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As Demand for Organics Grows, 'Transitional' Enters the Market

Americans are clamoring for organic food, but U.S. farmers are no longer growing a significant portion of what customers are buying. Despite close to $40 billion in organic food sales in 2015, less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland is certified organic, with the bulk of raw ingredients for organic processed foods and animal feed coming from places like Romania and Turkey.

Now, the people behind two new certified transitional programs hope to chip away at that disparity.

A 2015 report from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) identified challenges associated with the transition period as the number-one barrier preventing farmers from going organic. Here’s the problem: In order for a farm to be certified organic, the soil must be free of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for three years. So farmers who decide to make the switch face a period of limbo.

Adopting organic practices often requires more labor, more paperwork, and it nearly always comes with an increase in costs and an initial decrease in production per acre. Once those three years are up, farmers generally earn a higher premium for their certified organic crops, but many don’t have the capital or cash flow to take the risk.

“Transitional” certification programs verify that those farms are using organic practices and are on their way to full certification, in hopes that the third-party stamp of approval will lead to earlier price premiums, a smooth transition to certified organic, or contracts that lock in buyers for forthcoming organic crops.

As far back as 2002, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) outlined recommendations for the use of the term “transitional” in organic agriculture, and many certifiers—like CCOF and Oregon Tilth—already offer their own versions of certified transitional programs.

Two recent developments are building increased momentum in the space.

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