Biologically integrated farming spilling over into ag's mainstream

Organic or biologically integrated farming is a relatively small part of California agriculture. In fact, no more than 2 percent of the state's 8.3 million acres are currently in transitional or certified organic farming.

However, acreage and sales are growing. Acreage doubled from 1992 to 1997 and sales or organic products are now estimated at more than $200 million annually.

It could grow to at least 20 percent of the California acreage over the next two decades, according to most observers and some believe “alternative farming systems” could reach 60 percent of the state's farmland by 2025.

Organic farming over the past decade has gone from California agriculture's back room to near the front door. It is no longer a counter culture agriculture, but one where both independent and ag retailer pest control advisors deal with daily because more mainstream producers are growing some crops organically or trending toward biologically integrated farming. Monterey Chemical receives many calls from PCAs with ag retailers who say they have a customer growing organic and are looking for organic solutions to problems.

Organic farming has had its biggest impact in vegetable, stone fruit and grape production in California This is in response to a rapidly growing consumer demand through the 1990s for organic, fresh market products. Many of the major organic producers have large blocks of certified organic fields or orchards along with conventionally farmed blocks. Organics have entered the mainstream marketplace of many California commodities.

Variety of reasons

Farmers are looking at these so-called alternative farming systems for a variety of reasons. One is low commodity prices are forcing producers to add value to what they produce. The organic moniker has done that for some.

Secondly, these low prices are forcing producers to reduce inputs. Although organic farming by definition is not necessarily cheaper farming, it can be low-input farming. However, it is not neglect farming. Pest control advisors and farmers must monitor organic crops more closely.

And it is not non-chemical farming. This interest in organic or biologically integrated farming systems has spawned an array of compounds certified for use on organic crops. And, they are being sold by mainstream ag retailers and manufacturers. Monterey Chemical, which has been in business for almost four decades, now has three compounds certified for organic farming, and we are looking for more. We are also analyzing micronutrients we market, evaluating them for metals and other elements. This allows us to certify that certain products meet organic farming standards.

Increasingly more people need organically approved solutions to pest problems and the marketplace is responding to that need.

Beyond that, it is significant to note that we receive many calls from producers asking about these products. I would say over half the calls we receive about our organically approved products are from people who are not involved in organic farming nor are interested in getting into it. They are looking for soft compounds, which will allow them to control problems, preserve beneficial insects and reduce re-entry intervals.

The onerous regulatory system in California is one factor driving producers to softer compounds. They want to get away from the paperwork and monitoring necessary with many older compounds.

Plus, California's growing urban population continues to invade farming area and producers are increasingly concerned about this interface. This is also driving farmers to looking for soft alternatives. The adversarial relationship between organic farming and so-called traditional farming is disappearing. Evolving are blended farming systems. Farmers are asking for and universities are developing new ideas and concepts under the heading of sustainable agriculture. Some of these ideas have become widely practiced, like nitrogen fixing cover crops and the introduction of beneficial insects into these cover crops.

Concern for the environment motivated producers early on into organics. And, many of these were small growers with limited production. Now, however, larger producers sharing the same ecological concerns are producing organically and establishing large markets for their products.

Consumers are also driving the demand for organic products. We are dealing with a belief system that compels people to pay more for organic. And, they have had the money to back up those beliefs. Whether we agree with these notions is irrelevant. We must accept and respect it and derive solutions to meet the demand.

Two questions remain about the marketplace for organics. Is the increasing supply of organics going to cut into these value-added prices of the commodities? The second is with the slowing economy, will consumers continue to pay higher prices for organic commodities or will the higher prices drive them back to non-organic compounds?

Regardless of what happens in the consumer marketplace, this trend toward blended farming systems will continue to play a bigger part of the work of PCAs and consultants.

Jay Irvine has been a licensed California pest control advisor since 1986. He is a 1985 graduate of California State University, Fresno. Prior to joining Monterey in 1992, he was with Consep, a company specializing in pheromone-based pest management systems. He a fifth generation Californian and is president of the Tulare-Kings chapter of the California Agricultural Production Consultants Association (CAPCA). He is also chairman of this year's annual CAPCA conference. He is also a member of the Association of Applied Insect Ecologists.

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