Bell & Evans is so hungry for local organic grains that it’s going to pay extra to Pennsylvania farmers who aren’t even certified organic yet.
The Fredericksburg chicken company will soon offer contracts that pay farmers a premium for grain produced during the three-year transition to organic, and then pay organic prices for seven years after the farm is certified.
The program positions the company for aggressive growth while relying on domestically grown feed, said Scott Sechler, the company president.
Bell & Evans is already a big player — it sells $200 million in organic chicken annually and uses half of the organic soybeans grown in the U.S. — and the plan is to grow three- or fourfold by 2030, Sechler said.
To minimize transportation costs, Sechler would like to buy everything he can in Pennsylvania, but right now the state provides at best 10% of his grain needs.
In short, Sechler will take as much organic grain as the state will give him.
The transition period, when farmers must use organic practices but aren’t yet certified, has long been a weak spot for the organic industry.
Plans to pay farmers extra during this period or label transitional products have met with uneven success.
Sechler plans to use the transitional grain in Bell & Evans’ nonorganic business, which is 60% of the company’s production.
Bell & Evans’ demand for Pennsylvania grain is particularly pressing because the company only uses grain grown in the United States.
That strategy avoids recent concerns about fraudulent organic labeling of imported grains.
“The one thing that (consumers) expect but they’re not getting in many cases is the trust factor,” Sechler said.
Sechler is looking for organic corn and soybeans. Alfalfa, sunflower and other crops might join the list if they work in the poultry rations.
The exact prices farmers will get during the transition are still up in the air and will depend on trucking costs from the farms’ locations, Sechler said.
Farmers who convert to organic will need to change their management and might need different equipment, such as a roller crimper to knock down cover crops.
Still, Sechler argues, organic growers can produce yields comparable to conventional crops and get some relief from the low commodity prices.
“There’s no shortage of market,” he said.