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Pundit’s Mailbag — A Look At Organic Versus Conventional Yields

Our piece ‘Take-Aways’ From United’s Short Course On Organics, brought this thoughtful missive:

Regarding a quote from your 5/9 Pundit article ‘Take-Aways’ From United’s Short Course On Organics, “Scott Owens of Paramount Citrus pointed out that his horticultural people tell him that the instant they move to organic production, yields drop 30%.” I don’t know the context of Scott Owens’ statement, but wouldn’t it be safe to expect that in practically any new endeavor or method there will initially be a period of significantly reduced output?

Much of the rest of the discussion in the “Take-away” article is on the fact that organic production does not begin in “an instant”. So it would be interesting to see how yields go during the transition period, and how they compare among producers who have developed different methods over time.

It is a very important question whether organic production is inherently less productive per unit of growing area. Depending on who you quote, there’s quite a range of answers.

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts

In addition to growing and marketing sprouts, Bob imports Certified Fair Trade organic bananas and grapes, so he swims in the waters where these issues are often discussed.

And he hits on the $64,000 question when he inquires if the lower yields for organics are a permanent situation or a transitional experience.

That issue was discussed at the workshop as ace moderator Steve Lutz of the Perishables Group skillfully guided the conversation. Brian McElroy, who was speaking as Organic Business Manager for Driscoll’s Strawberry Associates, but had previously worked for California Certified Organic Farmers, raised the same question — are yield reductions inevitable?

Billy Heller of Sunripe spoke to the issue in different ways. He seemed less concerned about a year-to-year drop in yields as he was with the occasional crop failure. Basically he implied that conventional agriculture has some “silver bullets” so if confronted with a problem, the crop could often be salvaged. This wasn’t the case with organic growing techniques. Of course, this didn’t preclude developing better techniques over time.

Billy also raised another point: that in many cases the acreage that has successfully raised conventional crops for years is not the ideal place to grow organically. Billy spoke of the need to identify specific microclimates that are conducive to growing organically.

Now Billy grows row crops and can more easily try new locations, Scott Owens, speaking for Paramount Citrus, is pretty much stuck with where the trees were planted.

Beyond this, what Billy was saying seemed to imply that conventional growing was much more adaptable to different soils, climates, etc., whereas with organic growing you had to have a lot of things stacked in your favor.

This seems to favor a notion of organics remaining a niche crop.

Billy clearly stated that, all things considered, he didn’t think it was viable to see organics priced at only 20% over conventional product.

The other thing to consider is that, though more experience in organic growing may boost yields, conventional product seems to be poised for a second green revolution, with genetic modifications serving the yield-boosting function of fertilizers, pesticides and improved seeds of the first green revolution.

Since organic rules do not allow the use of genetically modified seed, it seems highly likely that the gap between conventional and organic yields will become a chasm, not disappear as proponents hope.

Many thanks to Bob for his thought-provoking letter.

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