South Dakota Grassland Coalition

By James Doyle

Many consumers are increasingly drawn to organic foods because of perceived benefits to their health and the environment. In response to market signals, organic crop production is also increasing. Under current market conditions, it is easy to understand why some producers or landowners are considering organic production. With low conventional commodity crop and cattle prices, producers are attracted to the higher prices of organic commodities, and the higher rental prices appeal to landowners. However, organic farming can come with a steep environmental price tag that many people, especially consumers, are unaware. Under the typical structure, farm land must be managed in accordance with the organic guidelines for three years prior to becoming Certified Organic, also known as “transitional organic.” This can be a challenging time for producers, as they learn how to farm organically (e.g. weed, pest and fertility management, specialized equipment, record keeping, etc.) while receiving little to none of the market incentives for producing an organic crop. This presents a significant hurdle for converting existing cropland to organic production and requires a long-term commitment to making the transition. However, grassland (generally pasture) can be converted directly into organic production if the pasture can be certified to be chemical free for the prior three years, removing one of the biggest obstacles to transitioning to organic.

Of course, chasing short-term market conditions at the expense of sound, long-term resource management practices can have unintended consequences for the environment. High commodity prices in 2012 led to a large amount of conversion of grasslands as farmers tried to take ad-vantage of high prices. Those market conditions didn’t last, but the effect on the grasslands did. It is much easier to plow the grass down than it is to reverse course and restore grass on cropland. A similar trend appears to be occurring now with organic farming, albeit at a smaller scale, and specifically with grassland conversion because of the transitional period bypass. Just like 2012/13, when producers tried to add a little bit more farm ground, it often ended up being marginal land with high erosion potential and low productivity. Many of these converted grass-lands are likely go-back grass where someone in the past tried farming it, realized it wasn’t suit-able for farming, and eventually returned it to grass. More troubling though, is the possibility for loss of true native grassland that has never been farmed. Without an understanding of where these native grasslands exist, and with policies that encourage grassland conversion, there is a great risk of losing more and more of what little native prairie remains. The intent of this article is not to downplay or discourage organic production, or demonize producers for trying to earn a higher return; but simply to shed some light on one of the rarely discussed issues involved with organic agriculture. Producers are encouraged to consider the long-term ramifications of their decisions and ensure that they are coming from a place of long-term natural resource stewardship rather than chasing short-term market conditions.

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