Farmers seizing opportunities in organic sector

posted Sept. 29, 2017 3:32 p.m. (CDT)
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by / Heidi Clausen, Regional Editor |

It’s no secret that the number of farms in the U.S. has been stagnant to declining in recent years, but big gains are being seen in the organic sector, both in terms of the number of farms and how much they sell.

According to new figures released last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 14,217 certified organic farms last year — up 11 percent from 2015. The number of certified acres expanded 15 percent, to 5 million, during that time.

Total sales of certified organic commodities totaled about $7.6 billion — up 23 percent from $6.2 billion in 2015, according to the 2016 Certified Organic Survey, which is the only comprehensive source of national and state data on certified organic production, polling all known U.S. farmers and ranchers with certified organic production.

Most organic farm products were sold through wholesale channels, but some 15 percent were purchased directly from farms.

California continues to lead the nation in certified farms, with more than 2,700; that’s up 3 percent from 2015. California also accounts for 38 percent of the total certified organic sales in the U.S.

But Wisconsin also ranks right up there for organic agriculture, coming in second with 1,276 farms growing crops on 219,266 acres. That’s up from 1,205 farms and 209,615 organic acres in 2015. The number of organic farms in Wisconsin rose by 38 percent from 2008 to 2015.

New York came in third in the recent survey with 1,059 organic farms.

Ten states accounted for 77 percent of certified organic sales in the U.S., according to the survey, with Wisconsin ranking sixth at $255 million.

Top commodities last year included milk, up 18 percent at $1.4 billion; eggs, up 11 percent at $816 million; broilers, up 78 percent at $750 million; apples, up 8 percent at $327 million; and lettuce, up 6 percent, at $277 million. Other leading organic crops were strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, hay, spinach and mushrooms.

America’s Dairyland is home to about 9 percent of the nation’s organic farms, and as of late last year, Wisconsin farmers had almost 28,000 certified organic dairy cows producing about a tenth of the country’s organic milk.

As the dairy industry knows all too well, overall fluid milk sales have been lagging for years. Class I fluid sales in the U.S. fell again in July, according to USDA’s latest data, with packaged fluid sales totaling 3.7 billion pounds, down 1.7 percent from July 2016. Year-to-date sales of conventional products, at 26.1 billion pounds, were down 2.3 percent, but organic products, interestingly, were up 0.9 percent, at 1.5 billion pounds. Organic represents more than 5 percent of total fluid milk sales.

Organic farms still make up just a small portion of the number of farms overall, and the bulk of agricultural production still is done through conventional means. But there’s no denying that the growth in the organic sector — largely driven by millennial consumers and their worries over how their food is produced — has been impressive.

Organic certification offers a real opportunity for some farmers, especially those on the smaller side and looking for viable ways to capture a premium price and make a decent living without expansion and added debt.

For other farmers, their reasons for switching go beyond the financial to a desire to be part of a food movement often viewed as healthier and more environmentally friendly than conventional ag.

Either way, more farmers are seeing the value in transitioning their operations to organic practices, but it does come at a cost. Organic operations must follow National Organic Standards and are monitored through review of their records and on-site inspections at least once a year.

“The yearly cost of certification can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars,” said Cassie Dahl, administrator for the Minnesota Organic Cost Share Program.

Cost-share programs are available in many states to help to make organic certification, which assures consumers the organic products they buy are produced in accordance with federal organic regulations, more affordable.

“This program provides some relief and goes a long way to make organic certification more affordable,” Dahl said.

While the age-old debate about whether organic food really is better for you and worth the higher price will continue — and conventional production, of course, isn’t going anywhere — there’s simply no arguing that more and more, consumers are stocking their pantries with organic products, and farmers are stepping up to meet that demand.

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