INSIDE ORGANIC: New Census of Agriculture Numbers Support the Claim Organic Is One of Agriculture’s Fastest Growing Sectors (March/April 09)

by Roger Blobaum · Inside Organics · March/April, 2009

The 2007 Census of Agriculture, the first to include detailed national information on both the number and size of farms under organic management and the number in transition to organic, provides new evidence organic agriculture is holding its own as one of American agriculture’s fastest growing sectors.

The number of certified organic farms reported by the Census of Agriculture is generally consistent with the numbers in the organic farming reports issued every year since 2001 by USDA’s Economic Research Service. The Census numbers come from information gathered from farmers. The well-regarded ERS reports are based on information gathered from USDA-accredited certifiers.

Both sets of numbers show growth in the organic farming sector in the Midwest overall. And states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa continue to rank high nationally in terms of the number of certified organic farmers and the number of acres under organic management.

The new Census data shows that 18,211 organic farms had organic sales of $1.7 billion from production on 2.58 million acres in 2007. However the number of organic farms, the largest ever documented, is less significant than these numbers would indicate because it seems clear that only 9,926 were certified. The other 8,285 reported less than $5,000 in sales of organically produced commodities and, under provisions of the Organic Foods Production Act, did not have to be certified.

Even though these numbers reflect continued growth, the 18,211 organic farms counted in the Census are still less than one percent of the new official total of 2.2 million U.S. farms. The new Census numbers show an increase of four percent in the number of U.S. farms over the last five years. A farm must have at least $1,000 in sales to be counted by the Census and small, part-time operations account for much of the increase.

Transitioning Farms Counted for First Time

Probably the most surprising number reported by the new Census is the 11,901 farms that were transitioning 616,358 acres to organic production in 2007. It is surprising because no good numbers have been available until now on the number of transitioning farms or the number of acres involved. It is encouraging because this number suggests a significant increase in the number of farmers switching to organic and stronger future growth in the organic farming sector.

What is missing in analyzing this new 2007 Census data is comparable numbers for 2002 that would help show all the organic farming changes that have taken place over the last five years. The 2002 Census of Agriculture, the first conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the first to recognize organic agriculture as a separate category, did not generate a lot of comparable data because it included only two questions related to organic farming.

The limited data collected by the 2002 Census showed there were about 12,000 organic farms five years ago with sales of about $393 million. It also showed that organic agriculture was still a small niche in U.S. agriculture. Only 0.6 percent of U.S. farms sold organic products in 2002, only 0.2 percent of total U.S. farm sales were certified as organic, and nearly half of all organic sales came from relatively large organic farms.

Congress Puts USDA in Charge of Census of Agriculture

Congress in 1997 transferred responsibility for the Census of Agriculture from the Bureau of the Census, which had done an agricultural census since 1840, to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS). Unlike the Bureau of the Census, which had declined to include organic farming questions, NASS agreed that the Census, starting in 2002, would gather information “meaningful to organic producers.”

NASS adopted a series of advisory board recommendations calling for 2007 Census of Agriculture questions covering acres used for organic production, separate information breakouts for organic cropland and organic pastureland, both the number of farms and the number of acres being converted to organic, and separate information breakouts for the value of sales for crops, for livestock and poultry, and for livestock and poultry products.

Congress supported this move to include more organic questions in the 2007 Census of Agriculture and encouraged NASS “to take all necessary steps, including a followup survey, to collect in-depth coverage on acreage, yield, production, inventory, production practices, sales and expenses, marketing channels and demographics of the organic industry.”

NASS also reached out for some expert organic farming advice. The 25-member national agricultural statistics advisory board convened by NASS after taking over the Census includes Karen Klonsky, a University of California at Davis professor and prominent organic researcher. She serves on the California Department of Food and Agriculture Organic Program Advisory Board.

The 2007 Census numbers are not the first well-researched government organic farming numbers. When NASS took over the Census and started collecting organic farming information in 2002, USDA’s Economic Research Service already was fathering and analyzing organic farming statistics.

NOP Clueless Before 2001 About Organic Farming Numbers

Prior to 2003 when the ERS published its first report on U.S. organic farming, policymakers and others had to rely largely on government and industry estimates and a series of farmer surveys done by the Organic Farming Research Foundation to find out what was happening in the organic sector. As late as 2000, when the final rule implementing the Organic Foods Production Act was proposed, the National Organic Program was still clueless regarding how many certified farmers would be impacted, where they were located, and how much land was under organic management.

Starting with a report entitled “U.S. Organic Farming in 2000-2001: Adoption of Certified Systems” and published early in 2003, the ERS has reported certified farm numbers based on information gathered from 53 state and private accredited certifiers. These well-documented numbers are 6,592 certified farmers in 2000, 6,949 in 2001, 7,323 in 2002, 8,035 in 2003, 8,021 in 2004, and 8,493 in 2005. Completion of the next ERS organic farming sector update, expected to cover 2006 and 2007, was scheduled for late 2008 and publication early this year is expected.

2008 Farm Bill Provides Data Collection Funding

Prior to passage of the 2008 farm bill, getting funding for organic data collection was difficult. Although the 2002 Organic Production and Marketing Data Initiative authorized some special funding, very little materialized. Much of the organic data work done by the ERS has been funded by a $500,000 annual appropriation.

The 2008 farm bill has changed all that. In addition to reauthorizing the 2002 data initiative, the new farm bill provides $5 million in mandatory funding over five years for organic data collection and analysis. AMS is to receive $3.5 million of the total for things like organic price reporting and the balance is to be split between NASS and ERS. In addition, ERS is expected to continue to receive $500,000 for organic data gathering and analysis annually through the appropriations process.

It’s reassuring to have solid data showing organic agriculture is maintaining its niche as one of U.S. agriculture’s fastest growing sectors. But is this good enough? Census numbers showing fewer than 10,000 certified organic farmers and less than one percent of the nation’s agricultural land under organic management in 2007, 36 years after the first U.S. organic certifier opened for business, suggests it is not.

Organic sector growth since the Organic Foods Production Act was implemented has not been strong enough to avoid creating a huge opening for organic imports. This production is coming in from low-cost foreign producers certified by NOP-accredited bodies and eager to compete with U.S. organic farmers for this country’s $16 billion organic market. Good organic import numbers are not available due to the government’s inability to track them. But preliminary USDA estimates show this market penetration is well underway and that the value of organic imports into this country already far exceeds the value of U.S. organic exports.

A statement available in the ERS briefing room notes ominously that organic production is expanding in developed and developing countries alike and that competition for major consumer markets in developed countries is heating up. Organic farmers in many of these countries, especially in Asia, are receiving serious government support to help them target expanding organic markets here and elsewhere.

All of this strongly suggests it is time to consider retiring the so-called market driven approach to organic policymaking that limits government support for organic farming in this country and replace it with the European government-assisted model that supports continued and consistent organic expansion. What’s not to like about an approach that compensates organic farmers for the many environmental and other public benefits they provide and that has enabled some European countries to bring up to 10 per cent of their farms under organic management? A new approach like this may well be the change that is needed.

by Roger Blobaum

This article was first printed in the March/April 2009 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service