Expanding organic on the landscape: does farm size matter?
November 3, 2013
In the 1970s, I was part of the “back to the land” movement and very interested in organic farming as the solution to sustainability problems in agriculture. At that time, organic was close to invisible on the agricultural and food landscape. In spite of this, many of us strived toward “the whole world being organic.” A lot has changed since then; and a lot has not. Organic has undergone exponential growth in the marketplace, with increases in both the number of farmers and the land area involved. Organic is still a small fraction of the market, however, and many of the problems we saw decades ago still persist.
The issue of scale has always been part of the organic discussion. Can you conduct “good organic farming” and be big? While small farms often come to mind when we hear “organic,” scale has never been a part of the organic standards. I think we have evidence that good organic farming CAN be big, and there are plenty of examples, some dating back to the 1990 USDA Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming, the first official government study of this form of agriculture. It included small and large organic farms even then.
The reason this topic came to my mind once again was the opportunity to attend the All Things Organic conference in Baltimore, MD in late September and be at the Organic Trade Association Annual Awards Celebration. Three awards were given. The Organic Farmer of the Year was Kyle Mathison of Wenatchee, WA, where I live. He is a fourth-generation farmer who powerfully conveyed his conviction to produce the best tasting fruit possible. Kyle described the history of his family in America and how they ended up on Stemilt Hill and eventually got into the fruit packing and marketing business. They have been successful, grown in size, and become a major player in providing organic tree fruit to national markets. Kyle’s farm remains a family operation (a large one) with both organic and conventional production, and innovations from one system often influence sustainability in the other.
Another award for growing the organic industry went to Arran and Ratana Stephens of Nature’s Path, a large company producing organic breakfast cereals and other ready-to-eat products. Arran grew up on a small farm on Vancouver Island. He and his wife founded Nature’s Path Foods in 1985, a small business that has been successful and grown tremendously. It is and will be a family-run business, but it is now quite big. It supplies the growing number of consumers who want this sort of product. The Stephens have recently purchased organic farmland to counter the trend of decreasing organic acres and plan to partner with farmers in its management. The company has a US base in Blaine, WA.
The third award for the Rising Star went to a couple, Karen and Colin Archipley, both veterans of the US armed services who have literally started a program to turn “swords into plowshares.” They founded and run Archi’s Acres where they host the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program, helping returning vets retrain for civilian society and be part of the growing organic sector. Theirs is a very small farm on high-priced real estate near San Diego intensively producing high value crops and direct marketing them in the area.
These three awardees represent some of the diversity present in the organic sector. I think if we want the whole world to be organic, then all need to be included. I often read or hear comments saying “big is bad” and only small farmers should be able to use the organic label. If that were the case, the whole world would never be organic (although of course it used to be). The data we collect on Washington State indicates in 2010, 31% of the certified farms were in the category with less than $25,000 a year in gross sales (down from 38% in 2006). These farms collectively accounted for 1% of the gross sales of organic food in the state. In contrast, 9% of the farms (up from 6% in 2006) had greater than $1 million in gross sales, and collectively accounted for 56% of the gross sales of organic food in the state. We would need somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 more small farms if they were to equal the production of the larger farms. In California, the same pattern is evident: 20% of the farms were in the less than $5,000 a year category and accounted for less than 1% of sales, while 9% has sales of $1 million or more and accounted for 78% of the organic farm sales in the state.
The conclusion I draw from this is that we need both small and large organic farms. Without the larger farms, the whole world can’t be organic at this time, and we would not come close to supplying demand for organic products. Both are important, cater to different markets and consumers, and have different impacts in their communities. Our best estimate is that about 2% of the harvested cropland in Washington State is certified organic. That’s not a very big number after years of phenomenal growth. Cut out the large farms from the organic sector and it would be back to being invisible. As the Organic Trade Association did, let’s celebrate the small, the large, and everyone in between.