Every year the second week in September (7th-13th this year) is designated as Washington Organic Week (WOW!) to celebrate the organic farmers, farms and food and the bounty of the harvest in our state (learn more HERE). Nationally, the organic sector did well in 2013, reaching $32.3 billion in retail food sales, up 11.4% from the previous year (Organic Trade Association, 2014). The steady growth in demand can be seen in Figure 1 below.
Organic food sales now exceed 4% of all food sales nationwide. Washington State plays an important role in supplying this growing market, with the second highest level of farmgate sales of organic foods after California. The state is the leading supplier for organic apples, pears, cherries, blueberries, sweet corn, green peas, hops, and several other specialty crops. Organic fruits and vegetables still account for the largest share of organic food sales nationally (36%). That segment grew 15.1% in 2013, faster than the overall organic foods sector. The Organic Trade Association (OTA, 2014) estimates that organic fruits and vegetables now account for a whopping 11% of all fruits and vegetables sold in the US; this is remarkable market penetration. Fresh produce, a key purchase item for consumers, represents 90% of this.
With demand steadily growing despite the recession, where is the organic food coming from? The most recent USDA data showed 0.6% of farms and 0.8% of farmland as certified organic in 2012 (USDA-NASS, 2013). There was modest growth in certified organic land from 2007 to 2011, up about 25%. But this still doesn’t match the growth in demand. Imports of organic food have been increasingly making up the difference. The value of U.S. organic imports that are tracked by federal agencies was $1.4 billion in 2013 (USDA-ERS, 2014). The top U.S. organic imports (by dollar value) in 2013 included bananas, coffee, olive oil, and mangoes, all products not widely produced in the U.S. However, imports of organic soybeans have been increasing, for example, pointing out an opportunity for growers in this country. Five countries accounted for 40 percent of the value of tracked U.S. organic imports – Mexico, Italy, Peru, Colombia, and France. Nearly 100 different countries supplied organic products to the U.S. in 2013.
In Washington State, we estimated that 0.6% of all farmland and 1.2% of all cropland were certified organic in 2012. For some crops, the percentage is much higher – both organic apples and pears represent about 9% of the total acreage of those crops in the state. About 4% of all farm sales value was from certified organic farms, which accounted for about 2% of all farms in the state.
New growers and/or acres are needed to meet the expanding market demand for organic. In 2013, certified acres in Washington were still falling from the peak of 108,644 acres in 2009. However, acres of the three leading crop categories (forage, tree fruits, and vegetables) all showed modest increases, while grain and herb acreage both declined. Organic blueberry acreage is perhaps the fastest growing crop area in the state. But transition acres registered with the WSDA Organic Food Program were at the lowest level since before 2007. In contrast, farmgate sales of organic products were up 25% in 2012 to $355 million for the state, the highest level ever. Specialty crops are particularly important, accounting for over 80% of the farmgate value, with tree fruits alone worth $161 million in 2011 plus the value added from packing and processing. Reports from organic food companies suggest that there are significant shortages for a number of organic crops, and finding certified land on which to expand production can be a challenge. Thus, there are clearly opportunities for our state’s growers to further their involvement in organic agriculture.
Some of the barriers include the perceived risks of organic farming (e.g. greater difficulty in pest control), the three-year transition period (higher costs without a price premium), shrinking price premiums, strong prices for conventional crops, industry consolidation and competition, and lack of readily accessible technical information on organic production practices and economics. Both the research community and private industry are adding to the knowledge base and tools available to organic growers, and that trend is expected to continue with the new Farm Bill funding the main USDA organic research programs. In Washington, our WSU BIOAg program has funded a number of organic projects and will continue to do so. Detailed statistics on the organic sector for the state have been compiled annually and are available at http://csanr.wsu.edu/trends-in-washington-agriculture/organic-statistics/ .
While we can’t say what the organic sector will look like in 5-10 years, it is quite clear that it is here to stay, having survived the recession and now experiencing robust growth. The greater availability of organic products in mainstream groceries addresses the convenience factor that was a barrier for many consumers. And the price difference between an organic product and its conventional counterpart is shrinking for many items, making it an easier purchase decision for many. The full value of organic agriculture will continue to be explored and debated. New information on food quality, environmental performance, yields, and economics continues to be generated, keeping the conversation going. In my mind, I don’t know that organic is the ‘endpoint’ for the evolution of agriculture. But I do know that organic is making important contributions that are probably larger than what we see in the numbers.
OTA. 2014. 2014 Organic industry survey. Organic Trade Association, Brattleboro, VT. 141 pp.
USDA-ERS. 2014. Organic trade. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-trade.aspx#.VAXzAqM2ezo
USDA-NASS. 2013. 2012 Census of Agriculture. Ch. 1, U.S. National Level Data. http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_US/