Field Insights

Conventional, Organic Agriculture Give Consumers Choice

Organic and conventional systems have roles to play — and challenges to overcome — in commercial food production.

In a society that often fosters an us-versus-them mentality, U.S. agriculture embraces a diverse food system with roles for both conventional and organic farming.

“The majority of conventional and organic production practices are the same,” says Timothy Coolong, Ph.D., Extension vegetable specialist at the University of Georgia. “Growers plant, harvest and try to use cultural practices to minimize losses. The only differences are the tools they use to fertilize crops and control pests.”

Organic production represents less than 1% of U.S. crop acres. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported just under 5.5 million organic acres in 2019 compared with 894 million acres of conventional crops. But organic demand is on the rise, reports the USDA, with some consumers willing to pay as much as three times more for organic food, depending on the product.

Adopting Organic Production

Two farms committed to organic production are Braga Fresh Family Farms, based in Salinas, California, and Burkey Farms of Dorchester, Nebraska.

The 14,000-acre Braga Farms enterprise grows broccoli, celery, cauliflower, lettuce and other fresh vegetables at multiple locations in California and Arizona. The operation started growing organic produce about 25 years ago. Roughly 70% of the crop is now organic, says Adrian Garcia, an in-house pest control adviser with Braga Fresh Family Farms.

Some 1,700 miles away, Burkey Farms is a relative newcomer to organic production. After experimenting with organic production on two quarter-sections in 2016, the owners of the 2,000-acre farm decided to convert entirely to organic production the following year. The last of Burkey Farms’ acres achieved organic certification in 2019. Today’s organic crops include feed- and food-grade corn and soybeans, yellow peas and forages.

Responding to Market Conditions

The two farms have different reasons for going organic, all based on market factors.

“Consumer demand for more organic vegetables has driven the company in that direction,” Garcia says. “In the volatile produce market, premium prices for organic crops vary depending on demand and availability in a particular week.”

For Burkey Farms the decision was purely economic. Eric Thalken, operations manager, says premium prices for organic crops have created positive returns on investment for the operation in most years, after taking land, labor and input costs into consideration.

“We really looked pretty smart when we sold organic corn for $9 per bushel and conventional corn was at $3.10,” Thalken says. This year, he says organic corn prices reached $10 per bushel for corn and $30 per bushel for beans — a significant price advantage, even with relatively high commodity grain prices.

The organic price differential often narrows, however. In fact, price trend lines crossed in 2010, with conventional grain capturing higher prices than organics.

“When price spread narrows, growers often leave organic or slow their transition to organic, leaving a gap in supply,” Thalken says. “This leads to large price increases in subsequent years, such as in 2014 when organic corn prices hit $12 per bushel.”

Dealing With Pest Control Limitations

Weed, disease and insect control are shared challenges for organic growers. They have limited pesticide options — only those approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

At Burkey Farms, weed control starts with biological practices, namely cover crops on every acre, every year. Mechanical weed control follows and typically requires two cultivations and two passes with a rotary hoe, on top of three tillage passes for cover crop planting preparation, cover crop incorporation and a finish pass prior to cash crop planting. In a rainy year, weeds can get the upper hand.

“Some years you will get beaten by weeds,” says Thalken of producing organically. “For example, in 2019, an extremely wet year, field conditions did not allow us to complete all mechanical weed control passes.”

At Braga Fresh Family Farms, in-season weed control is often by hand. Over the past three years, the farm began to rely on robotic weeding machines to save labor and remove weeds more effectively.


Increasingly, consumers are interested in understanding where their food comes from.

Liz Hunt Head of Sustainable and Responsible Business at Syngenta

“Scanners on the robots identify what is a good plant and what is a weed,” Garcia says.

To control insect pests, Braga Fresh Family Farms purchases thousands of beneficial insects for release into the field by drone. Beneficial species, such as parasitic wasps, lacewings and Aphidoletes (a predatory midge) reproduce and feed on harmful pests.

While these strategies work well in the West, it’s nearly impossible to keep ahead of constant pest pressure in tropical climates.

“Organic production is difficult in a state where it rains most every afternoon,” says Mike Aerts, director of science and regulatory affairs at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association. Hot, humid weather fosters insect reproduction, weed growth and fungal diseases.

“Biopesticides work to a degree, but growers would need to spray nearly every day to keep up. That may not be economical,” Aerts says. Because of these difficulties, organic represents a small percentage of acres in Florida.

Shrinking Yields, Growing Costs

Despite strides to improve organic tools and practices, yields still lag. USDA data from 2016 show conventional crops out-yielded organics for every U.S. crop except forages.

On Burkey Farms, organic corn yields often average 210 bushels per acre, while conventional farmers in the same area can expect up to 245 bushels per acre.

Production costs for organic agriculture can vary widely. In California, Garcia estimates that costs to grow organic vegetables are 20% to 25% higher than non-organic, due to added pest control steps and higher labor costs.

Fertilization is a huge variable. Commercial organic fertilizer is expensive, and it’s difficult to reach the necessary nitrogen levels. Burkey Farms saves on fertilizer cost by applying hog manure. As with conventional crop producers who rely on manure for fertilizer, there is a risk of a damaging buildup of sodium and potassium in the soil. Growers can alleviate concerns about nutrient imbalance through a balanced soil fertility program.

“We spend less on crop seed, fertility and chemicals but more on equipment, labor and cover crops than an average farm in our area,” Thalken says. “Overhead can be slightly more with increased costs of administration.”

Assessing Environmental Impacts

Environmental impacts of agricultural production vary by practice. With lower yields, organic production requires more land to generate the same amount of food. According to a 2016 analysis of USDA yield data, if all crops switched to organic production, more than 100 million more farmland acres — an area the size of California — would be needed to achieve the same crop output.

OMRI-approved pesticides have impacts, too. Copper sulfate is commonly used by organic farmers as a fungicide, especially to control downy mildew in grapes, potatoes, tomatoes and apples. Although a natural compound, copper sulfate can accumulate in the soil and harm soil microbes, according to the Genetic Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization promoting science literacy.

However, professional organic crop producers are aware of the limitations of copper sulfate and adjust accordingly, Thalken says.

For example, Burkey Farms helps alleviate these impacts by applying a product with copper octanoate as an active ingredient. “We commonly use two quarts per acre per year on corn only,” Thalken says. This rate equals 0.08 pounds of metallic copper equivalent per acre, and a 200-bushel-per-acre corn crop takes up 0.10 pounds per acre, so buildup potential is alleviated, he says.

The multiple passes for weed control in organic production consume more fuel and increase soil compaction. Disturbing the ground with mechanical weed control also can erode soil and damage soil health.

“A good conventional grower using no-till and cover crops, fertilizing properly and managing the weed seed bank may have less overall environmental impact than an organic grower,” says Tim Mundorf, director of soil management at Central Valley Ag cooperative in York, Nebraska.

Calling the Shots

Whether growing crops conventionally or organically, all farmers share in meeting expectations for sustainable food production.

“Increasingly, consumers are interested in understanding where their food comes from. It’s important to help consumers understand the benefits and implications that come with organic production and know there is a fit for both organic and conventional farming methods,” says Liz Hunt, head, sustainable and responsible business at Syngenta. “At the end of the day, the population is growing. We need to make sure we are meeting these needs in a way that optimizes land and input use.”

Cover image: Eric Thalken, operations manager at Burkey Farms, oversees the transition from conventional to organic crops at the Dorchester, Nebraska, farm. Photography by Geoff Johnson.