Organic Farming in the United States

pie chart comparing the relative distribution of organic crops

Organic farming sometimes gets contrasted with organic gardening in terms of its scope and function, with organic farming being larger in scope and serving local and national markets.

Recent organic farming statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) show steady growth in the commercial organic farming sector over the past decade.

Because statistical coverage ends with the year 2008, the statistics may fail to capture some of the more recent organic farming trends. Nonetheless, they provide a good starting point for describing early organic farming trends.

A handful of organizing concepts might be used to consider organic farming in the United States.

Three such concepts, total organic acreage, per cent of organic acreage for sectors and organic sales trends ground the current discussion.

Starting with total organic acreage statistics can make organic farming trends appear small and difficult to spot. First up, 2008 domestic organic farming covered only 57%, or 4,803,798 acres of the United States' total 843,866,715 available land acreage.

Aggregate statistics also roughly divide fifty-fifty between land for organic pasture and range purposes (2,160,577 acres) and crop land purposes (2,643,221 acres).

Organic range land, used primarily for organic meat production, deals with comparatively fewer products than the organic products associated with the organic cropland acreage.

While those aggregate statistics tell us something about organic farming in the United States, an examination of sectoral specific statistics hopefully tells us more.

Specialty market cropland management might describe a sectoral overview of organic farming statistics. The term refers to a cropland management practice that begins by allocating cropland according to sectors such as grains, fruits and vegetables. It ends with reserving the majority of the acreage alloted to each sector for farming operations adopting large scale commercial farming techniques such as use of genetically engineered (GE) crops and chemically based fertilizers and nutrients.

Any remaining, small amount of acreage, for any particular sector, can e allocated to the specialty market.

Only one crop, the organic buckwheat crop, tends to buck the specialty market trend. In 2008, the organic buckwheat crop accounted for 34.95% of the total buckwheat crop.

One recent examination of the buckwheat market suggests planning as the key to the, so far, successful transition of the organic buckwheat crop into mainstream buckwheat farming. Organic buckwheat farmers found customers in both the organic grains market and the organic crafts market.

Other organic grain crops, such as the corn and sorghum crops, exemplify the specialty nature of todays organic crops. Conventional and genetically engineered farming practices compete for domestic corn and sorghum acreage, with only 0.21% of total corn and sorghum production acres devoted to organic framing practices.

The pie chart at the top of the page partially addresses the per cent of organic acreage for sectors issue.

It provides additional aggregate statistics for understanding the distribution of organic crops as a per cent of total organic cropland utilization.

Large areas for organic grains and hay farming in the chart explain their over 70% share of 2008 total organic cropland. The beans, fruits, vegetables and other (peanuts, potatoes, cotton and cover crops) categories generally fall in the 5%-10% of total organic cropland range. Use of organic croplands for herbs and oilseeds accounts for less than 2% of total organic croplands.

The organic fruits and vegetables link in the box on the right lead to further discussion of the statistics and trends associated with those particular cropland sectors.

Acreage per sector takes on a new meaning when applied to individual state allotment of organic acreage. While all states record some croplands, a quick look at an agriculture map reminds us that the Midwest serves as the traditional grain belt, with fruits, vegetables and other farm speciality products displaying more geographical diversity in their origin.

The top five states with organic cropland accounted for over one-half of the 2,643,221 total acres of organic cropland. With its inclusion of both Western and Midwestern states, the list also includes some of the aforementioned geographic diversity.

  • California: 430,724 acres
  • Wisconsin: 170,953 acres
  • North Dakota: 164,029 acres
  • Texas: 155,957 acres
  • Minnesota: 133,393 acres

Finally, a quick look at total organic sales figures adds an additional dimension to an organic farming discussion.

On a positive note, ERS statistics show increased sales from $3.6 billion annually to $21.1 billion annually over the 1997-2008 time frame.

Part of the increase can be attributed to a broader organic foods marketing campaign. Whereas once specialty food stores defined the organic market, today's organic market extends its reach to more mainstream grocery stores.

Specialty food stores also continue to innovate, attempting to appeal to a health conscious, freely spending consumer niche, by stocking shelves with organic foods along and other high value speciality food products.

Organic farming and gardening face risks associated with Bacillus thuringiens (BT) crops.

The genetic structures of most life changes consistently to adapt to the changing environment, some life forms change faster than others.

Concerns about BT crops, or crops with genetically implanted Bacillus thuringiens (BT) a common organic pesticide, focus on the possibility of creating "superbugs, immune to BT.

The issue is far from hypothetical. The Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University reports that "over 500 cases are documented where insects have developed resistance to conventional broad-spectrum insecticides".

If insects become immune to convention insecticides, logic suggests they can become immune to BT fron BT crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been conducting research studies since the first BT crops were registered in 1995 to determe proper crop management plans for farmers who opt to plant BT crops.

That research may help conventional farmers, however it does little to address organic farmers concerns. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) responded that movement to BT crops poses the potential of eliminating one of the organic farmers' best pest management tools.

The OTA also expressed concerns about possible organic contamination by BT crops.

"This has already resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars worth of product. The organic producer Terra Prima's organic corn chips were rejected when testing discovered GMO-contaminated content."

© 2011-2012 Patricia A. Michaels