The Question of Yield

Our investors have often asked whether organic farming methods result in a yield differential vs. crops produced by conventional farming methods. Would a large scale return to organic farming methods result in decreased yields and, ultimately, food shortages both domestic and abroad? Fortunately, the research shows that organic farmland delivers both superior long term crop yields and superior economics.

Long Term Studies

Earlier this year, the Long Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) program in Greenfield, Iowa published the results of a 12 year long study comparing the performance between crops conforming to the USDA’s National Organic Program and conventional crops. Dr. Kathleen Delate, associate professor of Iowa State University, led the study in collaboration with the USDA-ARS Soil Tilth Lab and the ISU Experiment Station. The team divided farmland into 44 quarter-acre plots and studied performance parameters which included soil quality, fertility, nitrogen utilization, weed control, insect and disease pressure and control, and – of course – yields.

An overhead view of the Iowa State University plots

While the organic plots were initially less productive, by the third year they had caught up with the conventional plots in terms of yield. In the fourth year, the organic crops surpassed the conventional crops. Over the 12 years, the average yields between the two farming methods have been neck in neck across different crops. However, the average production costs for the conventional crops were approximately $50 per acre higher than organic. Organic crop farming did not use petroleum-based herbicides, fungicides or insecticides. As a result, the organic crops returned, on average, double the revenue of the conventional crops over the course of the project. The team’s conclusion was that the increased yields and reduced input costs of the organic farming methods translated into significant cost savings: the revenue from the organic plots could be more than twice that of conventional. These outcomes point to a significant difference in the amount of time it takes to break-even on investments in organic farms versus conventional ones. Similar results have come from studies by the Sustainable Agriculture Farming Systems project (SAFS) at UC Davis and the Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute: organic, sustainable farming methods result in comparable yields, greater profitability, and increased soil fertility. Studies conducted in the developing world show even more promise. In 2007, Catherine Badgley of the University of Michigan published research that concluded: “Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land,‖ a finding she says “refute[s] the long-standing claim that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population.” The significant increase in yield exists because many developing world farmers still do not have access to expensive fertilizers and pesticides.

The Organic Conversion Process

Converting farmland to certified organic production requires a minimum three-year transition and certification process. Starting at the beginning of the certification process, only organic materials can be used on the farm, usually resulting in decreased yields during the transition period while the natural soil fertility is restored. Artificial fertilizers are like amphetamines – giving a short-term boost of productivity but eventually burning out the land. It takes specialized knowledge and hard work to rehabilitate soil to its previous natural health and vitality – and that’s where Farmland LP comes in. We restore the land’s health and achieve high yields through soil management, crop diversity and ecological synergy. By converting land to organic, sustainable farming methods, Farmland LP lowers input costs, increases revenues, conserves nonrenewable resources including fuel and natural-gas-based fertilizer, reduces use of toxic materials such as pesticides and herbicides, and enhances the long term value of the land through improved soil quality and enhanced water retention. Organic farming using sustainable-agriculture best practices is a robust business model, delivering superior economics over conventional farming on a wide variety of metrics such as crop yields, gross and net income per acre, cost of inputs, per farm income and more. Although it takes time to convert the land, once done, it delivers payback in perpetuity. And each acre converted to organic, sustainable methods is one acre closer to a societal tipping point for sustainability.