Organic sales, farms up double digits, but acreage rises only high singles – signaling need for support

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/GaudiLab
Source: Getty/GaudiLab

Related tags: Organic

Surging demand for organic by shoppers who continue to pay a premium for it over conventional is attracting more farmers to adopt the practice and convert more land, but total organic acreage remains stubbornly stuck at less than 1% -- suggesting an “urgent” need for more governmental support, according to Organic Trade Association.

“Since the first organic survey in 2008, the number of organic farms, the acres used or organic production and the value of organic products sold have all increased, with the value of sales more than tripling between 2008 to 2019,”​ the US Department of Agricultures notes in its 2019 Organic Survey released last week.

A closer look reveals that farmgate sales of certified organic commodities increased a whopping 31% in 2019 compared to 2016, led by a 44% increase in livestock and poultry sales worth $1.66b, followed by a 38% increase in crops to $5.78b and a 12% increase in livestock and poultry products to $2.47b, according to the report.

This growth resulted in a “banner year”​ for organic sales at retail in 2019, which increased 5% from the previous year to a record $55.1b, according to OTA’s 2020 Organic Industry Survey​ released in June.

Top-selling organic commodities in 2019 according to USDA include milk, which increased 14% from 2016 to $1.58b, lettuce, which jumped 44% to reach $400m, apples, which jumped 45% to $475m. In livestock and poultry, sales of broiler chickens led with $1.1b – up 49% from 2016. Field crops saw a 70% increase in corn for grain to $278m.

The fastest growing organic commodities from 2016 to 201 include blueberries (up 104% to $205m), raspberries (up 197% to $92m) and turkeys (up 68% to $139m), according to USDA.

Organic farms, acreage up

In the same period, USDA reports that farms producing certified organic commodities increased 17% to 16,585 and acreage increased 9% to 5.5 million.

While OTA lauds the increase in organic farms as “robust”​ during the period compared to USDA’s last organic census in 2016, it laments that the numbers show that organic acreage is still less than 1% of total farmland.

“This points to a real need for more technical, risk management and financial support for farmers wanting to transition to organic,”​ OTA argues in a statement released the same day as the survey.

After OTA’s effort to launch an organic checkoff campaign to raise funds for these and other needs was abruptly curtailed, the trade group has spearheaded a voluntary industry-invested organic research, promotion and education “check-off-like”​ program.

As part of the Generate Results and Opportunity for Organic (or GRO Organic) campaign, the industry offered an Organic Agronomy Training Series (OATS)​ “to assist growers through transition to organic and beyond,” according to OTA.

Despite these achievements, as OTA notes in its response to USDA’s survey, there remains “need for greater support from the government to allow organic to continue its advancement,”​ as illustrated by limited certified organic farmland.

While no doubt additional support and resources would encourage transition of more land to organic, 29% of current organic farmers plan to increase their organic production in the next five years and there are 315,671 acres currently in the three-year transition process to organic, according to the USDA survey. Of these, 255, 060 acres in transition are under the stewardship of existing organic farms while farms not currently certified organic report transitioning 60,611 acres, the 

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