New Data From USDA Offers In-Depth Look at Organic Farming

USDA- NASS News Release [Ag Statistics Hotline: (800) 727-9540 •]

Contact: Ellen Dougherty, (202) 690-8122 or Krissy Young, (202) 690-8123

New USDA Data Offers In-Depth Look at Organic Farming

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2010 – The nation’s organic farms and ranches have higher average sales and higher average production expenses than U.S. farms overall, according to results of the 2008 Organic Production Survey released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

“This was USDA’s first wide-scale survey of organic producers, and it was undertaken in direct response to the growing interest in organics among consumers, farmers, businesses, policymakers and others,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. “The information being released today will be an important building block for future program and policy development.”

The survey counted 14,540 U.S. farms and ranches that were either USDA certified organic or were exempt from certification because their sales totaled less than $5,000. These operations comprised 4.1 million acres of land, of which 1.6 million acres were harvested cropland and 1.8 million acres were pasture or rangeland.

While there were organic farms or ranches in all 50 states, nearly 20 percent of the operations were in California. California also led the nation in organic sales, with $1.15 billion – or 36 percent of all U.S. sales. Nationwide, 2008 organic sales totaled $3.16 billion, including $1.94 billion in crops sales and $1.22 billion in sales of livestock, poultry and their products.

The nation’s certified and exempt organic farms had average sales and production expenses that were higher than those of U.S. farms overall. Organic operations had an average of $217,675 in sales, compared with $134,807 for all farms as reported in the 2007 Census of Agriculture. Production expenditures averaged $171,978 per organic farm, compared with the nationwide average of $109,359 for all farms.

Most U.S. organic producers sold their products locally, with 44 percent of sales taking place less than 100 miles from the farm. Nearly 83 percent of organic sales were to wholesale channels, including processors, millers and packers. Just over 10 percent of sales were direct to retail operations, including supermarkets. Only 7 percent of sales were direct to consumers, via farm stands, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and other arrangements.

Survey respondents indicated that they face various challenges, including regulatory, production, management and marketing issues. Despite these challenges, more than 78 percent indicated that they plan to maintain or increase their organic production over the next five years.

Complete results of the 2008 Organic Production Survey are available at

Mark A. Kastel: The Cornucopia Institute; 608-625-2042 Voice; 866-861-2214 Fax

P.O. Box 126, Cornucopia, Wisconsin 54827

3 Comments on New Data From USDA Offers In-Depth Look at Organic Farming

  1. Why is the USDA including exempt farms in their count of organic farmers? Does following the organic rules matter any more? Exempt farms are not certified and are not accountable in any way.

    It is interesting to note: a majority of the organic acreage in the Western US is “contaminated” with conventional fertilizer. This recent discovery is yet another example of the rampant fraud and dishonesty in organic farming. The organic certifiers and the USDA are no longer enforcing the rules of the National Organic Program, so Certified Organic is pretty much a meaningless term.

    Organic farming is less than one percent of all US farming yet they get a disproportionate amount of positive press. Even so, the public is just not buying it.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m sympathetic with your frustration. I have many frustrations with the National Organic Program (NOP) myself, and in no way wish diminish your point that it has limitations and flaws.

      But just to be clear, the exemption (for farms which sell less than $5000 worth of products every year) is part of the original Congressional Act (in the 1990 Farm Bill) which established the mandate and basis for the NOP. Thus, the NOP rules are required by law to include it, and it has been there from the beginning. This is not a new policy or way of accounting. Ostensibly, it is there to avoid overburdening very small farmers with the task of certification, which can be expensive. You are absolutely right that these exempt farms are not certified, but they are accountable under the rules – that is, they are required to follow all of the provisions of the NOP. I agree that the NOP has not been particularly vigilant in pursuing violators – certified or not. And that fraud and dishonesty exists within organic farming as it did before the establishment of the NOP, which was created primarily to facilitate interstate trade (according to the Congressional act), but also to deal with the issue of fraud, is not something I would dispute. But I find your inference that certifiers and the USDA have recently begun to enforce the act less stringently to be baseless, especially if it is predicated on the existence of ‘exemption’ which, as I have already pointed out, has been a part of the NOP since it’s inception.

      As to pesticide contamination: remnants of banned pesticides including DDT (which was outlawed 35 years ago) have been consistently found in soils on organic (and other) farms, and occasionally on organic crops. Unfortunately, there are lots of ugly chemicals which we have used over the years on our agricultural land that refuse to break down or go away during the required 3 year period of organic transition. And the NOP is a practice standard not a product standard, which means it makes requirements for and claims about how crops are produced, not the products which result from these practices. I do think it’s important to note however, that the levels of pesticide residue on organic crops have consistently been shown to be a fraction of those found on conventional crops.

      Your final issue seems like a personal one, and your classification of organic farmers as “they” leads me to question your motive for challenging the validity of the National Program, which I have agreed is flawed. I can’t help but infer that your issue is with ‘organic farming’ in general, not with the NOP specifically. Although you are correct that by acreage, “organic farming is less than one percent of all US farming”, I do take issue with the implication that it is therefore inconsequential. The percentage of things we eat directly that are produced organically – fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and meat – is actually much higher than that. And your claim that “the public is just not buying it” would seem to be contradicted by the fact that organic food sales continue to grow at double digit rates annually.

      Again, I agree that the NOP has some inherent problems, that fraud does exist, and that the organic is not a guarantee that products are pesticide free. But I find your condemnation of organic farming and organic farmers as a whole to be both inherently flawed and self-serving – since you are a non-organic producer of crops (micro-greens) for which the organic market is actually quite large and growing. I do appreciate the sustainable practices that you apply on your farm, and applaud your detailed explanation of them on your website. Yet it appears to me that although you are ‘food safety certified’ your own sustainability claims, like the organic claims of ‘exempt’ producers are not substantiated by a certifier. I’m not suggesting that they are untruthful or invalid, but I would not suggest that of any individual ‘exempt’ organic farm either without direct knowledge of their failure to comply with the rules.

  2. I disagree, Dave, so-called "honest" // June 6, 2010 at 10:46 am // Reply

    “Organic food” isn’t a problem, exemption for micro-farms isn’t any problem either. Pesticides and metal residues found in petrochemical based fertilizers used in large agri-buis farming is a problem. Small organic farms were given a legitimate touch of grace to be exempt and still use the word “organic” without getting sued or hustled off to jail because somebody felt their certified business should be the only business in the area. Small and tiny family farms who grow with organic methods need protection from bullies with lawyers. (I much prefer the products of an honest but poor farmer to the products of a bitter businessman.)

    Personally I don’t know Dave, so-called “honest” Organic. San Marcos, California may have once been considered as the most bigoted place in the country. There’s an attitude problem there; a lack of honesty and respect for persons and property rights. Bitterness and pride is prevalent. Maybe the problem is getting enough market share? It certainly is tough to live in such an expensive place and find yourself unable to command or demand high enough prices to stay in a city that creates new tax zones by administrative fiat and allows no recourse for the taxpayers, property owners and voters.

    Let the real micro-farmers continue to live, 90% or so of business in America always was done by small businesses. Our immigrant heritage includes a strong work ethic. Let the American way continue!

    Remember, “exemption” was not given to larger businesses but to the little guys, individuals, children, and grandmas who love their organic vegetables and would not dream of polluting them knowingly. Without individuals in production the country would be… communist/socialist or worse.

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