Every year in early September we celebrate Washington Organic Week (WOW). Consumers have been enjoying the season’s organic harvest for several months, but things really pick up now with apples, pears, potatoes, winter squash, pumpkins, and more. The organic farming sector in the state has a lot to celebrate. Despite some bumps in the marketplace in 2009, consumers continue to expand their purchases of organic products nationwide, including those grown and processed here.
Washington is a leading producer of a number of organic products – number one in the US for apples, pears, cherries, sweet corn, green peas, snap beans, onions, and hops; number two for grapes, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, carrots, and fresh herbs; and number three for potatoes, squash, and other vegetables. Thus, consumers across the country rely on our organic farmers for many of their favorite foods. We are also leading the charge to get high-quality organic food into Pacific Rim markets, a growth opportunity that will help growers diversify markets and create more jobs in the PNW.
Organically managed land in the state (certified plus transition) peaked in 2009 at 108,664 acres declining to 92,789 acres in 2011. This compares to less than 40,000 acres ten years earlier. The number of certified farms also peaked in 2009 at 753, with the top three counties all in central Washington (Yakima, 109 farms; Grant, 88 farms; Okanogan, 61 farms). According to the 2008 USDA organic production survey, Washington was 16th in terms of all organically managed land, 8th for harvested organic cropland, 3rd in terms of organics farms, and 2nd (after California) in terms of farmgate sales values (i.e., gross revenue), confirming the importance of the high value products that our organic farms sell.
Washington organic farms contribute to our state in many ways. The organic standards require farmers to focus on soil quality, and research shows that organic management often leads to increases in soil organic matter with its many attendant benefits. Organic farms are asked to demonstrate their role in increasing biodiversity, which they do through more complex crop rotations, use of cover crops and habitat plantings, and typically less impact on non-target species through organic pest management. Organic farming and food have played an important role in creating more interest among the consuming public about farming, how their food is grown, and who is growing their food. The standards alter the playing field for farmers and create a demand for research and innovation for problems unique to organic that can lead to improvements on all farms. Two examples that come to mind are cherry fruit fly control and organic soil amendments.
Cherry fruit fly is a key pest of cherries in the state and was a major barrier to expansion of organic cherry production, as the insect is a quarantine pest that, when identified in a lot of fruit, can prevent shipment from that company to key markets. Tim Smith, WSU Extension in Chelan County, explored the use of a spinosyn product formulated for another pest and found that it was highly effective for cherry fruit fly control. Moreover, it complied with the organic standards. After a number of years of testing, this material GF-120 became available for organic growers. It performed very well and represented a significant cost savings for conventional growers, which led to its widespread use beyond organic farms where it displaced pesticides with greater environmental and health risks.
Organic growers have long relied on organic soil amendments such as manures, compost, and food processing wastes for their nutrient source, as well as for incremental improvement in soil quality. Much has been learned about effective use of these materials and the benefits to the soil they provide. Many farms with organic production in central Washington also have conventional production. After using organic amendments on their organic ground, growers could see the positive results and often extended their use to conventional fields. Now hundreds of thousands of tons of organic amendments are used each year by Columbia Basin farmers putting these materials to beneficial use.
Organic farming adds value to the state economy. Farmgate sales from certified farms were nearly $245 million in 2010. Processing and handling value have been estimated to be similar to farmgate value. While a substantial portion of this value would be present if the products were produced conventionally, we can estimate the value added from organic certification for a crop such as apples. About 5.9 million boxes of apples were sold as organic from the 2009 crop. With the average premium per box at $5.85, this represents some $35 million in added value due to organic for apples alone.
Organic is now an established part of our state’s agriculture. Let’s celebrate this during Washington Organic Week and continue to invest in organic farming, help make it better, and extend its successes to other farms.