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How organic growers solve challenges: ‘Don’t give up’

With diminished research support available, growers turn to experts – and each other – for help.

Mike Wilson

December 8, 2023

5 Min Read
Panelists at OGS
Panelists at the recent Organic Grower Summit discuss tough production challenges for organic farmers. From left: Darryl Wong, Larry Jacobs, Shriya Rangarajan, and Brise Tencer. Photos Mike WilsonMike Wilson

Larry Jacobs has some advice for organic growers discouraged by production challenges they often face each year.

“Don’t give up,” said Jacobs, president of Jacobs Farm del Cabo, Pescadero, Calif., a successful northern California organic farm.

“We’ve been doing this 40 years and sometimes you want to get up and say, I quit,” he said, speaking on a panel at the Organic Grower Summit held Nov. 29-30 in Monterey, Calif. “I’m sure others have come across insurmountable problems, and inevitably, the solution is, find the experts. Often there are resources in the community. Keep pushing for solutions and research.

“The most important thing is, don’t give up.”

Jacobs was among over 600 growers who attended OGS this year, featuring educational panels, an agtech innovation area, and trade show. Breakout sessions encouraged farmer-to-farmer connections that offered solutions to the common challenges growers face.

Jacobs spoke on a panel, Understanding evolving production challenges for organic growers. He was joined by Darryl Wong, executive director, UCSC agroecology center, Shriya Rangarajan, postdoctoral researcher, UC Organic Agriculture Institute, and Brise Tencer, executive director, Organic Farming Research Foundation, moderator.

Feeling alone

Related:Organic producers primed for the future

Farmers who grow crops organically often feel like they are climbing a mountain all alone. There are no simple answers in organic systems where you have limited materials while some consulting services have a vested interest in selling their products.

“Chemicals are great because the insects die, but not ideal if it kills off your beneficial populations,” said Jacobs. “And someone is making money on it. Contrast that to a biological solution – nobody sprays anything, but nobody is marketing biological solutions because once established there is nothing to sell.” And it’s not easy, because establishing beneficial insect populations in time to control potential insect pests requires habitat diversity and management.

UCANR (University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources) sees the need for more organic researchers to work on complex problems, said Wong.

“Organic systems are not input intensive, they are knowledge intensive,” he added. “It’s harder to create a research program around that.”

Identify the issues

The UC Organic Agriculture Institute recently launched a statewide needs assessment survey to see which issues were most worrisome for California’s organic growers.

“Findings show stakeholders are not a monolithic group,” said Rangarajan. “Challenges vary by crop type, position in the value chain, organic status (certified or in transition), scale of operation and region.”

Related:Organic deadline presents new challenges

Among those who grow both mixed conventional and organic crops, some big challenges were weed control and insect management. And some challenges are more structural, like access to organic seed.

“When it comes to organic seed, what I’m hearing from growers is that it’s too expensive, there is not enough quantity or not enough variety,” she said. “They’re telling us that maybe they’ll be able to use more organic seed when the market shifts, but the problem is, there is no reason for that market to shift. That’s a significant production problem, because at the end of the day people are forced to use seed that was originally developed for conventional production.”

Another challenge is diminishing returns for organic growers due to market saturation from too much competition. Buyer consolidation causes a price drop and in many cases consumers don’t seem to value organic enough, which leads to lower premiums.

Peer group solutions

The needs assessment asked growers how they got their information about organic farming practices. The number one answer was from other organic farmers.

“Even so, there is still a lot of inequity in access to knowledge about organic farming,” Rangarajan said. “One way to overcome this is to facilitate more farmer-to-farmer exchanges and other activities that make it easier for growers to connect with the knowledge and resources that are out there.” People also learn by going online, talking to certifiers, buyers, crop consultants, extension experts, and others.

When other farmers don’t have the answers, they take initiative to find experts.

“Insects have been one of our biggest headaches,” said Jacobs. “Stinkbugs are like little tanks.”

Working with research entomologists, he located a parasitoid in another part of the world. “Researchers taught us how to grow the parasitoid, and the stinkbugs miraculously disappeared,” Jacobs said. “Not completely, but enough. Years later when stink bugs came back, we came up with a physical control – blow the critters off the plant with a fan, and it works still today.”

Jacobs was able to control squash bugs on pumpkins with help from an underfunded biocontrol lab out of CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture). He collaborated with ICIPE (International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology) to control fruit flies. “I had no experience dealing with them,” he recalled. “Again, the answer came from this amazing research group in Kenya. These guys have a team of researchers from all over the world and they identified five species of fruit flies. They helped us develop a plan to kill them.

“It’s just another example of finding the right people who can help you with solutions,” Jacobs said.

What about organic crop weed control? Robotic smart weeders have come to market, but not all organic growers have the money to afford that technology.

“It costs money to control weeds,” said Jacobs. “As an organic grower you end up going through that field at least one time by hand, and it’s a cost issue. So at some point you have to decide how many weeds you leave behind, and that means weed seed left for next year.”

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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