Going organic is proving to be a good investment for small and medium-sized farmers—and they are receiving some government protection against Big Agriculture as well.
In a first-time statistical analysis of sales, production, profits, and management, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) recently reported that the nation’s organic farms and ranches have a higher average sales than U.S. farms overall even though average production expenses were higher.
“This was USDA's first wide-scale survey of organic producers, and it was undertaken in direct response to the growing interest among consumers, farmers, businesses, policymakers and others,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “The information being released today [February 16] will be an important building block for future program and policy development.”
Jim Riddle, outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota, announced the good news at the 21st Annual Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference, held in La Crosse, Wisc., which attracted 2,700 organic farmers, retailers, university researchers, educators and supporters from all over the United States, as well as Armenia, Thailand, Austria, Canada, South Korea and Germany.
The NASS data was derived from the results of its 2008 Organic Production Survey that included more than 25,000 responses out of 29,000 surveys mailed in order to gain information on organic agriculture in the United States. About 12,600 of these responses were from active organic farms. This extensive survey of organic agriculture was performed in response to lack of information about organic farms and the organic marketplace. The 331-page document provides state-by-state information and is available at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Organics/.
Highlights of the survey show that the total organic sales in 2008 from 14,540 farms and ranches were $3.16 billion, including $1.94 billion in crop sales and $1.22 billion in sales of livestock, poultry and their products. California led the nation in organic sales with $1.15 billion or 36 percent of all U.S. sales.
Most U.S. organic producers sold their products locally, with 44 percent of sales taking place less than 100 miles from the farm. Nearly 83 percent of organic sales were sold to wholesale channels, including processors, millers and packers. Just over 10 percent of sales were direct to retail operations, including supermarkets. Only 7 percent of sales were direct to consumers via farm stands, farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture and other arrangements.
“The distinction between local and organic food is merging,” said Riddle. “You want both in the food system over time.”
Riddle also said that the USDA Organic Pasture Rules for organic livestock were recently clarified by incorporating quantifiable measurements for tracking the pasturing and living conditions of ruminant animals.
For example, 30 percent of the dry matter intake of ruminant animals is to be provided from grazing (this is when an animal breaks off forage from a living plant whose roots are still attached to the soil, green chop transported to the animals is not pasture) or from forage that has been cut and is still laying in the pasture as “residual forage.”
The minimum time of the grazing season in a calendar year is 120 days and can be broken up into more than one time period and need not be continuous.
There are also some specific documentation requirements to ensure that these requirements can be verified by the inspector and certification agency.
Most organic dairy and ruminant livestock producers already graze their animals and maintain pastures that meet the requirements of this rule.
“Clear and enforceable standards are essential to the health and success of the market for organic agriculture,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is not generally regarded as an organic agriculture supporter. “The final rule published today (February 12, 2010) will give consumers confidence that organic milk or cheese comes from cows raised on pasture, and organic family farmers the assurance that there is one, consistent pasture standard that applies to dairy products.”
“This is very exciting news,” said Riddle, who was 20 years a farmer, 20 years an inspector and former chairman of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). “It levels the playing field for organic livestock producers and meets consumers’ demands.”
Pasture management has been a long battle and the many different activist groups sometimes speeded up and slowed down legislation at the same time, said Faye Jones, executive director of MOSES. This sent mixed messages to the USDA, which as a government agency is typically slow in changing policy.
“I never had any doubt it was going to come,” said Jones, “even though 30 years ago I never dreamed that we'd be where we've come in my lifetime.”
Finally, Riddle announced that the National Organic Action Plan (NOAP) established organic as “the foundation for food and agriculture in the United States” after a five-year dialogue with organic stakeholders across the country.
NOAP recommends the adoption of an expanded organic policy agenda to unite people across the country in their efforts to enhance access to organic food for people of all income levels; safeguard the environment and conserve biodiversity; ensure a fair marketplace for small, medium-sized and family farms; and move society towards more socially just and humane food and agriculture production systems, according to the National Organic Coalition (NOC), which organized the dialogue for NOAP.
NOC is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a “Washington voice” for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and progressive industry members involved in organic agriculture. The Coalition also believes that organic agricultural policy must encourage continuous quality improvements, sound stewardship and humane practices.
Clearly, the organic movement is here to stay—and grow—even though it now represents less than one percent of the nation’s total food production.