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USDA Says Organic Farming Worth $3.5 Billion…Happy Food Day!

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Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly announced that the nation’s certified organic farmers enjoyed sales of more than $3.5 billion in 2011. On this second annual Food Day—a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable, sustainable food—it seems fitting to highlight this “good news” story that hasn’t received much attention.

USDA conducts a regular agriculture census, gathering information that paints a picture of what the nation’s farms grow and how they grow it. A 2008 addendum to its 2007 census surveyed organic farmers as well as those transitioning to certification and those so small that they are exempt. But this new survey, conducted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), is the first to focus solely on certified organic farmers.

For the 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey, NASS researchers contacted every USDA-certified farm across the country, more than 12,000 in all. A very good 76 percent response rate (9,140 farms) revealed that organic farms comprised 3.6 million acres and produced combined product sales of $3.53 billion. Reported products included fruits and vegetables; commodities like corn, soybeans, hay, and cotton; livestock, poultry, eggs, and milk; and even maple syrup and wine grapes.

CC image courtesy of Farmanac on Flickr

A few highlights:

King CornAs with conventional crops, corn is king, at least in terms of acreage. Nearly 2,000 farms reported growing organic corn—14 million bushels of it on nearly 135,000 acres—with sales of more than $101 million.

Eat Your (Organic) VeggiesNearly 2,000 farms produce certified organic vegetables across the United States, and their combined sales top $1 billion. Every state has at least one, but not surprisingly, California leads the nation with 357 farms producing more than $626 million worth of certified organic veggies. And lettuce is tops among vegetables, with 810 farms accounting for more than $278 million in sales. That’s a lot of organic salad!

An Apple a DayApples appear to be America’s favorite homegrown organic fruit, with the vast majority grown in Washington State. I was surprised to see that there wasn’t a single farm in Pennsylvania (which produces a lot of apples and is filling the void left by weather-damaged crops in New York and Michigan this year) growing them organically. But according to the Rodale Institute, the humidity and pest pressure east of the Mississippi makes organic apple production more challenging, so eastern states have lagged behind.

(For whatever reason, the USDA survey includes mind-numbing detail about organic apple varieties. For example, did you know that 29 farms in six states produce 11.6 million pounds of Cripps Pink apples? Nope, I’d never heard of them either.)

Livestock and PoultryOrganically raised livestock, poultry, and their products (think milk and eggs) accounted for $1.3 billion in sales in 2011. Organic milk was the top seller in this category, generating $765 million in sales. (UCS will have more to say on the topic of organic milk in a few weeks.)

Organic Cost-ShareNearly 46 percent of certified organic farms surveyed (4,202 farms) were enrolled in the USDA’s National Organic Certification Cost-Share program in 2011. This program is an incredible help to organic farmers and farmers who want to become certified. That’s because organic certification—which provides consumers the assurance that the food they’re buying meets the USDA’s organic standards—can be a financial burden, especially for the smallest farm operators. As its name implies, the cost-share program subsidizes part of these costs, encouraging farmers to become certified.

Organic Farmers Need a Farm Bill Now!

Congress authorizes and funds the National Organic Certification Cost-Share program, along with other programs to help and encourage organic farming, through the Farm Bill. In 2008, the Farm Bill set aside $22 million for the cost-share program over five years, and now that money has all but run out. Over the summer, the Senate passed a Farm Bill that would essentially double the amount of funding for organic certification cost-share. But the House Agriculture Committee went the other way, approving a version of the bill that eliminates the program altogether, though this was never passed by the full House. In September, Congress left Washington to hit the campaign trail, leaving the Farm Bill to expire.

So until Congress returns and takes action on a new Farm Bill, or until they extend the current Farm Bill with funding for the cost-share program, thousands of organic farmers and sellers will not have access to assistance through the cost-share program.

That’s just one reason that when Congress returns to work in November, UCS will press them to finish what they started and pass a new Farm Bill, with adequate funding for organic cost-share and other programs to encourage organic production.

But for now, because it’s Food Day and we’re celebrating, here are a few other fun facts I gleaned from the organic survey results:

  • Watermelons are considered “vegetables.”
  • Blueberry production is reported in two separate categories, “wild” and “tame.” (Tame???)
  • Nebraska is the leader in organic popcorn production, with 14 farms growing 3.4 million pounds of the stuff, more than half of the national total.
  • And the biggest head-scratcher of all…two farms in Kentucky (?) report production of organic maple syrup.

Happy Food Day, everyone! (Click here if you’re looking for a Food Day event near you.)

Posted in: Food and Agriculture Tags: , , ,

About the author: Karen Perry Stillerman is an analyst and advocate for transforming the U.S. agriculture and food system to one that produces affordable, healthful foods for consumers; reduces air and water pollution; and builds healthy soil for the farmers of tomorrow. She holds a master's degree in public affairs and environmental policy. See Karen's full bio.

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  • Jasper

    $3.5 billion in an American population of some 300 million works out to about $12 per person per year or about $50 annually for a family of four. I am shocked you would celebrate such an ignominious failure as that.

    I suppose organic farms are little more than about 1% of American agriculture. That’s after some 40 years of dawbing around with “research” trying to reinvent farming with the wooden wheel. If this is all we have to show we should stop pouring public funds down the organic rathole at once. If organic farming cannot sustain itself it cannot be sustained by government largesse (except in UK in the case of Prince Charles).

    A good resolution for “Food Day” would be to wise up and stop believing organic gardeners and hobby farmers can ever feed the world.

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