One reason organic food is typically priced higher? It costs more to produce.

Stephanie Hughes Jul 2, 2024
Heard on:
Organic farmer Jennifer Paulk picks Colorado potato beetle larvae off some leaves on her farm in southern Maryland. Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace

One reason organic food is typically priced higher? It costs more to produce.

Stephanie Hughes Jul 2, 2024
Heard on:
Organic farmer Jennifer Paulk picks Colorado potato beetle larvae off some leaves on her farm in southern Maryland. Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace

Organic food sales nearly doubled between 2013 and 2022, to more than $61 billion. The top seller, according to the Organic Trade Association, is produce. Those organic fruits and veggies usually come at a higher price point than their conventionally grown counterparts. One reason is market demand. Another is that organic farmers face higher production costs than non-organic, or conventional farms. For produce to be certified organic, it needs to be grown without the use of most synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Instead, organic farms have to rely on other tools, including increased labor. 

“They don’t have the same toolkit available to them,” said Ted Jaenicke, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State University. “They are substituting, in some cases, towards labor, which is generally more expensive.”

And labor is needed to deal with things like weeds. When David Paulk sees one on his organic farm, even just in passing, it’s hard for him not to pull it out.

“That’s amaranth. This one we don’t like,” he said. “This one will produce a lot of weed-seeds.”

The weed is living among the shallots on Sassafras Creek Farm, 50 acres in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. All the crops — from arugula to zucchini — are certified organic, which means the farm doesn’t use any synthetic herbicides to keep those weeds from growing. And weeds are expensive. 

“One of the reasons why organic foods cost so much is — do the best you can and there’s still going to be hand weeding,” said Paulk.

David runs the farm with his wife, Jennifer Paulk. They’re co-owners.  “He’s definitely the farmer-in-chief, using military terminology,” Jennifer said, laughing.

They’re familiar with the military: Jennifer works full time for the Navy as an environmental protection specialist. David was active duty until he retired in 2011. Organic farming is their mid-life second career.

“It can be very satisfying, it really is. I particularly enjoy the farmers market, because I’m directly talking to the public, the people who are eating the food,” said Jennifer. “It’s a lot of fun.”

That’s bugs and all: they spy some Colorado potato beetle larvae on the potato plants. Jennifer picks off some of the shiny brown insects. (I join in, briefly.)

“It’s addicting,” she said

“We call them Jabba the Hutt,” David added. “Typically, what we do is squeeze them. But the problem with that, is it squeezes in your eye, and then it’s kind of unpleasant.”

Bug picking and weeding is definitely not all done by hand. The Paulks will use naturally derived pesticides approved for organic farming. For weeding, they have several methods — including plowing the ground with a tractor to uproot the weeds. This is what David calls “steel in the field.”

But the Paulks know some of their crops will succumb to bugs, or weeds, or disease. 

A man stands between rows of plants, on black plastic sheeting.
David Paulk stands near the watermelon plants on Sassafras Creek Farm. The plastic sheeting, called plastic mulch, is to prevent weeds from growing, as is the cover between the rows. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

“You end up having to plant often more to produce the same volume of harvest as a conventional farm would,” said David. “So the cost of that production has to get reflected in the price.”

That price also has to be what their customers in rural southern Maryland consider affordable. At the local farmer’s market, a half pound bag of Sassafras Creek salad mix goes for $5.

In the farm’s pack shed, a couple of the Paulks’ employees are getting ready for the market, washing vegetables and bagging greens. That includes Miguel Villa Nava, who’s here on a visa from Mexico. He said he enjoys the element of organization the job requires.

“It feels good at the end of the day, when you are finished, and you can see everything is in order,” he said. 

For washing some of the vegetables, he’ll use one of the farm’s capital expenditures, bought in 2017.

“This is called a rinse conveyor,” said David. “We know it as Mr. Scrubby.” It’s essentially a washing machine for vegetables.

“It’s really a cost savings in terms of labor,” David said.

Villanava works in a shed on the farm.
Miguel Villa Nava, one of four full time employees at Sassafras Creek Farm, bags vegetables in the farm’s pack shed. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

And reducing labor costs is something a lot of organic farms think about — smaller ones like Sassafras Creek — and bigger operations, too, where labor is still a major expense.

“Ideally, it’s 40% of our sales. If it ticks over 40%, we’re in trouble,” said Anaïs Beddard, who owns Lady Moon Farms, which is also certified organic. It’s a combined 3,000 acres, with sites in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Florida.

Beddard owns Lady Moon with her dad, who started it in the 1980s. She said in the last three years, their labor costs have gone up about 30%. Their prices are up only 3%.

“So we’re working on razor thin margins right now,” she said.

There is new technology that could help. But Lady Moon has many crops. It also rotates where they’re grown, to keep the soil healthy, which is a production practice in certified organic farming. And if Beddard is going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new piece of equipment, she said it needs to multi-task.

“If you’re a monocropping giant who just does tomatoes, you can invest in all of that, because this new equipment will work across all of your acreage.  But if I buy a new piece of equipment, it might work for tomatoes, but not lettuce. And then that doesn’t make sense for me financially,” Beddard said.

Instead, she’s focused on improving the workflow. 

“How much time is it taking a person to walk their box to the trailer, and then back to where they were in the field?” she said. “And how can I reduce that to save on the total labor costs?”

Beddard said thinking about the finances of the farm keeps her up at night.

“I’m kind of betting on myself and my team. I think we can figure it out,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’m doing something that I think is really important and valuable.”

At Sassafras Creek Farm, the Paulks also believe in organic farming, as both a mission and a business. “It may not be easy,” said David. “But that seems to be where the action is.”

In other words, the future. 

The Paulks also feel a sense of history. They know the land Sassafras Creek is on has been farmed for hundreds of years. David pointed out a few farm artifacts he found recently while plowing. 

“It’s a drill bit. A 30-odd six shell. There’s a nail. This all came out of the ground,” he said.

Someone, he pointed out, has been here before.

Paulk crouches over dug-up tools on the farm.
David Paulk points to some farm artifacts he found recently while plowing. The land Sassafras Creek is on has been farmed for hundreds of years. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

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