When farmers decide to go organic, it takes time: it isn’t possible to get USDA organic certification until crops have been grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years. In the meantime, because crops aren’t officially organic, farmers usually can’t earn a premium for the food.
A new USDA program sets up a national “transitional” certification to help. After the first year of growing organic food, a farm can be certified as in transition to organic. For the second and third years, until the farm is fully organic, farmers can use a transitional label on food–and, in theory, charge more for their products.
That should help ease farms through the financial challenges of the three-year process–one of the biggest barriers for farmers who want to make the switch.
“Even though you are probably spending more money for inputs to build your soil, for example, and to learn new methods, probably in the early years your yields won’t be as great,” says Cathy Calfo, executive director of CCOF, a nonprofit that certifies organic farms. “So, for a lot of farmers, it’s a mathematical calculation: Can I afford to weather those three years to get to the point where I can use the USDA organic seal?”
Some transitional labels have been used before. CCOF already offered transitional certification. Companies like Kashi–desperate for organic ingredients–pushed for a transitional certification with Quality Assurance International, another organic certifier. But the new USDA program will create a standard national approach.
For brands that use organic ingredients, the transitional certification both appeals to consumers and can serve as a signal that a particular supplier will make it through the three-year period to become fully organic.
“If you’re a large processor and want to purchase organic wheat, where there is a real shortage right now, you may be willing to pay a premium to someone who’s in a transition program for three years–if you have a high level of certainty that they will actually become certified so you can purchase the organic product,” says Calfo. “In the marketplace, that’s a practical example of how this is helpful in scaling up supply.”
Right now, demand for organic food far exceeds supply. By the most recent numbers available, from 2011, organic cropland makes up less than 1% of farms in the U.S. At the same time, sales of organic food quickly growing. In 2015, organic food sales hit a record high of $39.7, up 11% over the previous year. The industry could grow even faster if more organic food was available.
A long list of factors could help more farmers transition, from tax incentives to better technical support from agricultural extension agents. “But really this transitional period is the crux of it,” Calfo says.