Portland festival

Portland’s Muddy Boot Organic Food Festival, held last weekend. Organic food producers are concentrated in California and on the West Coast.
Photo: XXxBrianxXx

U.S. farmers have been slow to adopt organic farming methods. How slow? Well, China has nearly twice the acreage in organic food production that the United States does. And both Australian and Argentine farmers and ranchers have devoted millions more acres to organic production than have farmers and ranchers in this country.

It took until 2005 for all fifty states to have at least some pasture or cropland certified as organic, according to a recent report from the Economic Research Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (California leads the country in the number of organic producers.) Despite strong gains in acreage from 1992 until ’05, only one half of one percent of the country’s crop and pastureland had been certified organic in 2005.

Organic Acreage Worldwide

The demand for organic products, meanwhile, is ballooning. At Willie Nelson’s 22nd Farm Aid concert (dubbed a “homegrown festival”) in New York City Sunday, concertgoers grazed on organic nuts and vegetables. According to The New York Times, “there were stands selling organic-farm variations on standard festival fare, like flatbread pizza, Brooklyn-roasted coffee made with fair-trade beans, and pork-chop sandwiches from Patchwork Family Farms in Missouri.”

But demand for organic foods is growing faster than supply. Business Week reported late last year, “Just as mainstream consumers are growing hungry for untainted food that also nourishes their social conscience, it is getting harder and harder to find organic ingredients.”

By 2005, only four million acres (1.7 million in crops; 2.3 million in pasture) were certified organic in the United States. Australia has nearly 30 million acres of organic land, mostly pasture.

Organic production in the U.S. is a minuscule portion of most agricultural sectors, according to the ERS study. Organic field crops comprised less than one percent of total production. (Organic wheat, for example, accounts for one half of one percent of total U.S. production.) One percent of the nation’s dairy cows were organic by 2005; and less than one percent of layer hens were certified. The ERS found that the low number of acres devoted to organic grains was creating a bottleneck in the faster-growing organic livestock market. Organic dairy and poultry producers are having a hard time buying suitable feed, limiting their transition to organic farming methods.

Organic Acreage in the U.S.

Vegetable and fruit growers have been quicker to adopt organic methods. Six percent of carrot acreage was organic by 2005, according to the ERS. Five percent of all vegetable production and two and a half percent of fruit and nut acreage had become organic by 2005.

The slow adoption of organic methods in the U.S. comes despite the urging of economists, who stress the higher prices paid for organic products. At a meeting of rural development officials in Austin, Texas, last week, former Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank economic Mark Drabenstott pointed to the small numbers of acres planted in organic crops as an example of a missed opportunity for rural America.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, an organic farmer, has prepared legislation that would offer grants to farmers who switch to organic methods. “Making the switch to organics shouldn’t be a make-or-break decision for family farmers,” Tester told the Prairie Star. “It should be a decision that ultimately saves them time and money while increasing the value of the stuff they grow.” Tester stopped using chemicals on his 1,800-acre farm over 20 years ago.

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