2 August 2000 Organic farming – how do you promote it?
If New Zealand is to pursue a future as a major player in organic production, policymakers must first of all understand how farmers make their decision to grow or not grow products organically. What do they see as the ‘positives’ and the ‘negatives’? And are there some content to stay unaware of the possibilities by ignoring organics altogether?
Rural sociologist Dr John Fairweather of Lincoln University's Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit and colleagues at the University of Otago are working on a major research project Greening Food: industry and social dynamics, funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. It's a study which has answered the above questions and here Dr Fairweather reports on policy implications:
Lincoln and Otago universities have a cooperative research programme studying organic exporting and the ‘greening’ of horticulture i.e. its movement towards more sustainable practices.
Part of the research has led to policy recommendations deriving from two 1996 studies, one of a variety of farmers in Canterbury, the other of kiwifruit growers in the Bay of Plenty. Both studies had the same aim – to understand how farmers made decisions to grow or not to grow products organically. Both included organic and conventional farmers.
The Canterbury study included 43 farmers (16 organic, 27 conventional) in a sample designed to cover all the main farming types (horticulture, cropping, sheep/beef, dairy and other animals) and level of activity (smallholdings, part-time, full-time). The Bay of Plenty study included 40 farmers (28 Kiwigreen, 12 organic) and was based on random samples taken from lists provided by the NZ Kiwifruit Marketing Board. Kiwigreen is a relatively new production system using some insecticides plus some organic techniques and is a movement towards organic production.
The research developed decision trees that identified reasons for and constraints against actions, and these provide the basis for policy recommendations – the subject of this article. It is not assumed that policy initiatives are the sole responsibility of government. The focus is on policies that might be pursued by a variety of organisations such as governments, universities, research institutes, promotional agencies, or private companies. In New Zealand, the activity of private companies has been an important factor in supporting organic farming. In addition to providing premiums, these companies have developed technology, campaigned actively to promote organic production, sold the idea to smallholders and new entrants to farming, and offered technical assistance to farmers. The main focus here is on policies that could affect farmers directly, rather than on policies that could affect the context of farming generally, and policies are taken to be inclusive of broad-ranging initiatives that may affect attitudes, technology development and finances. Each is considered in turn.
Policies to influence attitudes need to provide information about organic farming to farmers who have never considered it or who are satisfied with their present, low input system. These farmers do not have negative views about organic farming and would appear to be easy to persuade. More difficult to persuade are farmers who are satisfied with their present farming system (and who like high yields, and/or tidy appearance) and farmers who are sceptical about either organic farming's technical and economic viability or its sustainability. Part of the attitude change process may involve the need to promote a different view of what is ‘good’ farming and what is ‘tidy’ farming. It may be necessary to promote ‘untidy’ farms as healthy and economic.
Scepticism about organic farming's viability can be addressed by publishing widely the results of comparative assessments of organic and conventional production. Some farmers are looking for organic crops and they would benefit from receiving comprehensive information about all the organic alternatives.
Having made these recommendations, it is important to acknowledge that policy focused solely on attitude change may have limited effectiveness because attitude change is notoriously difficult.
Policies to promote research that develops technical aspects of organic farming will be important in influencing farmers' thinking because of the perceived technical problems of organic production. There is scope for a number of agencies to study, demonstrate, and disseminate techniques to solve the technical problems associated with organic production. For example, many farmers were concerned about weed control. Yet some of the organic farmers said that they had overcome most of the problems associated with this aspect of organic production; for them it was a matter of timely cultivation combined with careful observation and prompt response to emerging weeds. It seems that weed control is possible and that there are new techniques recently developed but these are not as convenient as using chemicals. There is also a need for research on the crop rotations that are viable under organic farming, and a need for a broader range of organic crops, so that completely organic rotations can be used. Another element to technical development is research that would lead to improvements in seed dressing and cleaning technology to allow efficient separation of seeds harvested from grain crops with a high proportion of weed seeds.
Another technical (and attitudinal) issue preventing adoption of organic techniques is the apparent compatibility of some chemicals with organic production. A popular chemical is Roundup and its apparently benign effect on the soil makes it difficult for conventional farmers to see why it is not environmentally acceptable.
Another apparently benign traditional practice is the use of super phosphate fertiliser, and some farmers believe that its use is necessary to benefit soil structure and improve humus levels. These examples illustrate the tensions inherent in defining and certifying organic production, a topic not examined in this article.
Policies that relate to farm finances and profitability of organic farming are also important and could be developed by a variety of agencies. There is a need for careful analysis of the gross margins associated with growing organic products. Some New Zealand research has been conducted of this type and it shows that the best growers of organic crops for Heinz-Wattie can achieve excellent returns, but the lowest returns occurred for organic growers, typically on small farms. Further research is needed to cover a wider range of products and these results need to be widely publicised. This would have the effect of motivating more farmers to grow organic products by appealing to their attraction to premiums or higher valued products. Moreover, it would address the concerns expressed by farmers sceptical of organic farming's financial viability.
Generally, farmers' view on the economics of organic production showed contrasting positions: some accepted that premiums were available while others denied that organic production is economic. However, very few farmers were aware of gross margin data comparing organic with conventional production for vegetable crops in Canterbury or kiwifruit in the Bay of Plenty. Kiwifruit farmers were aware that there was an organic kiwifruit premium but guessed that it was, on average, $NZ1.00 per tray when it had been $NZ2.21 per tray. Clearly, there is scope for more informed decision-making on this topic. Better awareness of gross margins may encourage some farmers to appreciate the financial benefits of lowered production of organic products that receive a premium.
Not only is further research on the gross margins of organic crops needed but attention must be given to the role premiums play in encouraging farmers to grow organic products. Export premiums provide a major incentive to farmers. The decision tree has demonstrated that premiums were vital to supporting the development of organic production.
If the companies offering premiums did not operate in Canterbury and the Bay of Plenty then it is likely that a key element of the decision tree would not be relevant, and most of the organic farmers would be motivated by philosophy, food, and health factors only. Under such conditions, there would be fewer organic farmers.
Generally, the research indicates that there is considerable potential for the continued development of organic production in New Zealand. While the financial incentives have played a significant role for some farmers there are still other farmers who grow organic production in the absence of premiums. Further, among conventional farmers themselves, there may be a significant proportion who have not fully embraced high input conventional farming systems and would be well placed to convert to organic production.
Some farmers in this study were not really aware of organic farming: they ignored it rather than rejected it. There were signs that low input or traditional styles of farming are gaining legitimacy and this development could, in time, encourage more farmers to try alternative systems.
Finally, a significant proportion of full-time farmers in this study had considered organic farming. If ways are found to address the issues of economic and technical viability of organic farming, including farmers' attitudes to change, then a major stumbling block for conventional farmers would be addressed and the conversion to organic farming would occur more quickly.
Ian Collins, Journalist, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand