Courtesy of Mike Hsu

Organic Agriculture Institute needs assessment refines how it can address pressing challenges

The explosive growth of organic agriculture in the U.S. – reflected in a 90% increase in organic farms from 2011 to 2021, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics – has come at a cost for some farmers. With new farming operations increasing the supply of organic commodities, along with consolidation of buyers, growers report that their profit margins are not what they used to be.

Those market size considerations are among the challenges highlighted in a new report detailing the initial findings by the University of California Organic Agriculture Institute on the most pressing needs of the state’s organic sector. OAI gathered and analyzed data from 423 responses to an online grower survey, over 60 interviews with stakeholders across the organic community, and additional observations from farm visits and workshops.

The report describes other frequently mentioned systemic priorities, such as maintaining integrity of the term “organic,” developing a market for organic seeds, spreading consumer awareness, and alleviating the burdens of organic certification and reporting.

Shriya Rangarajan, the postdoctoral researcher with OAI leading this statewide needs assessment, said that the reported challenges varied by organic status (fully certified, transitioning to organic, or a mixed farm with some conventional), type of crop, as well as size of the operation. She noted survey respondents were roughly representative of the sector overall – 70% small-scale growers and 30% medium and large.

“Organic is not a homogenous industry, to say the least – small growers and large growers are very different; for small growers, their challenges tend to be financial and regulatory, especially relating to certification requirements and labor,” said Rangarajan. She added that larger growers mentioned different types of challenges, weeds and pest pressures for instance, given the difficulty in controlling managing these at scale without the use or availability of organic inputs.

Organic Agriculture Institute key to sharing resources across state

Another common theme from the assessment is that the organic sector needs more accessible resources to address those myriad concerns. For OAI, established in 2020 under UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the initial findings validated and refined the direction of its research and extension programs.

“As a new organization, we’ve been trying to figure out where we fit into this ecosystem and how we can support it,” said Houston Wilson, a UC Cooperative Extension entomology specialist who has served as OAI’s director since its founding.

Because OAI was envisioned as a hub of resources and connections for California’s organic community, Wilson and his colleagues are especially interested in understanding how its constituent members obtain information – and how OAI can improve their access.

“Growers are finding it difficult to navigate the resources that exist for organic agriculture, like technical information, financial support, compliance and certification support,” Wilson said. “While we’d like to see more resources for organic in general, those that currently exist can sometimes be hard to navigate or it can be hard to know where to go for the right thing – that became really apparent early on.”

While some producers are contacting OAI directly with their questions, Wilson is eager to develop tools and systems that can serve the community more broadly. For example, Wilson and Krista Marshall – OAI’s policy and partnerships coordinator – are currently beta-testing a new map tool, built in conjunction with UC ANR’s Informatics and GIS (IGIS) team. The map, expected to be ready in fall 2024, will enable users to click on their county and see all available resources related to organic agriculture.

Wilson added that OAI will have four full-time staffers by fall, further expanding its research, extension, and education efforts. After holding four field events this past year, OAI aims to increase activities in the coming year, including not just field events but also online resources, webinars and more. Also, a new training and technical assistance coordinator will be tasked with bringing Cooperative Extension advisors and other technical assistance personnel across the state up to speed on a range of organic topics, so they can more effectively answer questions from clientele in their region.

New survey aims to trace crucial organic knowledge networks

Although the OAI team has gained a sense of how information is shared across the organic community (and started to formalize those interconnections through a California Organic Agriculture Knowledge Network), they are now developing a survey to study those relationships more systematically.

“We’re trying to understand what kind of knowledge resources people tap into, which is something that has come up repeatedly in our needs assessment,” Rangarajan said. “We’re trying to understand who people are speaking to because, at the end of the day, organic is still a relatively small part of agriculture in California, and that makes it more fragmented. So trying to connect those different parts becomes important.”

Once Wilson has a more nuanced understanding of organic knowledge networks, he will be able to strategize and position OAI – and the UC – as a more effective partner and contributor in the sector.

“Given the history of organic, growers have had to rely on each other a lot,” Wilson explained. “We understand that the university has unique expertise to bring to the table, but we also acknowledge that there’s all these other knowledge holders out there, so one of the roles that we see ourselves having is helping to facilitate those connections, strengthen them and increase the frequency of interaction.”

That may include further supporting efforts that connect transitioning organic farmers with experienced growers (a mentorship program led by Certified California Organic Farmers, or CCOF), or giving more structure to grower-researcher partnerships that can help address a host of production challenges. In OAI’s grower survey, weed management topped the list, followed by water and disease issues, all exacerbated by climate variability.

“I think a lot of the real innovation changes are coming through growers experimenting with their own practice,” Rangarajan explained. “From a research perspective, one of the best ways to take this forward would be to formalize those experiments in some way so that knowledge becomes more reportable.”

And collaboration on “organic topics,” such as finding alternatives to synthetic pesticides, are a boon to the entire agricultural sector – conventional growers included.

“Everyone is trying to reduce pesticide use; everyone is trying to reduce environmental impacts,” Wilson said. “You don’t have to be certified organic to benefit from organic research; these practices can be used by anyone.”

The report with OAI’s initial findings on organic needs can be found at: