In 1990, sales of organically grown food, fiber, beverages, nutritional supplements, cleaners and personal care products totaled only $1 billion in the U.S. In 2008, total organic sales totaled over $24.6 billion.
Organic products are still a small part of the overall U.S. market, but they are among the fastest growing products. For example, between 2007 and 2008, organic food sales increased 15.8 percent while the overall food market increased only 4.9 percent. That propelled the organic share of the food market from 2.8 percent in 2006 to 3.5 percent in 2008.
Around the world, 138 countries have some sort of organic farming program and market, with 30.4 million hectares (75.12 million acres) managed organically.
A growing number of U.S. and world consumers want simpler, organically grown foods, and they are willing to pay a little more for them. Ironically, some researchers suggest that most of the supporters of the organic movement don’t come from rural America but from suburban America. It seems this is a market driven by the demand from consumers, and farmers are scrambling to catch up.
So, what does a farmer have to do to farm “organically?”
In the U.S., there are strict rules for each crop or livestock species set out by the USDA if a farmer or agricultural corporation wants to advertise and sell their products as organic. Congress enacted the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, and the rules have evolved since then. Certification agencies and processes have been in place since 2002. As an example, a farmer who wants to grow an organic crop, like wheat or corn, will need to follow these general rules:
- Organic products have to be grown on land that has NOT received any prohibited substances for a minimum of three years before the harvest of the first crop to be labeled “organic.”
- Prohibited substances include synthetic herbicides and pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified organisms (like Bt or Roundup Ready seeds).
- The varieties of grain planted must come from certified organic seed stocks, and this regulation prohibits GMO varieties.
- Instead of artificial fertilizers, organic farmers rely heavily on crop rotation systems where organic legumes (like alfalfa) are grown for a few seasons and then plowed under to fertilizer the next year’s crop of wheat or corn. Nutrients also come from animal manures, compost and naturally mined rocks like lime and rock phosphate.
- Crop rotation also helps with insect control and weed control because it breaks up cycles in pest species. In addition, organic weed control uses mechanical cultivators or no-till mulches or interseeding of cover crops.
- To make sure that prohibited pesticides and fertilizers stay away from organic fields, farmers have to maintain a buffer zone from their neighbors or roads. Typically, this buffer is 25-30 feet wide.
- All of these practices have to be carefully documented. Organic farmers will admit that there may be more work involved, but they don’t buy nearly as many inputs.
The payoff for all that work? Consumers have proven they’re willing to pay a 10 to 100 percent premium for organic foods. The market for organic products has grown 20 percent a year for the past 15 years.
In addition, many organic farmers tend to be idealistic and will say that they have the satisfaction of knowing that they are part of the solution to the problems of global warming and sustainability.
David Vetter (left) says, “The driving force behind [organic farming] is spiritual. It’s a way for people to reconnect with the land.” Dave is a second-generation organic grower, and his family owned business, Grain Place Foods, employs around 20 people with sales of over $4 million a year. In addition to growing organic grains and meats, Grain Place has a large milling operation that will clean, mill and process a range of organic products – from hot and cold cereals, organic flour, whole grains and seeds, white and yellow popcorn and even organic pet foods. Dave’s customers come from all over the world, and he has so much business he has stopped advertising.
“The approach is really fundamentally different” from high-tech agriculture, Dave says. “If you look at our history in agriculture, we’ve continued to get ourselves in trouble through the generations… You’ve got to let the natural checks and balances [work] between insects, pests, disease and the crops you want to grow.”
Mark Kaliff (right), on the other hand, is part of huge, family run, high-tech farming operation in central Nebraska. He says he has not seen any of the problems that Dave is concerned about. “We’ve got a lot of farms that we’ve had corn on for as long as I can remember and we haven’t seen it in this area – we haven’t seen those kinds of problems build up,” Mark says.
At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, organic farming supplies a niche of the overall food market. Supporters of the organic movement would like to see that market grow by leaps and bounds. They believe it is the only way to a healthier food supply, healthier rural economy and healthier planet.
Others question whether organic farming methods could feed the world’s growing population. In a recent paper for the journal Plant Management Network, Professor Leslie A. Duram of Southern Illinois University summarized a series of studies on the productivity of organic vs. high-tech systems.
“Research results show that in 30 cases of comparative observations of on-farm productivity, organic yields were higher than conventional yields in 13 cases, were equal in 2 cases, and were lower in 15 cases, but this variability was less than 20%. Overall, organic productivity is more reliable and higher yielding in variable growing conditions, particularly drought.”
On the other hand, Dr. Norman Borlaug (left), the founder of the Green Revolution, argued that there isn’t enough manure in the world to supply organic farmers if we really tried to go completely organic. “We have about 1½ billion head of cattle in the world. We would probably have to have between six and seven billion cattle. What would we do? Chop down how many forests that are left to produce the grass and hay for the cattle? A lot of nonsense!”
In general, Don Reeves (right) is an activist who supports the goals of the organic movement. But he says farmers still have a duty to feed the world. “Use every bit of organics that you can lay your hands on,” he says. “When you get to the end of what’s possible with organics you’re still going to be short. And if you’re going to produce enough food in the food-short world, you’re going to have to add chemical fertilizers.”
Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.