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Preliminary Findings from the UC OAI Statewide Needs Assessment for Organic Agriculture

by Guest Blogger |

Shriya Rangarajan1,2,5, Mark Lubell2, Joji Muramoto3,4, Houston Wilson1,5

1 Department of Entomology, University of California, Riverside; 2 Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis; 3 Center for Agroecology, University of California, Santa Cruz; 4 University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, 5University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources—Organic Agriculture Institute

The University of California’s Organic Agriculture Institute (UC OAI) recently released a summary of findings from their ongoing needs assessment of organic agriculture in the state. This project has been underway since September 2022 and is funded by a grant from the USDA NIFA Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) (Project CA-R-ENT-5234-CG), which aims to understand the unique challenges faced by organic agriculture stakeholders across the value chain and strengthen organic research and extension offerings by the UC. The Organic Agriculture Institute was established in 2020 through a joint endowment from Clif Bar & Co. and the UC Office of the President (UCOP) to provide research, extension, and education activities to meet the needs of organic agriculture in California. The UC OAI is currently directed by Dr. Houston Wilson at UC Riverside.

The three-part survey methodology adopted by the research team included an online grower survey, participant interviews, and a series of field visits to key farming regions, covering 500-plus stakeholders involved in the industry. Our preliminary findings were organized into farm-level/production challenges that typically impact producers and systemic challenges that affect multiple stakeholders across the sector.

A key takeaway that the research highlights is that organic agriculture cannot be seen as a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, production challenges vary by crop group, organic certification status, and size of the operation. Common challenges across crop groups include weed and pest management, as well as the availability and costs of water and labor. However, challenges in postharvest infrastructure and market access were most significantly felt by producers of tree nuts, stone fruit, citrus, and livestock products.

Fully organic farmers echoed the aforementioned challenges, with variations among transitioning and mixed growers (i.e., those with land under both non-organic and organic production). Farmers within the three-year transition period reported financial and market barriers as being their greatest challenges, while mixed growers reported greatest difficulties with managing the biophysical aspects of their production such as soil health, pests, diseases, and weeds.

The research identified several systemic challenges too. Meeting certification requirements (especially for smaller operations and those selling at major retail outlets) and shrinking organic premiums due to new entrants and a consolidation of retail contribute to producers’ challenges. Some initial recommendations to address this included developing a dedicated marketing order for organic commodities, developing infrastructure for small-scale growers, and expanding technical assistance for meeting certification and compliance requirements. Another systemic challenge was the low uptake of organic seed due to both regulatory and economic conditions. Stakeholders suggest that in the absence of external incentives, this situation is unlikely to change.

Regional variations exist in access to technical information and advisory services. Inequities in information access is a priority area that needs to be addressed with public funding for research, on-farm trials, third-party input trials, and dedicated research and extension personnel. Other priorities that the project identified so far include the need for more whole-systems research at the farm scale, a need for streamlining organic inputs, and improved consumer awareness of what organic certification entails.

More Information

A more detailed summary of these preliminary findings is now available on the UC OAI website, and a full report will be released later in the year.

OAI’s summary of findings from the statewide needs assessment

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