Too Great a Risk: Organic Rapeseed Growing in the EU

Rapeseed Field

Rapeseed Field

Humans have used oil pressed from the seeds of plants known as rape for thousands of years. The name rape originated from the Latin word “rapum” which means turnip. Oilseed rape has enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the EU since the 1970s due to support from the Common Agricultural Policy. European production of rapeseed plays an important role in increasing EU self sufficiency in cooking oil. Oilseed rape is harvested from about 3 million hectares in the EU. The crop is attacked by a large number of insects and insecticide use is common. There is little organic rapeseed production in the EU because the insects cannot be effectively controlled.

“The demand for organic winter oilseed rape is steadily increasing. Yet in Germany, for example, oil seed rape cultivation is negligible with a maximum cropping area of 4,000 ha. One important reason for this is the occurrence of insect pests, including the cabbage stem flea beetle, the rape stem weevil, the cabbage stem weevil, the pollen beetle, the cabbage seedpod weevil, and the brassica pod midge. Pest-related yield losses – up to total loss of the crop – make the cultivation of organic winter oilseed rape an incalculable risk.”

Authors: Ludwig, T. and S. Kuhne.
Affiliation: Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants.
Title: Mixed cropping with turnip rape and natural insecticides: results of field and laboratory trials on pest control in organic winter oilseed rape.
Source: Integrated Control in Oilseed Crops IOBC-WPRS Bulletin. 2013. 96:43-44.

Gentlemen Farmers Find the Going a Little Rough

picture caption

Steve Kettelle, successful real estate broker

When several ultra-rich celebrities and businesspeople tried their hand at organic farming, they found the going a little rough.

Of course, they knew going in that growing any kind of crop these days demands not only a high level of skill and knowledge, but a comprehensive grasp of factors affecting the bottom line. Didn’t they?

According to an article in WSJ. Money magazine, these modern-day gentleman, and gentlewoman, farmers – who had hoped to prove the principles of organic farming once and for all – instead found it costly, incredibly labor intensive and full of confusing and often conflicting regulations.

“The nation is in the middle of an organic-food boom, and in case you haven’t noticed, a surprising number of boldfaced names are becoming part of it. That includes Oprah Winfrey. …as well as comedian Roseanne Barr.

This gentleman’s farming—or gentlewoman’s farming—movement has spawned its own lifestyle brand.

But the good intentions of these type-A types notwithstanding, the economics of organic farming are a potential blow to their fairly large egos. These are individuals with scores of successes in life, but experts say that despite the price premiums that come with organic labeling or other likeminded practices, the math doesn’t always work out. It is just too expensive to do.

With organic farming, there’s an issue of scale that makes turning a profit hard. In myriad ways, conventional factory farms benefit economically by virtue of their size; not just by purchasing feed and seed in volume, but also in handling pest and weed control. For example, on an organic farm, weeding can be far more labor intensive because it can involve actual weeding. And crops can wither due to one problem or another, with no jug of Roundup to remedy the situation.

“We had a late-season blight which consumed an entire potato crop….It can happen in a day,” says Steve Kettelle, a successful Florida real-estate broker who started a certified-organic farm in Pine City, N.Y., after partially getting out of the business before the bust, Kerrelle has learned over time to maintain a good diversity of crops in case one fails, which they inevitably do. He considers himself a success story in that he’s in the black with his roughly five acres of produce, but he concedes if he factored the time he puts into his plot, his hourly earnings “would probably be below minimum wage.”

Author: Passy, C.
Affiliation: Reporter.
Title: The New Gentleman Farmer.
Source: The Wall Street Journal. Available at:

Fetzer Gives Up Organic Certification to Save the Vineyard

Lake County

Ceago Vineyard

Ceago Vinegarden is owned by Jim Fetzer, former President of Fetzer vineyards. The Fetzer family built their business into an internationally-respected winery. When the Fetzer family sold the winery in 1992, Fetzer vineyard was producing 2.5 million cases of wine annually. In 1993, Jim Fetzer established Ceago Vinegarden which produces about 6000 cases of wine and has been certified as an organic producer since 2003.All was well at this beautiful vineyard until 2013 when a new pest invaded and Fetzer had to choose between keeping the organic certification or preserving the grapevines.

“Fetzer owns Ceago Vinegarden near Nice, California.

His 49-acre vineyard is situated at an elevation of 1,400 feet in a protected area along the shores of Clear Lake, where the landscape sports some palm and citrus trees.

Fatzer’s vineyard earned organic and biodynamic certification in 2003. This year, however, he lost both certifications. He was unable to control an infestation of the Virginia creeper leafhopper, a recent arrival in the North Coast area, using a soft-chemistry material that he’s used successfully to control the western grape leafhopper.

The leaf-feeding Virginia creeper leafhopper is also called the zigzag leafhopper because of markings on its back.

“It’s very vicious and sucks all the chlorophyll out of the leaves,” Fetzer says.

Even as many as four applications of the insecticide this season would not have controlled the Virginia creeper leafhopper, Fetzer says. So, he switched to Montana, an imidacloprid that is not approved for organic or biodynamic production. He treated his vineyard one time with the product, at a cost in material of $18 per acre. That was in mid-June after all the eggs had hatched so that he could target the adults.

“We had no choice,” Fetzer says. “Otherwise, we would have ended up at the end of the year with little chlorophyll in the leaves and difficulty getting the fruit to ripen. We lost our certification. But the synthetic product did a really good job and saved our vines.””

Author: Greg Northcutt
Affiliation: Journalist
Title: Pest outbreak mars good wine grape season
Source: Western Farm Press. August 28, 2013. Available at:

Quick Profits from Organic Sugar: Deforestation is the Way


Organic Sugar Mill, Paraguay

Most organic sugar used in US foods comes from sugarcane crops grown in Paraguay. When converting an existing field to organic, a company needs to wait three years since the last pesticide spray was made before being certified as organic. With a desire for large profits, sugar companies are clearing forests so that sugarcane fields can be immediately certified as organic.

“The Ybytymi hills of eastern Paraguay are crowded with mango trees, palms, and gnarled cacti.

It’s one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, home to jaguars, tapirs, a plethora of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 500 species of birds.

In a remote area known as Isla Alta, the forest abruptly halts at the edge of sugar fields. The land belongs to a company called Azucarera Paraguaya (AZPA), one of the country’s chief sugar producers and the supplier of nearly one-third of the organic sugar consumed in the United States. If you’ve ever eaten a bowl of Cascadian Farm breakfast cereal or had a glass of Silk soy milk, you’ve probably enjoyed some of its harvest.

Organic producers have little incentive not to clear land, says Laura Raynolds, codirector of the Center for Fair and Alternative Trade Studies at Colorado State University.

This dynamic was evident when I visited Paraguay, where AZPA has been looking for additional land to grow more organic cane to feed the American market. Converting its conventionally farmed fields to organic would take three years, during which it would have to use more expensive organic methods on “transitional” crops that must be sold at the lower conventional price. A more attractive approach is to establish new fields where forest once grew; then, the cane can fetch the higher organic price from the first harvest.”

Author: Rogers, H.
Affiliation: Journalist.
Title: Sweet & lowdown organic
Source: Mother Jones. May/June 2010. Pgs. 58-59, 79.

To Maintain High Profits, California Organic Growers Gain Exemption from Worker Protection Rule

Hand Weeding in California

Hand Weeding Organic Crops in California

In 2005, the State of California banned the practice of hand weeding crop fields in order to protect farm workers from lifelong back pain. Because they don’t use herbicides, California organic vegetable growers employ farm workers to pull weeds by hand and claimed that hand weeding was absolutely essential to maintain high profits on organic produce. As a result of their lobbying, the California organic vegetable companies were exempted from the worker protection rule.

“The physically demanding nature of organic farming sparked a recent battle that pitted organic farmers against farmworkers. The UFW had long drawn attention to musculoskeletal problems suffered by people who work stooped over in the fields. In the 1970s the union led a successful campaign to ban the short-handled hoe, arguing that the tool caused back injuries. When union founder Cesar Chavez died, friends at the funeral placed one of the hoes on his casket. But growers soon found a way around the ban by requiring workers to weed by hand. Moises Olivera, a migrant worker who’s hopped from job to job throughout the Central Valley, explained to me how it feels…

“You go along on your knees,” he said. “There is a constant, numbing pain. By the end of a year people develop a lot of problems with their bones.”

In 2004 farmworker groups lobbied the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict hand-weeding. Organic farmers led the backlash against the proposal. While they have devised many creative tactics for banishing weeds without pesticides—singeing them with torches, slicing them with disks, allowing them to flourish before planting and then mowing them down—every organic farmer I talked to insisted there’s only one way to completely rid your crop of pesky plants: sitting, kneeling or bending, plucking them out one by one.

It’s tremendously costly. Yet farmers say there’s little alternative; long-handed hoes, which would allow workers to stand upright, can destroy some of the delicate specialty crops, such as baby leaf lettuce, that many organic farmers cultivate. At a minimum they would force farmers to space their plants farther apart, cutting into profits by yielding a smaller harvest on the same area of land…

The farmers ultimately triumphed, and OSHA exempted organic farms from the new rules, which went into effect last year. For labor advocates like Martha Guzman, who had sought to reach a compromise, it was a slap in the face…”

Author: Mello, F.
Affiliation: Reporter, The Nation.
Title: Hard Labor
Source: The Nation. September 11th, 2006.

Very Few Pear Growers in the Netherlands Dare to Go Organic

Pear Scab

Pear Scab

Organic growers face the same potentially severe pest problems as non-organic farmers. By contrast, the organic farmers have a very limited range of approved products with which to control these problems. In many countries, very few fruit farmers even dare trying to grow with the less effective organic pest control methods.

“The demand for organic pears in North-western Europe is high compared to the limited production. In spite of the good market perspective there are very few pear growers in the Netherlands who dare convert to organic production. The most prominent reason for this is their fear of scab (Venturia pirina). And indeed it is the experience of those who are growing organically that it is very hard to control this important disease. This is even more so since Copper based products were banned as fungicides in the Netherlands.”

Author: Jansonius, P. J.
Affiliation: Louis Bolk Institute, Hoofdstraat, NL
Title: Conference pears; work on system changes to enable better scab control in organic orchards in the Netherlands.
Source: Ecofruit Proceedings. 2008.

Organic Cocoa Growers Likely to Switch to Conventional Production if Financing of Inputs is Made Available

Weedy Cocoa: Ghana

Weeding Cocoa: Ghana

There are very few certified organic cocoa growers in Africa. The risks of trying to grow an organic crop are great. Many of these growers choose to grow organically because they lack financial resources to purchase inputs including pesticides. With financing of inputs, many of the current organic growers are likely to switch to use of conventional methods with pesticides due to greater yields, income and less risk.

“…the total market share of organically grown cocoa is still relatively very small and accounted for less than 0.5% of the total production in 2002 to 2005.

For producers who cannot afford inorganic inputs and who currently grow organic cocoa, there is a large amount of risk (both in price and in yield) involved with an estimated 30% lower yield compared with conventional (inorganic) production.

The obvious challenge for producers to produce conventionally is to obtain credit up front to purchase inorganic inputs. Given the advent of organizations like the Cocoa Abrabopa Association (CAA) established in 1998 in Ghana, credit is becoming more accessible to producers.

The current organic producers, who are constrained to do so because of a lack of microfinance opportunities to buy conventional inputs (fertilizer, fungicide, etc.), would probably switch to conventional if financing for said inputs became available, say through a microfinance program. Thus, an unintended impact of a microfinance program might be to lead to lower levels of current organic production.”

Authors: Mahrizal, L., et al.
Affiliations: Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness, University of Arkansas
Title: Necessary price premiums to incentivize Ghanaian organic cocoa production: a phased, orchard management approach
Source: HortScience 47(11)1617-1624. 2012.

Ebenezer Scrooge Returns as an Organic Ag Advocate

Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge

Hand Weeding

Hand Weeding

Dickens’ fictional character Ebenezer Scrooge believed that young people should work. By not working, he considered the unemployed as “surplus population.” Organic farms require more labor particularly for jobs such as weeding fields by hand since herbicides are not used. Recently, an organic ag advocate in the UK invoked the name of Ebenezer Scrooge to explain how organic ag could make use of the current “surplus population” by putting the unemployed to work in the organic fields.

“Yet if Britain practiced Enlightened Agriculture based on small, mixed, quasi-organic farms we could easily be self-reliant in food. We could also employ all of the three million who are now unemployed, including or perhaps especially the one million unemployed under-25s, in jobs far better than the shelf-stacking and mail-order cold-calling that are now on offer. Instead we produce only about half our food while politicians wring their hands over what Ebenezer Scrooge in a remarkably similar economy called “the surplus population” who alas are left on the sidelines.”

Author: Colin Tudge
Affiliation: Writer
Title: Enlightened agriculture a people’s takeover of the food supply
Source: Food Ethics. Summer 2012. Volume 7; Issue 2. Available at:

California Alfalfa Production Would be One Million Tons Lower with Conversion to Organic Practices

Alfalfa Weevil on Damaged Leaf

Alfalfa Weevil on Damaged Leaf

California is the #1 dairy state in the U.S. and one million acres of alfalfa are grown in the state. Alfalfa growers use herbicides to control weeds and insecticides to control key pests-the Egyptian and alfalfa weevils. Organic alfalfa growers do not have effective methods of controlling weeds and insect pests and they incur yield losses – particularly by harvesting early to avoid damage. A recent economic analysis from the University of California estimated that organic production of alfalfa is one ton less per acre which would mean a loss of one million tons of alfalfa if the entire state converted to organic practices.

“The Egyptian and alfalfa weevils are the most serious pests of alfalfa, causing yield and quality losses to the first harvest in late winter/early spring.

Most organic growers rely on early harvest to minimize weevil damage, but yields will be reduced.

The risks associated with the production of organic alfalfa hay should not be minimized. Weather and other risks are a continual concern for conventional growers, but organic growers face additional risks such as pest outbreaks that cannot be adequately controlled with organic methods.

Average annual yields in California range from 5.0 to 10 tons per acre with three to ten cuttings depending on location and alfalfa variety. Eight tons per acre over seven cuttings per year is common in the Central Valley. The crop in this study is assumed to yield 7.0 tons of hay per acre because yields of organic alfalfa are often slightly lower than conventional due to only partial control of many pests and weeds and the difficulty meeting the nutritional needs of alfalfa using solely organic sources.”

Authors: Rachael F. Long, et al.
Affiliation: US Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, Yolo, Solano & Sacramento Counties
Title: Sample costs to establish and produce organic alfalfa hay California 2013
Source: University of California Cooperative Extension. 2013.

California Avocado Production Would be 82 million Pounds Lower with Conversion to Organic Practices

New Orchard Weeds

New Orchard Weeds

California farmers produce 550 million pounds of avocados annually. 8% of the avocado acres are managed with organic production practices. A recent economic analysis by the University of California shows why so few avocado acres are organic. Even though organic avocados receive a price premium, lower yields (15% lower) means lower profits than avocados grown with chemical inputs. The 15% lower yields would mean a loss of 82 million pounds of avocados if all the California avocado growers switched to organic practices. Weeds are the biggest problem for organic avocado growers.

“Profitability estimate of organic avocados in these counties is lower than avocados produced conventionally. Though organic avocados are considered to receive $0.20 more per pound than conventional avocados, organic avocado production shows lower yield than the conventional production.

Based on our discussions with growers and the UCCE farm advisor, organic yield is considered lower than the conventional production. In this study, organic avocado yield is estimated at 15% lower than the conventional yield.”

Author: Etaferahu Takele, et al.
Affiliation: Area Farm Advisor, Agricultural Economics/Farm Management, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Southern California
Title: Avocado sample establishment and production costs and profitability analysis san diego and riverside counties, 2011 organic production practices
Source: University of California Cooperative Extension. 2013.