The total dollars of sales of organic certified foods have steadily increased over the last decade. The 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic survey report showed that fruits and vegetables remain the top two sectors of organic food sales, together accounting for 40% of dollar sales (USDA, 2015). This growth was a response of the increased demand from consumers and large food retailers pushing sales of certified products (Dimitri and Oberholtzer, 2009). However, USDA organic surveys illustrated that the number of certified farms and farmland have suffered important drawbacks. For example, the number of certified farms decreased by 12% from 14,540 in 2008 to 12,818 in 2015 (USDA-NASS, 2016). The growth in consumer demand and retailer interest suggested that economic opportunities existed for organic farms, yet farmers were either consolidating operations or those certified might have opted out of the certification program. This article aimed to understand why farmers who were USDA-certified organic producers chose to decertify.
Most of the existing organic foods literature focused on investigating what motivated (or not) farmers to certify organic. Access to markets, price premiums, environmental concerns, and philosophical beliefs were the main drivers of organic certification (Burton et al., 1999; Constance and Choi, 2010; Padel, 2001; Torres et al., 2016; Veldstra et al., 2014; Wiegel, 2009; York et al., 2007). Understanding the organic certification drivers has been useful to develop federal- and state-led initiatives to increase organic production. Although studying the drivers of organic certification was crucial to expand the supply of organic foods, understanding why farmers decertified and helping them remain certified could be as impactful to meet the organic goals.
We know little about the drivers of organic decertification. Only a few studies have addressed the motivations of farmers to decertify and most of them focused on farmers from California or Europe. Regulatory, market, and production issues were reported as major drivers of organic decertification among farmers who reverted to conventional practices (Klonsky and Smith, 2002; Läpple, 2010; Sahm et al., 2013; Sierra et al., 2008). Moreover, Sierra et al. (2008) cited personal issues as key constraints to maintaining certification among decertified farmers who kept using organic practices. Family and labor health were the top two personal issues that motivated decertified farmers to remain committed to organic farming. Although California agriculture captures most of the certified organic food production, there are important organic industries in other states that are likely to face different challenges.
It is unclear what production practices farmers adopted after decertification. For instance, farmers may have switched to conventional systems or remained using organic practices without the use of the certified label (Sierra et al., 2008). Whether decertified farmers kept farming organically or not may suggest the existence of different constraints toward organic certification. For instance, decertified farmers who remained farming organically may have felt aligned with the philosophy of organic agriculture but opposed the corporate organic market (Veldstra et al., 2014). It is also possible that farmers selling locally were able to build trust relationships that motivated them to substitute the certification label and helped them overcome certification costs (Torres et al., 2016). Or, it may be that certification cost was higher than the value they generated in the marketplace (Dimitri and Oberholtzer, 2008). Farmers who switched to conventional agriculture may have faced the lack of market access or price premiums and decided to access wholesale markets without the organic label (Sierra et al., 2008).
This study contributed to the literature in two ways. First, we identified the main factors driving organic decertification of fruit and vegetable farmers in the United States using a unique data set of farmers from 16 states that remained certified and those that dropped out of the certification program. Second, this study contributed to the literature by exploring the farming practices adopted by decertified farmers (whether they continued using organic practices or converted to conventional practices) and drew conclusions on their barriers to remain certified. Programs and policies aiming to increase organic certification can use our results to lower decertification rates, which may be as effective as recruiting new farmers to certify. It is also important to understand how to better assist decertified farmers who switch to conventional agriculture and those that remain farming organically.
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