The State of the Organic-Food Union: Survey Shows a Booming Market

New data from the USDA suggests that sales for certified organic food will continue to grow.

(Photo: Bill Miles/Getty Images)

Sep 21, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The national organic standards turn 15 this year, and as the USDA program nears driving age, a new federal survey of the industry, the first since 2008, shows a sector that’s booming in its adolescence. Last year, more than 14,000 farms sold $5.5 billion in organic products in the United States, up a full 72 percent since 2008. The organic dairy market alone is now worth more than $1 billion.

Much of that production is centered in a group of 10 states, which accounted for 78 percent of sales; California, the country’s leading producer of fruits and vegetables, led the pack with $2.2 billion, and combined with Washington state and Oregon—ranked No. 2 and 4, respectively—the West Coast is proving to be the center of organic farming in the United States. The survey also suggests that farmers are figuring out how to get more food out of fewer acres, a reality that could help undercut the chief criticism of organic farming: Yields are too low to make it viable on a large scale.

While the sales figures show impressive growth in organic agriculture, data on the number of farms and acres of land that are USDA certified tell a different story. Both the number of organic farms and the total acreage on those farms has declined since 2008, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted.

“While we are concerned with both the small decrease in the number of organic farms and the sizable loss of acres being farmed organically, the findings suggest that organic farmers are intensifying production and finding ways to add more value to their existing operations, which is great,” Paul Wolfe, a policy specialist with NSAC, said in a statement. “The question nonetheless remains as to why we are losing organic acreage at a time when demand for organic products has never been higher and imports are increasing. This question needs to be addressed lest we lose valuable market share.”

(Map: Courtesy USDA.gov)

While there have been complaints about the corporatization of organic farming over the years, the survey suggests that growers are staying true to the local food economy: Nearly half of the food sold in 2014 was purchased within 100 miles of where it was grown.

Nearly 40 percent of farmers said they intended to expand their organic production in the next five years, suggesting that the industry will continue to grow quickly. But when considered in the context of the larger food industry, organic remains a niche concern: According to the Organic Trade Association, it is closing in on 5 percent of the overall market share.