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Organic food sales rose 31 percent from 2016-2019

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Sales of certified organic food products in the United States increased by 31 percent, to $9.9 billion, from 2016-2019, according to recently released USDA data.

The number of certified organic operations in the U.S. rose by 17 percent, to 16,585, during that time, and land used for organic production increased by 9 percent, to 5.5 million acres.

Idaho recorded $206 million in total organic sales last year, ranking the state No. 10 in the nation in that category. Idaho also ranked No. 10 in total certified organic acres with 181,000. 

The data comes from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s 2019 organic survey, which was a follow-up to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, which sought to count every farm and ranch operation in the country.

Considering Idaho’s relatively small population, “It is impressive that Idaho is ranked where we are,” said Randy Welk, the director of NASS’ Idaho field office.

The growth in organic food production in Idaho has also increased rapidly the past three years, according to Gwen Ayres, who manages the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s organic program.

ISDA certifies about 70 percent of the state’s organic operations and because growth in organic production was increasingly so rapidly, the department had to temporarily limit the number of operations it certified in late 2017.

“ISDA’s organic program has seen continual growth over the past several years,” Ayres said. “Similar to national data, we have seen growth in all sectors – crops, livestock, and handling – and in locations all across the state.”

According to ISDA data, there were 70 organic operations certified by the department in southcentral Idaho last year, 67 in southwest Idaho, 37 in east Idaho, 34 in central Idaho, 33 in southeast Idaho and 21 in north Idaho.

According to NASS, California produced 36 percent of the total value of organic agricultural products – $3.6 billion – sold in 2019, more than four times the value of any other state.

Washington ranked second at $886 million, followed by Pennsylvania ($742 million), Oregon ($454 million), Texas ($424 million), North Carolina ($370 million), New York ($298 million), Wisconsin ($269 million), Michigan ($231 million) and Idaho.

California also led the nation in total certified organic acres, at 965,000, followed by Alaska (number withheld to avoid disclosing data for individual operations), Montana (356,000), New York (323,000), Wisconsin (251,000), Texas (246,000), Nebraska (232,000), Vermont (203,000), Oregon (196,000) and Idaho.

The top organic commodity in the U.S. in 2019 was milk with $1.6 billion worth of sales, up 14 percent from 2016, followed by broiler chickens ($1.1 billion, up 49 percent), eggs ($887 million, up 9 percent), apples ($475 million, up 45 percent) and lettuce ($400 million, up 44 percent).

Milk is Idaho’s top farm commodity in terms of total farm-gate receipts.

Idaho Dairymen’s Association Executive Director Rick Naerebout said Idaho has a few pretty sizable organic milk producers but the state’s organic milk production has gone up and down the last three years.

Some dairies that converted to organic production exited the market when prices decreased as a result of oversupply, he said, while some returned to conventional milk production.

“It’s kind of ebbed and flowed the last three years,” Naerebout said.

Sales of organic cattle products in the United States increased 26 percent from 2016-2019, to $293 million. Beef cattle ranks second in Idaho, behind milk, in total farm-cash receipts.

Sales of organic potatoes in the U.S. increased 3 percent from 2016-2019, to $155 million. Potatoes are Idaho’s top crop in terms of total farm receipts.

While Idaho producers about a third of the nation’s total potato supply, the state does not produce a lot of organic spuds, said Idaho Potato Commission CEO Frank Muir.

“We do not have a large organic industry here in Idaho for potatoes,” he said.

While the IPC would gladly support anyone who wants to grow organic potatoes in Idaho, the commission does not have a specific focus on organic spuds, Muir said.

Nampa farmer Beth Rasgorshek, who sells organic seed, suspects the recent large increase in organic food sales is being driven at least in part by the younger crowd.

There are a lot of young people who really appreciate organic food,” she said. “I wonder if it’s younger, post-college people who are driving some of those sales. We have this whole food culture that is really phenomenal.”

While organic food product sales have increased significantly in recent years, they still represent a small portion of total agricultural production in the United States.

For example, the $9.9 billion in total organic sales in 2019 reported by NASS represents 2.7 percent of total farm-cash receipts in the country that year.

Idaho’s $206 million in organic sales in 2019 represent 2.5 percent of the state’s total $8.2 billion in farm-cash receipts last year.

According to the 2019 NASS organic survey, sales of organic food products in the U.S. have tripled since 2008.

The NASS survey found that large organic farms – those with annual sales of $500,000 or more – accounted for 17 percent of total organic acres in in the U.S. in 2019 but more than 80 percent of sales.

The smallest organic farms – those with sales under $10,000 – accounted for 11 percent of all organic farms but 0.1 percent of total sales. 

NASS reported that $2 billion worth of organic food products were sold directly to retail markets, institutions and food hubs in 2019.

Another $300 million in organic food products were sold directly to consumers at farmers markets, road-side stands or stores, U-pick operations, on-farm stands and stores, community supported agriculture farms and through online markets.

Value-added products such as jam, wine, cheese and meat accounted for $727 million in organic sales in 2019.

Forty-four percent of existing organic producers said they plan to maintain their current level of organic production over the next five years, 29 percent plan to increase their organic production, 20 percent are unsure of their future intentions, 4 percent plan to decrease production, 2 percent plan to discontinue organic production and 2 percent plan to discontinue all agricultural production.

Current certified organic farms reported an additional 255,060 acres currently transitioning to organic production and other farms that are not currently certified organic reported a total of 60,611 acres transitioning to organic production.