Despite fears that the economic downturn would starve organic production, the industry continues to thrive in Idaho. Idaho’s total organic sales have been growing at 8 percent annually despite anemic growth in the general economy. That shows consumers continued to want organic food even as their disposable income shrank.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, there are 254 certified organic farms in Idaho that produce sales valued at $71.3 million on 148,000 acres. That was up significantly from 2002 when 152 organic farms on 22,500 acres had $25 million in total sales.
The 2012 Ag Census data won’t be released until next year, but Brandon Lamb expects the numbers will be higher. He is the manager of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s organic certification program.
Although organic producers come and go, he says the total number has remained fairly static even through the economic tough times. “People come and apply for certification all the time,” he said. “Some are as small as one plot in their backyard all the way to the larger, more commercial farms and everything in between,” he said.
Idaho grows a wide variety of organic farm commodities and ranks in the top 10 nationally in the production of several organic crops, including barley for grain seed and hay, cattle and calves, dry edible beans, potatoes, spring wheat, milk cows, beef cows, milk from cows, and onions. The list isn’t surprising as it mirrors commercial production. Farmers are already familiar with the commodity and have the equipment to produce it. But recently
Lamb has seen more handlers or shippers that deal with finished products apply for organic certification. ISDA certifies cheese plants, chocolate makers and even coffee grinders.
That trend may reflect changes some long-time organic producers have already noticed in the industry. As the organic market has grown, organic producers are getting larger and larger companies are becoming players in the market. While that may help keep organic food costs lower for consumers, it’s not necessarily good news for smaller growers who truly believe in the organic ethic.
Organic production is more about the process of producing food rather than the final product. Some consumers think of organic food as being free of both pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, but farmers must also carefully weigh crop rotations and cover crops to control pests and improve soil health. It’s a lot of work just to produce the product let alone meet stringent government standards for production practices and paperwork requirements. A typical crop inspection, Lamb said, lasts about five hours and includes examining the farm’s bookwork for traceability and food safety issues as well.
“They definitely earn that organic certification,” he said.
Another trend Lamb has noticed since taking over the ISDA organic certification program three years is the number of jobs being created by the organic industry. People are needed to make sure products meet organic label requirements, people are needed to ensure the farm or product meets quality assurance standards, researchers are needed to develop new varieties or identify new management practices.
“It’s been surprising and neat to see how many specific jobs for the organic industry are being created,” Lamb said. - Cindy Snyder, Prairie Star