June 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB1

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Florida's Organic Farmers: A Profile

A survey of Florida's commercial organic vegetable and citrus producers was undertaken to characterize their production practices and problems, identify production practices that could potentially be applied by conventional producers, and identify areas where researchers and Extension programs could serve the needs of both organic and conventional producers. Survey results indicated that organic and conventional producers do share some common problems. Continued interchange between Extension and organic producers can be useful for organic and conventional producers.

M.E. Swisher
Associate Professor
Home Economics Department
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida
Internet address: mesw@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu

P. Monaghan
Ph.D. Candidate
Anthropology Department
University of Florida

Extension personnel may want to learn more about organic farmers and their production practices for three main reasons. First, the number of organic producers is growing in many states. In Florida, for example, most organic vegetable producers have been farming organically for less than five years.

Second, an examination of the production practices of organic farmers may help understand how to reduce synthetic inputs, such as pesticides, in conventional farming systems (Stanhill, 1990). Third, organic production systems provide an opportunity to compare alternative production systems without the high costs involved in creating alternative systems.


A survey of commercial organic vegetable and citrus producers was completed with funds provided by the Florida Energy Extension Service in 1993. Personal interviews were conducted with a total of 35 farmers. Despite the small number of farmers, all commercial vegetable and citrus producers in the state with more than one acre in production that could be located using lists available from the state's organic certifying agents were included in the interviews. The survey included 1,269 acres under organic vegetable production and 568 acres of organic citrus.

The objectives of the study were to (a) characterize organic farmers, their farms, their production practices, and their problems; (b) identify production practices used by organic growers that could potentially be applied by conventional producers, especially those that could result in significant reductions in energy use on conventionally managed farms; and (c) identify areas where research and Extension programs could serve the needs of both organic and conventional producers.

Results and Discussion

Organic Soil Amendments and Energy Use

Organic farmers must use non-synthetic sources of plant nutrients. The three most common sources of nutrients used by organic producers in the survey were: (a) animal, especially chicken, manure; (b) bagged organic fertilizers (also usually based on poultry manure); and (c) fish emulsion with kelp or seaweed. Among citrus producers, over three-fourths (79%) used chicken manure as their primary nutrient source. Among vegetable producers, both chicken manure, used by 38% of the growers, and bagged organic fertilizer, used by 33% of the growers, were popular. Application rates ranged from less than one to 20 tons per acre. Fish emulsion products were also used by most producers. For both citrus and vegetable producers, 71% reported using fish emulsion as a secondary nutrient source.

Organic growers utilize less energy in the form of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, than do conventional growers. Fluck (1992a) indicates that synthetic nitrogen accounts for an average of 6.3% of direct primary energy use in Florida agriculture. For tomatoes, nitrogen accounts for 6.3% of primary energy inputs in production and for oranges 10.2% (Fluck, 1992c, 1992b). Organic producers replace these inputs with organic sources of nitrogen, potentially saving 5 to 10% of primary energy use, depending on the crop. Neither this study nor Fluck (1992a) include energy used off-farm. For example, energy used to move materials such as fertilizers or pesticides to the farm was not included. These off-farm energy costs could vary between organic and conventional farms, but this study was concerned only with direct, on-farm primary energy use.

However, the true savings of energy inputs are not quite as great as the figures imply. Many organic soil amendments are bulky. At high application rates, more trips across the field are needed than in conventional systems. This will reduce somewhat the total energy savings that come from using organic rather than synthetic nitrogen sources.

Nonetheless, there may be considerable potential for energy savings on conventional farms through the increased use of organic soil amendments, perhaps combined with synthetic fertilizer application. This approach could reduce total non-renewable energy use in citrus and vegetable production. It could also help avoid some of the problems of manure scarcity and rising manure prices mentioned by organic producers.

Pest Management Problems and Practices

It was expected that pest problems would be a major concern for organic producers. However, organic producers did not regard these problems as serious as hypothesized. Interpreting these findings is difficult. One interpretation is that organic producers really do suffer few losses to pests. Another is that growers are unaware of or regard as unimportant the losses caused by pests, although this seems unlikely. Among vegetable producers, larger growers did mention more pests than smaller growers. This may have occurred simply because they recognized more pests, or may be a true result of scale of production. To learn which, if any, of these explanations holds, a greater understanding of the pest management techniques of organic growers and valid measurements of the presence of different pests in their fields is needed.

Organic citrus producers rarely mentioned insects, nematodes, and diseases as problems. Only two pests, beetle grubs and rust mites, were regarded as worth treating and the same treatment, copper and oil sprays, were used for both. Several growers mentioned melanose as a disease in their groves, but most did not regard it as a serious problem. They did not regard nematodes as a problem.

Insect pests were much more commonly mentioned by vegetable than citrus growers as a problem. Common treatments used to control insect pests included Bacillus thuringiensis (67%), rotenone (38%), release of beneficials (33%), and soap (29%). Vegetable growers mentioned a very wide range of disease problems. While 90% identified one or more specific disease problems, nearly half of these growers (48%) indicated they do not use any specific control measures. This may be due to a lack of effective organic control mechanisms. Even fewer vegetable growers (38%) regarded nematodes as a plant health problem.

Cultural practices play an important role in pest management for organic vegetable producers. Virtually all growers regard applications of fish emulsion as a pest management and nutrient management practice. Growers often mention maintaining good plant nutrition as a key element in pest management. Other important cultural practices included: (a) crop selection to avoid crops with serious pest problems, (b) use of resistant b varieties, (c) the timing of different field operations, and (d) various practices designed to maintain high populations of beneficials.

Weed management was a serious consideration for both citrus and vegetable producers. Nearly all (90%) of the vegetable growers indicated they use some combination of hand hoeing and mechanical cultivation to reduce weed populations. Manual cultivation may occur as many as five or six times during the growing season. Similarly, most citrus producers hire help to hand cultivate at least once per year, and a few hand cultivate up to four times per year.

The potential energy savings from reduced pesticide use on conventional vegetable farms are relatively great. Pesticides account for 12.8% of direct energy use on conventional tomato farms (Fluck, 1992c). Pesticides account for only 3.9% of primary on-farm energy use in orange production (Fluck, 1992b).

Both organic and conventional vegetable producers could benefit from the development of improved weed management techniques. Conventional vegetable growers in Florida practice several control mechanisms. On crops for which there are few or no registered herbicides, they also hand hoe. However, they rely heavily on the use of artificial (plastic) mulch and herbicides for some crops. Both approaches have serious limitations, and the cost-effectiveness of the use of plastic mulch may well decline when application of methyl bromide is eliminated. The effectiveness of plastic mulch is greatly increased by application of a fumigant such as methyl bromide. The use of methyl bromide may soon be eliminated by regulation and it is not clear that using mulch alone will be economically attractive.

Further, disposal of plastic mulch is a problem for many growers and herbicides present potential problems of environmental concern. Both organic and conventional growers could therefore benefit from the development of organic mulches, ground covers, and green manures. The use of leguminous living mulches, ground covers, or green manure crops would also help both conventional and organic producers reduce applications of imported nitrogen. Although weed management is not as serious a consideration for either conventional or organic citrus producers as for vegetable producers, weeds are the number one pest problem for organic citrus growers.


Organic and conventional producers do share some common problems. Weed management for vegetable producers provides an excellent example. Incorporation of some production practices used by organic growers could reduce energy use in conventional production systems. Finally, at least one avenue for research was identified that would benefit both groups of farmers: the development of living mulches, ground covers, and green manure crops for vegetable and citrus production.

Continued interchange between Extension personnel and organic producers can be useful for Extension, for organic producers, and for conventional producers. For too long organic producers have tended to look to other sources than the land- grant institution for help in solving their problems. And perhaps the land-grant institutions have tended to overlook the valuable on-farm experimentation that organic producers can provide. These farms are typical in the sense that they are small operations trying to survive by the development of high value and value added products. Many small farms in the United States face the same general problems. In Florida, for example, 83% of all farms have 50 or fewer acres.

Organic production also raises broader social and economic issues that are worthy of consideration. For example, one reason that organic growers can afford greater pest damage is that the consumers of organic produce, in general, are more tolerant of flaws and blemishes than the general public. There are widely varying estimates about the amount of pesticide use that goes primarily to ensure "cosmetic" appearance in conventional production systems. Whatever that figure may be, the organic model shows the importance of consumer education for reducing potential negative environmental impacts from agriculture. Conventional farmers can only alter their production practices to the degree that the consumer is willing to accept the resulting product.

Organic producers also usually receive a premium for their product. This premium is one reason why they can accept higher levels of losses due to pests. Conventional producers have very low profit margins in most years on most crops. They can ill afford to accept the kind of losses that organic growers frequently experience. Similarly, organic growers can accept generally reduced yields per acre and still have profitable operations because of the premium that their product brings. This shows the relationship between consumer willingness to pay and the kind of practices that farmers can afford to adopt.


Fluck, R. C. (1992a). Energy use in Florida agriculture (Fact Sheet No. 79). (Available from Florida Energy Extension Service, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL)

Fluck, R. C. (1992b). Energy for Florida oranges (Fact Sheet No. 81). (Available from Florida Energy Extension Service, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL)

Fluck, R. C. (1992c). Energy for Florida tomatoes (Fact Sheet No. 85). (Available from Florida Energy Extension Service, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL)

Stanhill, G. (1990). The comparative productivity of organic agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 30, 1-26.