Skip to main content

Organic food sales on the rise

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – The total sale of organic food products in the United States rose by 13 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to recently released USDA data.

Idaho ranked No. 7 in the nation in 2021 in total land in organic production but drought conditions in the state do seem to have impacted the growth of organic food production in Idaho, at least temporarily.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2021 Organic Survey showed total sales of $11.2 billion in organic food products in 2021, which was an increase of 13 percent or $1.28 billion, compared with 2019.

The survey looked at all known U.S. farms and ranches with certified organic production in 2021, as well as those transitioning to organic production.

According to the survey, Idaho ranked as the No. 7 state in the nation when it comes to total land in organic production.

The survey showed there were 215,668 acres of land in organic production in Idaho in 2021, which was a 19 percent increase over the 2019 total.

California led the nation with 813,710 acres of land being used for organic production.

“It looks like (organic production) is definitely increasing,” said Rebecca Frey, who manages the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s organic program.

However, she added, the drought conditions in the state the past two years do appear to have had an impact on the rate of growth of organic food production in Idaho.

“I think that the drought in Idaho has been a really big factor for a number of people … seeking organic certification for their crops,” she said. “I think it will be picking up again once we get out of the drought.”

Idaho ranked No. 10 in the nation in total organic sales in 2019 but dropped out of the top 10 in 2021.

ISDA certifies about 67 percent of the organic operations in Idaho and the ag department has certified 258 operations as of December 2022.

Frey said the bulk of Idaho’s organic operations are located in southern Idaho but the number of people seeking certification in North Idaho has increased recently.

According to USDA data, milk is Idaho’s main organic agricultural commodity in terms of total sales. The data show Idaho companies sold $114 million worth of organic milk products in 2021.

That represented 3 percent of total milk sales in Idaho that year.

Idaho ranks No. 3 in the United States in total milk production and most of Idaho’s milk is turned into cheese. ISDA certifies several cheese-making companies, as well as dairies that provide the organic milk.

Idaho Dairymen’s Association Executive Director Rick Naerebout said the number of operations selling organic milk products in Idaho is shrinking because the margins aren’t there, mainly because of rapidly rising feed costs.

What organic dairies are getting for their milk right now isn’t covering what they are paying in the way of higher feed prices, he said.

“Producers are moving away from organic milk production,” Naerebout said. “In this past year, I know of a couple dairies that flipped from organic to conventional production.”

Hay ranked as Idaho’s No. 2 organic ag commodity in 2021 with $32 million in total sales, up 45 percent from $22 million in 2019.

A lot of that hay goes toward feeding milk cows as well as beef cattle.

USDA showed 68,076 acres of organic hay grown in Idaho in 2021, down 3 percent from 70,177 acres in 2019.

Organic barley is one of Idaho’s fastest-growing organic categories.

According to USDA, $12 million worth of organic barley from Idaho was sold in 2021, up 33 percent from $9 million in 2019. Total organic barley acres in Idaho were listed at 30,911.

A total of $9.5 million worth of organic wheat was sold in Idaho in 2021, up from $8.6 million in 2019. USDA showed 27,221 acres of organic wheat were produced in Idaho in 2021, up 38 percent from 19,737 acres in 2019.

Idaho is the nation’s No. 1 potato state but, from a percentage standpoint, the state’s farmers don’t grow a lot of organic potatoes.

According to USDA, a total of $5.4 million worth of organic spuds were sold in Idaho in 2021, a 56 percent decrease compared with 2019. USDA shows 1,507 acres of organic potatoes grown in Idaho in 2021, down 30 percent from 2,153 acres in 2019.

There were $183 million worth of organic potatoes sold nationwide in 2021, up 18 percent from 2019, according to USDA.

According to the organic survey, 55 percent of organic farmers said regulatory issues were a top challenge, 35 percent named price issues as a major challenge, 39 percent named production problems, 24 percent named market access and 29 percent named management issues.

Potato industry leaders said the price of inputs needed to grow organic potatoes, compared with the prices being paid for organic spuds, isn’t enough to convince many farmers to grow them, at least not in the Gem State.

“There’s just not a lot of demand for them,” said Travis Blacker, industry relations director for the Idaho Potato Commission. “You have to sell them for a pretty good price to cover the production costs and most farmers are not able to do that.”   

USDA shows $6 million worth of organic dry beans from Idaho were sold in 2021, up substantially from $1 million in 2019. There were 4,162 acres of dry beans grown in Idaho in 2021 compared with 667 acres in 2019.

According to USDA, Idaho farmers sold $250,000 worth of organic onions in 2019, up from $183,000 in 2019. There were 33 acres of organic onions grown in Idaho in 2021 vs. 41 acres in 2019.

While organic food production still represents a small percentage of total agricultural production in the U.S. and in Idaho, it is a fast-growing sector and an important one for many farmers and ranchers.

“You see more organic products in grocery stores all the time,” said Tim Sommer, who owns Purple Sage Farms in Middleton and helped start Idaho’s organic certification program.

Purple Sage Farms sells a wide variety of organic products, from specialty produce to culinary and medicinal herbs, leafy greens and flowers.

For Sommer, the organic market is crucial and it’s been one that has seen increased demand for his farm’s products. 

“Our sales increased 20 percent this past year,” he said.

According to the USDA’s 2021 Organic Survey, the number of organic farms in the U.S. totaled 17,445 in 2021, up 5 percent from 2019.

In 2008, there were 10,903 organic farms in the U.S., according to USDA. That number has risen to 12,634 in 2014 to 14,217 in 2016 to 16,585 in 2019 and to 17,445 in 2021.

According to the survey, 28 percent of organic farms plan to increase their level of organic production. A total of 1,558 organic farms have 196,923 additional acres being transitioned to organic production.

And 657 farms that are not currently certified organic have 62,069 acres of land being transitioned to organic production.

The survey showed 4.86 million acres of total land in organic production in the U.S. in 2021, down from 5.46 million acres in 2019.

The 2021 total includes 3.6 million acres of cropland, up from 3.5 million acres in 2019, and 1.27 million acres of pasture or rangeland, down from 1.97 million acres in 2019.

Of the total $11.2 billion in organic product sales in 2021, $6.2 billion was from crop sales, up 6 percent from $5.8 billion in 2019, $2.2 billion was from livestock and poultry sales, up 32 percent from $1.66 billion in 2019, and $2.86 billion was from the sales of livestock and poultry products, up 15 percent from $2.48 billion in 2019.

In terms of total sales, milk was the top organic category in the U.S. in 2021 at $1.6 billion, up 3 percent from 2019, followed by chickens ($1.5 billion, up 35 percent), eggs ($1.2 billion, up 38 percent), apples ($629 million, up 32 percent), corn for grain ($424 million, up 53 percent), strawberries ($336 million, up 5 percent), cattle ($316 million, up 8 percent), grapes ($309 million, down 7 percent), lettuce ($276 million, down 31 percent) and soybeans ($242 million, up 122 percent).