By Lorrie Baumann
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released figures that tell us how well organic farmers are doing in the marketplace. The big surprise? While U.S. sales of organic food products broke records this year, the number of acres of farmland devoted to organic agriculture in this country declined between 2008 and 2014. The USDA found 14,540 organic farms in the U.S. in 2008, compared to 14,093 in 2014. The number of acres devoted to organic production declined from just over 4 million in 2008 to 3.67 million in 2014.
The figures come from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which gathered information on all known certified organic, exempt and transitioning organic farms throughout the U.S. in the first few months of this year. “Exempt” refers to farms that follow national organic standards but have less than $5,000 in annual sales. These farms are allowed to use the term “organic;” they just can’t use the USDA Organic seal. Transitioning farms are those that are converting acreage to organic production but haven’t reached the three-year period under organic management that’s required before produce raised on that acreage can be certified as organic.
While the acreage devoted to organic agriculture in this country has fallen, purchases of organic food have been growing. In the U.S. last year, consumers spent $35.9 billion on organic food, representing 4 percent of total food sales, and an 11 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Organic Trade Association. The majority of American households in all regions of the country now purchase organic food, from 68 to almost 80 percent of households in southern states to nearly 90 percent on the West Coast and in New England, the OTA says.
The total market value of organic agricultural products sold by American farmers in 2014 was $5.5 billion, of which $3.3 billion was for crops, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, grain, hay and soybeans, and $2.2 billion was livestock, poultry and products like milk and eggs. Milk is by far the most important organic livestock and poultry product in the U.S. market.
American farmers have also become global suppliers of fresh organic produce, with more than $550 million worth of organic products exported from the U.S. in 2014, according to an OTA study released in April. The top five organic products exported from the U.S. in 2014 were apples, lettuce, grapes, spinach and strawberries. However, imports of organic product outpaced those exports, amounting to nearly $1.3 billion in 2014. The top five organic imported products are coffee, soybeans, olive oil, bananas and wine. “At the rate that organic is growing, organic will double in size in six years. The current theory that my company is using is that by 2020 we [organic producers] will be at least 10 percent of the U.S. food market. How are we going to do that if we lack the raw materials? We are importing more soybeans than we produce, significantly more than we produce,” said Lynn Clarkson, President of Clarkson Grain.
He noted that in 2013, U.S. imports of organic corn went up by 67 percent, with much of that coming from Romania. India is an important source of the soybeans imported into the U.S., according to Clarkson. “We are turning over our best markets to other countries,” he said. “When you can’t find supply, you go to countries that are organic by default. Until we can tell American farmers that there’s a secure market, we need to convince them that it’s good enough that they can step in…. Every small town has a ‘table of wisdom,’ and many of those tables are extraordinarily adverse to organic farming. With the downturn in corn prices, farmers are starting to pay more attention to the possibility, and that’s making cultural concerns less important as economic concerns grow.”
Also from the USDA report, 10 states account for 78 percent of all organic sales in the U.S. California alone produced $2.2 billion worth of organic products in 2014 from 2,805 certified and exempt organic farms and a total of 687,168 acres devoted to organic production, up from 470,903 in 2008. California farmers accounted for half of all organic crops produced in the U.S. in 2014. Washington, in second place, produced 12 percent of organic crops in the U.S. and totaled up $515 million in organic sales. In order, the top 10 states in organic sales were California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Wisconsin, Texas, New York, Colorado, Michigan and Iowa.
California also leads the nation in organic livestock and poultry sales, with $271 million, or 41 percent of all organic livestock sales in the U.S. and $301 million in livestock and poultry products – milk and eggs. Pennsylvania came in second in livestock and poultry sales with $112 million, or 17 percent of all organic livestock sales. Wisconsin came in second in organic livestock and poultry product sales, with $127 million or 8 percent of the U.S. total.