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Organic Agriculture Institute needs assessment refines how it can address pressing challenges

The explosive growth of organic agriculture in the U.S. – reflected in a 90% increase in organic farms from 2011 to 2021, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics – has come at a cost for some farmers. With new farming operations increasing the supply of organic commodities, along with consolidation of buyers, growers report that their profit margins are not what they used to be.

Those market size considerations are among the challenges highlighted in a new report detailing the initial findings by the University of California Organic Agriculture Institute on the most pressing needs of the state's organic sector. OAI gathered and analyzed data from 423 responses to an online grower survey, over 60 interviews with stakeholders across the organic community, and additional observations from farm visits and workshops.

The report describes other frequently mentioned systemic priorities, such as maintaining integrity of the term "organic," developing a market for organic seeds, spreading consumer awareness, and alleviating the burdens of organic certification and reporting.

Shriya Rangarajan, the postdoctoral researcher with OAI leading this statewide needs assessment, said that the reported challenges varied by organic status (fully certified, transitioning to organic, or a mixed farm with some conventional), type of crop, as well as size of the operation. She noted survey respondents were roughly representative of the sector overall – 70% small-scale growers and 30% medium and large.

"Organic is not a homogenous industry, to say the least – small growers and large growers are very different; for small growers, their challenges tend to be financial and regulatory, especially relating to certification requirements and labor," said Rangarajan. She added that larger growers mentioned different types of challenges, weeds and pest pressures for instance, given the difficulty in controlling managing these at scale without the use or availability of organic inputs.

Organic Agriculture Institute key to sharing resources across state
Another common theme from the assessment is that the organic sector needs more accessible resources to address those myriad concerns. For OAI, established in 2020 under UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the initial findings validated and refined the direction of its research and extension programs.

"As a new organization, we've been trying to figure out where we fit into this ecosystem and how we can support it," said Houston Wilson, a UC Cooperative Extension entomology specialist who has served as OAI's director since its founding.

Because OAI was envisioned as a hub of resources and connections for California's organic community, Wilson and his colleagues are especially interested in understanding how its constituent members obtain information – and how OAI can improve their access.

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