by Jordan Strickler
Washington, D.C. — While 2019 saw declining numbers in most operations across the nation, a new study by Mercaris found the opposite was true for organic farms. According to the market data service, the number of U.S. farmers growing organic produce harvested nearly 3.3 million acres of certified organic field crops, driven by 14 percent more organic field crop operations.
“Despite what can be fairly described as the most difficult growing season in more than a decade, 2019 was a remarkable year for organic production,” said Ryan Koory, Director of Economics at Mercaris. “While growth in the organic industry was anticipated, the 14 percent year-over-year (y/y) expansion in certified organic field crop operations well exceeded expectations. Overall acreage expansion did prove to be limited by weather throughout the growing season. That said, the addition of new organic growers suggests that 2020 could see organic production reach new record highs.”
According to the report, final numbers beat previous estimates for every region of the U.S. The study concluded that 1.1 million acres of organic hay and alfalfa were harvested over 2019, up 8 percent y/y with 11 percent more certified organic operations; 13 percent more certified organic operations harvested organic corn over 2019, offsetting a significant decline in the number of acres harvested per operation; certified organic operations harvesting organic soybean reached 2,835, up 11 percent y/y; and harvested organic wheat acres, mostly driven by expansion in the High Plains region, grew 16 percent.
The demand for organic crops has exploded over the past several years. In 2013, U.S. organic food sales totaled approximately $31 billion, and by 2018, that number had risen to $48 billion. The most recent USDA Organic Survey, published in 2017, showed 14,217 organic farms in the U.S. in 2016 which was a 56 percent increase from 2011. American farms and ranches sold nearly $7.6 billion in certified organic goods in 2016, which was more than double the $3.5 billion in sales in 2011.
“The demand for organic products has steadily increased over the last decade,” said Josh England, market manager for the Lexington, Ky Farmers Market. “People seek out organics for several reasons ranging from the perceived health benefits, to traceability, to environmental purposes. There are also more organic farmers because of programs to encourage valve added agriculture and certified/inspected ag practices such as the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Organic programs. Small scale organic ag has also gotten mechanical easier with improving research from academic institutions. Finally organic typically allows for farmers to collect a premium price on the their product so that they can spend less time and energy making the same income, or better yet using the same time and energy but making an increased profit."
In the USDA study, California had by far the most certified organic farms in 2016, with 2,713. Its nearly 1.1 million acres of organic farms represented 21 percent of all U.S. certified organic land. The states with the second- and third-highest number of farms were Wisconsin (1,276 farms) and New York (1,059). Since 2011, Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri all saw increases of more than 200 percent.