Organic category rebounding after the recession

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — While fruits and vegetables and dairy products continue to dominate the U.S. organic food landscape, cropland planted to organic grains and oilseeds has tripled over the last 15 years, according to analysis from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In an article in the Oct. 24 issue of Amber Waves magazine, the Economic Research Service of the U.S.D.A. estimated the area planted in 2011 to certified organic crops was 3.1 million acres, up more than 200% from 1997, when acreage was beneath 1 million acres. Over this same period, certified organic pasture grew even faster, climbing to 2.3 million acres in 2011 from fewer than 500,000 in 1997.

In “Growth patterns in the U.S. organic industry,” Catherine Greene, a senior economist with the E.R.S., said the slowdown for the organic industry during the recession has been reversed.

“Certified cropland and pasture dipped between 2008 and 2010 as sluggish growth in consumer demand during the recession dampened the short-term outlook for organic producers,” Ms. Greene said, “However, the growth in certified acreage of both cropland and pastureland has more than recovered those losses and has reestablished its upward trajectory.”

Four crops account for 75% of the organic cropland — corn, soybeans, hay and wheat. While corn ranks first in planted acreage for all U.S. crops at about 92 million acres in 2011, it ranks third among organic crops. At 234,500 acres, corn accounts for 12% of certified organic acreage, versus 17% for wheat (344,600 acres) and 39% for hay (786,000 acres). Cropland devoted to produce was estimated at 154,800 acres in 2011, or 8% of all organic cropland. By contrast, the overall figure for area planted to produce in 2011 was 2,800,000 acres (or 1% of total U.S. cropland).

“Overall, certified organic cropland made up roughly 0.7% of U.S. cropland in 2011,” Ms. Greene said. “Only a small percentage of the top U.S. field crops — corn (0.3 per cent), soybeans (0.2 per cent), and wheat (0.6 per cent) — were grown under certified organic farming systems. On the other hand, organic vegetables (6%) of U.S. vegetable acreage and organic fruits and nuts (4%) were more common. Markets for organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs have been developing for decades in the United States, and fresh produce is still the top-selling organic category in retail sales.”

While wheat may have a larger share than corn of cropland planted to organic crops, demand for wheat-based foods has not grown as quickly as other categories.

“Industry data suggest that the market share of organic sales held by various food categories has been remarkably stable over the last decade,” Ms. Greene said. “Produce (fruits and vegetables) and dairy are still the top two organic food categories, accounting for 43% and 15% of total organic sales in 2012; their standing has been relatively unchanged in recent years. Packaged foods, beverages (including soymilk), and breads/grains have 9-11% market shares, down slightly from a decade ago. The meat, fish, and poultry category, which is dominated by poultry sales, gained the most over the last decade but still represents just 3% of total organic sales.”
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