainability of NCR agriculture by meeting current market demands using practices that increase soil and plant health, and protect waterways.
This project will foster new collaboration between farmers, grain buyers, extension educators, and farmer-based organizations. These collaborations will facilitate market access and create a supportive network to facilitate peer- to-peer education and information exchange among key actors in the organic grain industry. The research will generate knowledge of the constraints and opportunities for transitioning to certified organic grain production and will inform education and outreach activities that result in increased certification, improved organic product availability, and new market opportunities. Wider adoption of organic practices will enhance the environmental sustainability and economic viability of grain farms in Indiana.
As the demand for organic grains continues to outpace supply, conversations with Indiana farmers highlight the importance of research and education on organic grain transition. Organic certification offers important economic opportunities for crop farmers in the North Central Region (NCR), as certified farmers tend to be more profitable due to price premiums. Wider adoption of organic practices would also contribute to the long- term sustainability of NCR agriculture by meeting current market demands using practices that increase soil and plant health, and protect waterways.
The project approach includes three research phases. The use of mixed methods will allow each phase to inform the development of proceeding phase(s), as well as the collection of data that will allow for both breadth and depth to be derived from the results.
Phase 1 includes the surveying of conventional grain farmers, conventional grain farmers interested in organic transition, and certified organic grain farmers (all from Indiana), along with follow-up interviews with select respondents (year 1). Our primary research question asks what factors contribute and hinder farmers that are in transition from conventional grain production to certified organic grain production. To this end, we are embarking on a mixed-methods, interdisciplinary project that includes collecting survey and interview data from farmers, from institutional grain buyers, and from farmers via an in-depth case study. We hypothesize that various individual and industry characteristics and contexts affect one’s interest and inclination to a) consider a transition to organic methods and production, and b) to actually adopt a new approach that contrasts with one’s current management style.
Phase 2 includes key informant interviews with organic grain buyers, wholesalers, and distributors in the organic grain supply chain in the North Central Region of the US, obtained from directories of organic buyers (year 1). The intention is to collect information from buyers of organic and/or non-GMO grains. Data will then be used in a gap analysis with information collected from producers in Phase 1 to pinpoint areas where communication is lacking or miscommunication is occurring. Data from Phase 2 is also being used for a M.S. thesis in Agricultural Economics, where the data is currently being analyzed and a formal hypothesis is being explored. The goal is to categorize buyers and to find differentiating characteristics, preferences, or perceptions among buyers
Phase 3 includes the farmer case study, which provides us with the opportunity to take a deep-dive understanding into the transition experiences of five Indiana farms. We anticipate that the case study will provide detail-rich, context-specific examples of the organic transition experience of a diverse set of farms, revealing significant differences in motivating factors, production and marketing strategies, and more. These experiences, shared through a publication and at an educational workshops and conferences, will provide others with the opportunity to learn about the nuances of transitioning to organic and help others to avoid potential mistakes and identify successful strategies that may inform their decisions and strategies in transitioning acreage in their own operations.
Phase 1 included a survey of 389 conveniently selected Indiana farmers, including conventional only grain farmers (n=93) and farmers with some or all of their land certified organic (n=287). Additionally, we will complete ~60 follow-up interviews with purposely-selected farmers from the survey respondent list.
The survey instrument (approved by the Internal Review Board) included four distinct sections with a total of 31 questions. Section 1 focused on farm level and farm operator questions. Section 2 centered on a series of Likert scales directed at understanding motives, values, barriers, and facilitators. Section 3 entailed a modified population based survey experiment regarding various narratives associated with transitioning to organic systems. Finally, section 4 solicited demographic data from participants and inquired on their interest to participate in a follow-up telephone interview. In order to solicit data from the aforementioned types of farmers, we used three survey-data collection approaches. We solicited data from farmers attending the 2017 Indiana Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. Secondly, we solicited data from farmers transitioning acreage to certified organic via our contacts at OEFFA and Eco-Cert.
Third, we solicited data from farmers who already have certified organic acreage by sending a paper questionnaire to all Indiana grain farmers listed in the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database. Finally, we solicited survey responses through attendance at Purdue Extension training sessions in hopes of capturing a larger sample of the conventional only farmers. A $5 cash incentive was used in soliciting data through all means, to significantly increase response rates.
Follow-up telephone interviews are underway with the aim of soliciting data from ~60 survey respondents (30 conventional only and 30 organic). Interviewees are being purposely selected based on results from the survey in order to ensure equal representation of farmer types and a dual split between those interested and disinterested in organic transition and certification.
Data for this phase was collected in 2018 from May to November, using a questionnaire composed of 69 questions that met Internal Review Board (IRB) requirements of exemption. The questionnaire was tested with several collaborators on this project that purchase organic and/or non-GMO grains and was adapted based on their recommendations.The questionnaire was offered to organic and/or non-GMO grain buyers throughout the North Central Region of the US and gathered information pertaining to grains purchased, types of purchasing agreements, purchases of imported or small/minor grains, sample, storage and transportation requirements, preferences of buyers, relationship formation and maintenance with producers, business demographics, and buyer perceptions of the organic grain market. A total of 45 surveys were completed with 21 surveys being completed via phone interview and the remaining 24 being completed online. All data was recorded and stored anonymously.
We used a lengthy selection process to recruit and select case study participants. A protocol detailing the initial recruitment phase, selection process, consent, and case study project details (interviews, etc) was approved by Purdue IRB. An invitation explaining the case study project included a two-page pre-screening application that potential participants could submit if interested in being considered for the project. The pre-screening application provided us with information about the potential participant, including location, farm operation acreage and enterprises, transition plan, acreage, and crops, and why they are interested in participating in the project. This invitation was sent to farms that were known to be transitioning acreage, or planning a transition of acreage in Indiana. Based on the pool of pre-screening applications, five applicants were selected to participate in the project. The applicants were selected based on farming experience, scale, location, and transition plan to ensure a diverse range of participants in the project. This recruitment and selection process occurred during the summer 2018. Initial farm visit interviews commenced in December 2018 and will continue during the winter months of 2019. Two in depth farm visit interviews will occur each year, in addition to occasional phone calls with participants to keep up on growing season progress and details related to their transition experience.
Phase 1 Results-
We surveyed Indiana grain farmers (including conventional, those in transition to organic, and those already organically certified) to understand how various types of narratives influence farmer perspective on organic production methods. The four narratives focused on (1) farm-family legacy, (2) economic values, (3) environmental values, and (4) Christianity and stewards of Eden. Survey participants were presented with the four narratives and asked to select which of the four most resonated with them. In total, 389 conveniently selected Indiana farmers participated in our survey. This included conventional only grain farmers (n=93) and farmers with some or all of their land certified organic (n=287).
Results from Phase 1 are presented in two distinct summaries below. Summary 1 is centered on the use of narratives in understanding behavior, and Summary 2 focused on land tenure’s link to transitioning. Results are preliminary and further analysis is continuing to occur.
Conventional to organic transition amongst Indiana grain farmers: A narrative approach to understanding behavioral intention
To understand the various factors affecting farmers’ opinions and their relation to the narratives, we performed multiple regression analyses. Preliminary results indicate that key variables differed between the four narrative groups. The only variable predicting whether the farm-family legacy narrative was chosen as the top narrative resonating with the participant was level of gross farm revenue. The economic value narrative regression also included the gross revenue variable, as well as the percent of income derived from the farm variable. The regression results associated with environmental values narrative indicated the family’s health situation and family involvement on the farm, as well as perception to challenges to organic production and marketing organic grains, were significant predictors of those selecting the narrative. Finally, the narrative relating to Christianity and stewards of Eden garnered the most significant variables in its regression analysis. This included years farming, family health situation and family involvement, importance of up to date technologies, overall yields per acre, how one’s farm was viewed by others, and overall support for organics. Understanding how different narratives resonate with different types of farmers is paramount for the cultivation of the next generation of farmers involved in this growing agricultural sector.
Land tenure and the transition to certified organic grain production in Indiana
We find a relationship between land tenure and organic certification, with conventional-only farmers renting or leasing a higher ratio of the acres they farm (0.57) compared to just 0.09 for certified organic and transitioning farmers. Moreover, conventional-only farmers work with a median of 4 landlords, compared to 1 for farmers who manage a combination of acres in conventional, certified organic and transition, and 0 for certified organic farmers. Farmers that responded to our survey and only manage certified organic land reported ownership of all the land they farm. We also find an inverse relationship between the scale of farming operation and organic certification, with certified organic farmers managing smaller operations than conventional farmers. In sum, the certified organic farmers who responded to our survey are more likely to manage fewer acres and own all of their land, and thus have greater flexibility with management decisions, while conventional farmers manage more acres, deal with more landlords and multiple lease agreements, and face competition with neighboring farmers for leases. In the interviews, we asked farmers whether their rental arrangements and working with multiple landlords shaped their management decisions, including investment in long-term conservation practices. Their experiences provide a richer picture of how rental arrangements shape farmers’ ability to implement sustainable practices, namely organic certification.
Preliminary data suggests that 15 (33.3%) of the participating operations had more than $20,000,000 in gross sales, while 14 (31.1%) had gross sales between $500,000 and $5,000,000 for 2017. Twenty-two (48.9%) of the operations identified as a grain processor, 14 (31.1%) as a grain broker, and 13 (28.9%) as a feed mill. It is important to note that identification categories were not mutually exclusive. Buyers that stated their grains are related to the livestock industry predominantly cited poultry for egg production, followed by dairy.
Thirty-seven buyers (82.2%) stated they purchased organic grains in 2017 and 38 (84.4%) stated they purchased non-GMO, while only 19 (42.2%) purchased conventional grains as well. Predominant grains purchased, regardless of class, were corn, soybeans, and wheat. Food-grade grains were purchased more for all classes, except for conventional, where feed-grade grains were more significant. Seventeen (37.8%) of the buyers stated they experience increased grain deliveries to their operation in the fall season. Organic purchasing agreements are dominated by a fixed quantity forward contract (39%), followed by spot or open market purchases (36%) and fixed acreage forward contracts (22%). Transitioning, non-GMO, and conventional purchasing agreements were led by spot or open market purchases for this population. Average length of organic contracts is 5.72 months, with 55.7% of the contracts drafted pre-planting. Organic grains suppliers received grain payment on average of 23.28 days after delivery, while non-GMO was 18.11 and conventional 15.83 days.
Participating operations identified expected market demand, expected domestic supply, and anticipation of future prices as the top 3 drivers behind organic price premiums. Transitioning grains were given non-GMO price premiums by most of the buyers (88%). Others offered organic premiums or no premiums for transitional grains. Thirty-nine percent of the buyers stated they had purchased imported organic grains, and 69.2% of this group stated that imported organic grains were cheaper, while 30.8% stated imported organic grain prices were the same as domestic prices.
Buyers require organic certification and a clean truck affidavit from grain suppliers. Buyers do not require crop insurance, but do prefer for the supplier to deliver and clean the grains. Thirty-seven (82.2%) of the buyers offer pricing information to suppliers, 34 (75.6%) offer marketing information, and 24 (53.3%) offer agronomic assistance to grain suppliers. Buyers perceive the organic market as offering access to price premiums and new markets, and believe organic allows for product differentiation. Buyers also believe that the organic grain industry relies heavily on imports, and non-GMO grains are a step towards organic certification.
We do not have any results to report at this time.
The educational approach used in this project emphasizes a farmer-focused peer-to-peer learning format. A transition to organic workshop and series of farmer meetings/field days are to be offered in years 2 and 3 (2019-2020) of the project, but we kicked off educational programming targeting transition-to-organic grain farmers in Indiana in 2018.
Annual meetings with the advisory board members, composed of organic farmers and representatives of institutions and associations from the organic grain industry, has also offered us an opportunity to present preliminary findings from our research.
Educational & Outreach Activities
All of the outreach activities are listed and detailed in the project activities section.
- The research will generate knowledge of the constraints and opportunities for transitioning to certified organic grain production and will inform education and outreach activities that result in increased certification, improved organic product availability, and new market opportunities.