Expanding organic on the landscape: does farm size matter?

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.



7 comments on "Expanding organic on the landscape: does farm size matter?"
  1. David, good post. This big vs. little organic debate has indeed been going on since the dawn of time. At its core is a key difference in why people become interested in organic farming and the organic food industry. Some people get involved after they are convinced that organic farming offers the surest, most well-defined path to an alternative food system that places a premium on food safety, no use of toxic pesticides or animal drugs, humane treatment of animals, and steady, incremental investments in soil quality. For these folks, the goal is to bring the benefits of organic farming to far more than just some 2% to 3% of consumers. And so for these people, big farms, little farms, medium-scale farms — bring them all on! But another group of people have become organic supporters and activists because they see in organic farming the best option to create economically sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture. Some of these folks are genetically anti-big business, and hence large organic farms will never be their cup of tea. A small but growing portion of these folks feel that with tight rules and stricter enforcement, large scale organic farms can be prevented from watering down organic integrity. These two aspirations drawing people into the organic farming tent are, indeed, both important. It is too bad that the organic community has yet to find a way to pursue and support growth in organic production and integrity simultaneously across farms of all scales. Conflicts across these two groups are never far below the surface and are the primary reason all old-timers in the organic community have layers of scar tissue from the circular firing squad. Somehow the underlying issues and goals need to be separated and then addressed via appropriate policy tools and private sector innovation that are designed, in part, to minimize the collateral damage as this never-ending debate evolves, hopefully, in constructive ways.

  2. Absent from this debate is (what should be) a goal of consistently producing nutrient dense food. If only 10-20% of organic food is “nutrient dense” per a agreed definition then we still have a long way to go. If we reward organic and conventional farmers on price per lb. what is the incentive to produce nutrient dense food. Generally, superior taste goes with nutrient density. However, superior taste is hard and frustrating for food scientists to quantify . IMHO until we see eaters and chefs demanding better taste and nutrient density with more objective measures we won’t have the sea change we are looking for. (Disclosure–we are WSDA certified organic producers)

  3. I agree. I don’t really see a problem with upscaling good ideas. If you look at the reverse … small farms can be highly polluting. Our local households can be too. The worst example is “burning garbage”. One household can burn their garbage and pollute the air for miles. One farmer can use huge amounts of herbicide and pollute the whole crop. On the other hand, a larger farm might be more efficient, use less herbicide or pesticide, or use none at all.

    So it isn’t, at root, about size. It’s about methods. One of our better local organic stores is also one of the largest farms.

    But the issue, I think, is profit margin. A small farm is willing to go for better quality, even if it means 5% less profit. A CEO of a big corp will NOT accept that, because his salary depends on short-term profits. Growing high-quality vegies and fruits costs a bit more, no matter what the methods are.

  4. Thanks for the comments and discussion. WSU is in the middle of a project looking at the “footprint” of organic farms. We have a range in size from very small (<2 ac vegetables) to large (several hundred acres of vegetables). It will be interesting to see how they compare. Both inputs and outputs will be evaluated. Nutrient (or nutrition) output per lb of product or per acre won't be examined, but Chuck Benbrook and others have been proposing this idea. Another issue is how to account for the human labor that may go into the system vs machinery, etc that enables one person to farm more land.

  5. David
    Thank you for this. I couldn’t agree with you more! I think it’s important to go back to the roots of the organic movement and remember how we developed the national organic standards. We have agreement on so many aspects of the regulations. We should not lose sight of our common ground while we debate our differences respectfully. Whether big or small, we are all in this together and we need each other in order to continue to grow organic agriculture.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *