By Sandy K. Johnson

Organics sales broke $50 billion in 2018 in the U.S., doubling in the last decade and proving American consumer interest in eating organic.

Even so, less than 1% of U.S. cropland is planted organic. That means imports fill the bulk of the demand for organic foods. Eric Jackson, founder and chairman of Pipeline Foods, sees this as an opportunity for U.S. farmers.

Getting an organic certification is a 36-month transition process. The ground must be farmed to organic standards, with extensive records kept. The ground is then inspected; if it meets the standards, the farmer will receive the organic certification. This is an ongoing process, and it includes spot audits.

“The returns are much better for the organic farming community than conventional. Once you go through these transition years – where it can be a challenge – you break out on the other side and you’re doing much better,” Jackson said.

Pipeline launched in 2017 to address what farmers need, such as organic fertilizer, reliable markets, business tools and financial connections. Pipeline also connects growers to food companies, which are clamoring for organic product. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in demand,” Jackson said.

Just over 3 million U.S. acres are certified organic. Three farmers who raise organic crops met with National Press Foundation fellows. Here are their stories:

Next time you knock back a shot of Prairie Organic Vodka, think about Carolyn Olson. Corn from her organic farm in Cottonwood, Minnesota, is purchased by Phillips Distilling Co. to make the company’s organic line of spirits.

Olson and her husband Jonathan grow 1,100 acres of certified organic corn, wheat, oats and barley. They switched to organic in 1998 when buyers started asking for organic. “It is a leap of faith, and your neighbors do think you’re nuts,” she said.

She said they work hard to keep their fields free of weeds. One of their tools is a flame-throwing weeder that basically burns the weeds between rows of crops. Olson called it “the coolest and scariest equipment on the farm.”

Olson said organic farming requires more labor and higher expenses, which are offset by the “organic premium” – higher prices for their commodities than conventional crops. “Prices have been good because demand is high,” she said.

Gary McDonald farms near Mason City, Illinois, and says his farming practices were organic before organic was cool; back then, he was using crop rotation, cover crops, animal fertilizer and mechanical tillage learned from his father and grandfather. In 1979, he transitioned 800 acres cold turkey to standards that today are recognized as certified organic. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat.

“The trend is, it’s a very slow process of transitioning to organic. Only two to three other farms in my county are organic. Most farmers are not willing to open their minds to it,” McDonald said.

Joel Layman grew up on a farm near Berrien Center, Michigan, thinking organics were “for people who wore hemp and Birkenstocks.” He did the research on sustainability and market trends, and decided to change to organic five years ago. Layman manages 2,200 acres, growing organic vegetables, dry edible beans and grains.

The hardest part was the required three-year transition from convention to organic – or as he put it, three years “to reach the promised land” of higher prices for his crops.

“When I went into organic farming, it was not ideological. It was strictly capitalism. I think I can be more profitable because the market is telling me this is what it wants,” Layman said.