Midwest farmers transitioning to organic can get aid

Published 10:00 am Friday, January 29, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota and Minnesota are helping farmers with the three-year transition from traditional crops to organic production, an effort that the industry’s main trade group says could boost the acreage of organically grown crops in the U.S. if it takes root beyond the upper Midwest.

Minnesota started its grant program first, in 2013, and North Dakota followed suit this year. Both programs assist with the transition costs — everything from soil testing to education. Minnesota farmers can get up to $750 annually and North Dakota farmers up to $1,000.

The expense of the transition, which bans farmers from using mainstream chemicals and likely leads to lower yields, is not prohibitive, but “there’s a learning curve there that the farmer needs to go through,” said Lowell Kaul, an organic farmer near Harvey, North Dakota, who serves on a board that advises the state agriculture commissioner. During the conversion, farmers can’t sell their crops into the organic market until they are certified organic by a government-approved agency.

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The Organic Trade Association is pushing for an industry-led, government-administered certification program for organic farmers who are still in the transition phase, to give them better support and possibly even premium prices for their crops, according to Nathaniel Lewis, the association’s senior crops and livestock specialist.