Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields

In 2008, the National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA conducted a detailed survey of Organic agriculture in the US.  Participation rates were high with Organic growers, so the data is quite reliable.  What it showed was probably surprising to many.  After at least three decades of “rapid growth,” Organic now accounts for 0.52% of harvested US cropland. NASS did not go ahead and compare the yields of Organic crops to equivalent data for the rest of agriculture, but all that data is publicly available and I have posted a comparative analysis on SCRIBD (which is also embedded at the end of this post). Organic crop yields are generally lower, but it is hard to put that into perspective.

What does it mean for Organic corn yields to be 71% of the national average?  What does it mean that Organic soy yields are 66% of the national average?   One way to put this in perspective is to ask the question, “how many years ago was non-Organic ag getting the kind of yields that Organic saw in 2008?” Through a host of technical and operational advances, the yields of most crops in the developed world have been increasing steadily ever since the mid 20th century.  This is a very good thing because we have thus been able to feed a growing world population without even more land-use-conversion than has happened.  A high research investment crop like corn has yields that have been going up at a pace of 2 bushels/acre/year even for the national average. Even a low research investment crop like oats has seen yields increase by about 0.4 bushels/acre/year. So it becomes interesting to take the 2008 Organic yields and compare them to historical data about yield trends.  The graph below does this for US Soybeans and has a key that will pertain to the following illustrations. The yield data for Organic soy came from a total of 1,331 farms and 98,113 acres, so it is probably not an artifact.  That 2008 Organic yields of a nitrogen fixing crop would be like those of 29 years ago is surprising.  My guess is that it reflects higher weed competition and less moisture retention because of tillage.  Soybeans are not a pesticide-intensive crop, but perhaps some seed treatments and an occasional foliar spray account for some of the difference.

It is interesting that Organic grain corn yields are equivalent to the trend from only 21.5 years ago (2,146 farms, 143,432 acres).  In this case there is also the fertilizer difference, but my guess would be that the Organic growers get the benefit of the massive investment that has been made in Corn genetics. Organic wheat production is equivalent to that from even earlier eras – 57 years for Winter Wheat and 58 years for Spring Wheat on a national basis.  Even on a single state basis, the differential is large.  See the graphs for South Dakota Spring Wheat and New York Winter Wheat below.

(The SD Organic data comes from 92 farms and 20,867 acres)

(The NY Organic data comes from 44 farms and 2,417 acres)

Since wheat is a relatively low input crop, the difference is probably a function of fertilizer efficiency, weed competition, and moisture loss during tillage.

The crops listed above have less than 1% Organic acres and often far less.  However, the same time equivalents are seen for the row crops that have a more significant Organic share.

(Organic Flax is 4.1% of the US total,85 farms, 13,958 acres)

(Organic Oats are 2.94% of the US total, 1,040 farms, 41,016 acres)

(Organic Barley is 1.25% of the US total, 578 farms, 47,227 acres)

As we enter into a new round of rising global food prices, the idea of a production system that effectively eliminates decades of of productivity gain is not attractive.  Organic row cropping is unlikely to ever be employed on a significant acreage, and from a food supply perspective, this is a good thing.

There are additional crops and state-level examples available here (also embedded below).  Graphs by Steve Savage from USDA NASS data.  You are welcome to comment here or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com

A Detailed Analysis of US Organic Crops

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Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc


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26 comments to Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields

  • Soybeans are not a pesticide-intensive crop, but perhaps some seed treatments and an occasional foliar spray account for some of the difference.

    If I remember right seed treratment can offer as much as a 2 Bu/Ac advantage so that’d be a relatively big chunk of your difference for soy right there – also the bigger breeding programs are geared towards conventional rather than organic – it’d be interesting to see how much this difference hampers organic growers (differences in early N availability and capacity to withstand weeds etc in elite lines?)

    Also soy, for the most part, is hampered not by genetics but by the expense of maximizing yield – there’s a farmer in Illinois (if I remember right) who has repeatedly achieved yields of 80-100 Bu/Ac with soy – the guy has soy flowering before you’d think it was even possible and does all manner of crazy stuff to keep the canopy temperature ideal and also uses a pretty exotic mix of ingredients for his fertilizer (Bat Guano is involved if memory serves (it rarely does)) – the differences porbably also reflect the relative expense of yield maximization techniques in an organic compared to a conventional system.

    For Organic vs conventional corn – to what extent is the somewhat slower (or different – assuming that’s the case, I don’t even know that it is) nutrient release from an organic fertilizer an issue – it’s quite possible to apply the same quantities of nitrogen with an organic fertilizer (Rodale did just this – and even got precisely the same nitrate runoff over a 10 year period) but I wonder if perhaps the soil nutrient profile varies over time and if elite lines have all been selected to perform best in fields which have nutrient profiles matching conventional fertilizer applications – I recall a talk by Bruno Basso which showed that for modern corn lines you have a spike in N uptake during early V stages and a subsequent spike right at VT with plateaus of virtually no uptake inbetween – if N wasn’t available in organic systems in appropriate quanities during this period (purely speculative here!) then elite lines wouldn’t perform well regardless of other agronomic practices.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that the massive investment in corn genetics goes hand in hand (these days at least) with the best genetics potentially only being available with traits – check out a Pioneer or DeKalb seed catalogue – there are untraited lines available but nowhere near the diversity of lines – I don’t know enough about corn farming to know how far from absolutely elite the untraited seeds are – but it’s certainly a possibility that with reduced seed choice in the best genetics packages (DeKalb and Pioneer genetics are usually the best of the best in national yield comparisons) organic farmers simply don’t have the tools available to compete.

    • Ewan, Steve,

      I am under the impression that many organic soy growers produce ‘food-grade’ soybeans, and that the germplasm for that crop is inherently low-yielding. Which would account for a fair chunk of organic under-achievement.

      • Eric,
        Yes. That could be a factor. There is also a pretty big non-GMO soy segment (compared to Organic) but it probably does little to influence the overall average.

      • That’s a good point – is it possible to do a food grade vs food grade yield comparison (I’d have to guess that organic corn would tend more towards corn used for foodstuffs than for animal feeds and ethanol and so may suffer similar wossnames)

        Steve – on wheat breeding – I wonder if the recent return of Monsanto to the wheat world is likely to drive better breeding – it’s not a crop I’m at all familiar with – is the seed market consolidated amongst large corporations with big breeding programs or is it still, at present, not so much that way? (short of knowing that we’ve bought Westbred and are making headway with transgenic wheat I have no idea whatsoever about the resourcing that will be allocated to wheat breeding – I’d just guess that it’d be pretty significant)

        • Ewan,
          Actually, the private seed sector in wheat in the US/Canada is quite small and most of the breeding is still done by folks in the private sector (something the industry is in DC defending against cuts as we speak). GMO wheat has been put 10-15 years behind because in the early 2000s, European buyers intimidated the NA wheat community into asking companies like Monsanto and Syngenta to abandon their commercialization plans for wheat. The threat was that they wouldn’t buy any NA wheat as soon as there was a commercial acre planted. The international wheat community has since decided that this was a big mistake and pledged to simultaneously launch GM wheat in Australia, Canada and the US if and when it ever happens.
          Yes, Monsanto did recently get back into wheat a little. Syngenta is still there and recently Dow and others have joined. It is still a small investment compared to Corn/Soy/Cotton, but it is promising

  • Kevin H

    Ewan, you may wish to consult with Shawn Conley, The UW-Extension soybean specialist in Wisc. He has/is conducting a “century plot” taking soybean varieties dating back to 1928 through the present. He may have some interesting data concerning the development of soybean genetics over time.

  • Jason

    These are very interesting slides. They bring up a lot of questions, and I had some of the same thoughts of Ewan. I know that the organic seed industry feels a bit left behind and is working on breeding programs geared towards organic systems and that this is slow and expensive.

    Some other data might be interesting to look at (if available) include:

    Are organic yields improving over time?

    What is the variance in organic yields compared to conventional?

    What is the net energy of the crop in organic vs conventional?

  • Ewan,
    I think that what you are highlighting is that modern agriculture is a highly integrated system. Yes, breeding is done in a way that fits the rest of the system (equipment, seed treatments, crop protection options…). It clearly wouldn’t make sense for a seed company to breed for the 0.1-0.2% of a segment that is Organic. What is interesting is that the relative “Organic time shift” for Corn is smaller than that for wheat, barley, flax etc that are crops with a tiny breeding investment vs corn. It seems that to some extent investment in genetics helps even if it is specific to the mainstream. Growers in the East complain that corn genetics is too focused on the “I” states, but their yields to continue to rise.

    • Could the trend for corn be a function of the increased number of farms and acreage of corn – an organic crop grown on more acreage will have had more focus on getting the agronomics right (aswell as potentially more breeding – could be that conventional breeding has helped, or that a larger customer base has allowed for better breeding programs).
      2k farms, 140k acres for corn cf oats on 1k farms and only 40k acres – corn farms are clearly not only more numerous but also bigger.

      Plus corn is just awesome, and so one might expect folk to pay more attention to it!.

      • The other thing about corn (other than being an awesome crop as you say) is that for the most part it is all about yield. Wheat in particular, and barley for malting, have exacting quality requirements that make the breeding even harder than the ploidy already make it. The fact that Congress is considering cuts to public wheat breeding is about as wrong-headed an idea as I can imagine!

        • Jason

          This is a very good point. I know of wheat farmers that are not as much concerned about yields as about quality, such as protein levels, and the market does pay more for grades of wheat. And then there are variety choices. For example, white wheats may yield a lot more, but if the market wants hard reds you may grow that since the price difference is significant.

          And for barley, breeding for very specific qualities of the sugars (types of glucans? and other stuff I can’t remember at the moment) influences yields.

          I don’t know if organic growers are more likely than conventional ones to contract for specific varieties and get extra special premiums and yields be damned.

          My hunch is that these differences are mainly due to:
          1. Organic growers having generally older equipment.
          2. Organic growers having a learning curve to climb.
          3. Organic growers having fewer seed sources.
          4. And nitrogen cycling not being timed ideally to crop needs (which gets back to 2 a bit).

          There could be more (e.g., weeds but these can really be a problem on any farm), but these would be the main ones I’d guess. Hypotheses and data on those issues would be nice to have.

  • Jason,
    Unfortunately the data is not available to answer your first two questions. The USDA study I was working with was unique to 2008. It also lacked planted vs harvested acres which is a very useful statistic that is tracked for the rest of Ag.
    As for the energy piece it is mixed. There is obviously the difference that conventional nitrogen made by the Haber-Bosch process uses a fair amount. However, hauling and spreading tons of manure or compost takes energy as do multiple cultivation passes. Also it all needs to be considered on a per-bushel basis.

    My goal here is not to trash Organic but rather to point out that in an era of critical food supply problems, a perennially tiny segment that is far less productive can’t continue to be held up as a viable option to meet the serious challenges ahead of us. I’m also not saying that ag does not need to change. It does. I would like to see us fully implementing the true “best practices” that we understand (continuous no-till, cover cropping, controlled wheel traffic, precision fertilization…). Those are the changes that matter.

  • Jason

    Thanks Steve,
    I appreciate that we are all trying to be data driven and learn as we go.

    Regarding fertility programs on organic seed farms, I don’t believe many bring on compost. I know of some organic (and conventional farmers) using waste manure and the economics of this is very much related to transportation and spreading costs. If you have a chicken facility nearby then that may be your cheapest source of outside fertilizer no matter what your system of production.

    But for nitrogen, most broad scale organic farmers are going to be doing green manure. For small grains this theoretically should produce enough nitrogen to match conventional input recommendations. The problems may tend to be with timing of release in organic systems and this is something that deserves a lot more research as it could benefit all ag and make it less dependent on natural gas.

  • Susan

    I am wondering why yield is always the determination of a successful cropping system. Does nutritional content play a role? Are there studies about nutritional content? Is biotech ag participating in nutritional improvements or is it all about yields?
    Just curious.

    • Eric Baumholder

      Susan,

      Nutritional content plays a small, but growing role. For instance, soy from South America generally tests higher in protein, which is a factor for feed producers.

      Also, there are a number of products in the biotech pipeline, such as healthier soybean oil, rice containing pro-vitamin A, cassava with higher protein levels, etc.

      Even so, yield will be, and remain, a crucial factor. For instance, what would happen with ‘heart-healthy’ soybeans if you got only 1/3 as many bushels per acre? It wouldn’t be grown.

      • Susan

        What would happen is that you wouldn’t need as much of the nutrient rich soy bean, corn, or wheat to produce the heart healthy product. People wouldn’t have to ingest so much to feel full. We would feed these commodities to people where the benefit is felt. You can have an impact of a nutrient rich commodity. The satiating quality of the commodity would be more valuable, commodity buyers would pay more for it; it would get grown.

        Just saying, there is more to value than quantity.
        Susan

        • Susan,

          there are actually lots of crops that are grown without yield being the only or the major criterion for “success.” Wine grapes would be the prime example of quality over quantity. An old-growth Zinfandel vineyard in Napa might get $4,000/ton for the 2 tons/acre it produces while a 10-ton/acre vineyard in a hot part of the central valley might get $200/ton.

          With the major crops that supply us with starch, protein and oil, there is an extent to which we actually need certain amounts to thrive. Obviously lots of people eat well beyond those levels, but that is their issue, not the farmer’s whose “job” is to produce needed nutrients in the most land-use-efficient way possible

        • Alas the market dictates what is and what isn’t worth growing – in some niche markets this means that yield (at least in terms of amount/area) doesn’t dictate what a farmer will or will not grow – organic food is a prime example of this – it only accounts for a tiny segment of the Ag market however (I would be interested to see a net profit/acre graph similar to those above for each crop to see how it all falls out) – if a farmer were to get a +100% premium for heart healthy soy then they’d perhaps accept up to a 50% reduction in yield – and so the math works from there on – and for developed world farmers this equation would probably remain true across most yield reductions – so long as you make equivalent or better money then the endeavor is at least potentially worthwhile (although keep in mind you have to also pay for the “value added” trait – so this has to be covered in the premium also)

          • Ewan,

            The Organic soy growers in 2008 were getting nearly 2x the per bushel price, but with yield factored in their gross per acre income was only 1.25x higher. That does not address net economics because their cost structure is different. To really understand grower economics you also have to factor in risk over time. I think that the best indicator of whether Organic makes economic sense for the grower is how many growers choose that option – and very few have done so. The other question is how much international competition they face. For most of our row crops we are the big exporter. Increasingly we are importing Organic non-perishable commodities like grains, fruit sweeteners, frozen vegetables etc. Whether these things are actually “Organic” is somewhat suspect, but they are in the market driving down the premium for our own Organic growers

  • JB

    Thanks for the article and your research. I am using it to support a paper regarding the Millennium Development Goal addressing hunger/poverty.

  • Kevin

    Hello,

    Has this information been peer reviewed? If so, where is it published?

    Thank you.

  • JOSEPH WILKINS

    I am thinking about growing organic corn wheat in north Carolina have you don an studys here and what is the yield and the best way to start whit the soil

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  • [...] the USDA did not make the comparison to organic production itself is anyone’s guess. But what Savage found strongly suggests that organic production, for all its ecological benefits, is in no position to [...]

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