As the U.S. organic food market continues to grow and demand for organic grains exceeds supply, large companies are stepping up to help farmers transition to organic to boost supply. General Mills, Ardent Mills, and Kellogg’s subsidiary Kashi are three such companies. The Andersons, Inc. is another.
Increased farmer interest in organic
While the other three companies are primarily food manufacturers or millers, The Andersons is rooted in agriculture, having worked directly with farmers since the company’s founding in 1947. Based in Ohio, The Andersons conducts business across North America in the grain, ethanol, plant nutrient, and rail sectors. The company has 35 grain handling and processing facilities in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas as well as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada.
The Andersons is a “farmer-centric company” says Andy Vollmar, director, food ingredients and specialty grains at The Andersons. This focus allows The Andersons to provide farmers with the resources and expertise to help them make the challenging three-year transition to organic.
In the past two years, The Andersons has received increasing inquiries from farmers interested in transitioning to organic, according to Vollmar.
“Our conventional grain facilities were getting inquiries from farmers who wanted to grow organic, and we wanted to be able to help and support those growers,” he says. “The Andersons has a trusted brand and a strong reputation working with many of these growers over time so it was a natural extension for us to continue to service our grower network.”
Transition program offers a range of services to help farmers
This led The Andersons to develop a transition program with a range of services to help farmers make the switch. The aim was to offer farmers a “one-stop shop” for organic transition services.
“Essentially, we offer transition consulting with our staff agronomist as well as a lot of assistance with figuring out paperwork, crop transition plans, marketing plans, cost analysis and profitability through transition years, and getting them set up for success in the first year growing organic and having a strong crop for the market,” says Brecken Price, senior manager, food and specialty ingredients.
The Andersons also offers crop insurance to help farmers manage risk, and the company’s plant nutrient division offers a number of organic approved, OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified inputs for farmers.
The bottom line for farmers is profitability and helping them earn premiums for their transitional and organic grains is an obvious priority.
“We work with growers on growing products where they get premiums,” Price says.
Growing non-GMO corn or soybeans is a good transitional crop option. “We try to assist growers with the non-GMO premium program to get them a better premium as they go through the market,” Vollmar says.
The Andersons has extensive experience in identity preserved (IP), non-GMO production with long-standing programs for non-GMO food-corn and IP soybeans selling to European and Asian markets. This experience has made it easier for The Andersons to enter the organic market.
The Andersons has been supplying organic food-grade corn for the past decade but increasing grower interest led the company to expand its organic program to other grains and oilseeds, both food- and feed-grade. These include soybeans, wheat, flax, barley, rye, and ancient grains such as einkorn, spelt, emmer, and amaranth.
One of the biggest challenges facing transitioning farmers is being able to sell all crops in their multi-crop transition, and The Andersons is helping them do that. In 2017, the company purchased two processing facilities in Melfort, Saskatchewan and Hudson, Michigan. These facilities handle a variety of organic cereal grains as well as peas and lentils.
The Andersons also has six other facilities to handle organic and non-GMO grains, and these facilities do a range of processing from cleaning and de-hulling grains to milling flours.
“Being able to process is critical,” Vollmar says.
“We have a pretty vast range of facilities in many geographic areas that allow us to reach many farmers and end users efficiently,” Price adds.
While infrastructure—having grain and processing facilities in many locations to serve farmers—is a challenge for the organic and non-GMO markets, it’s not a problem for The Andersons.
“The number of facilities we have that have historically done IP, non-GMO programs is already there, and as we convert many of those facilities into organic certified facilities we believe we already have existing infrastructure to leverage those supply chains,” Vollmar says.
Building organic supply chains to meet consumer demand
Vollmar says a “significant number” of farmers are in The Andersons transition program.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of farmers that have begun to take a transition on a step by step basis, not converting their entire farm but converting pieces of their farms through a phased timeline. We’ve had good success in a number of different regions,” he says.
Some of those farmers, particularly in Nebraska, have larger farms of 2,000 to 10,000 acres. Vollmar says those farmers will transition 100 to 200 acres at a time instead of their whole farm at once to minimize risk.
The Andersons has also had good results working with its existing organic farmers in helping them find new markets for their crops.
The Andersons transition program—along with similar programs of other companies—is helping to increase U.S. organic supply and reduce dependence on imports.
“It’s been nice to participate with growers in helping building new supply chains and being able to meet consumer needs that are demanding more organic products today,” Vollmar says.