Consumer demand for organic food rose quickly over the past decade, outpacing domestic supply. Initially, the resulting supply shortages hampered growth in the organic food sector. Still, investment in the sector expanded as more farmers developed experience working with organic production systems, Federal regulations, and organic markets.
USDA’s national regulatory program explicitly defines organic agriculture as an ecological production system, established “to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” As such, organic crop producers use practices aimed at maintaining or improving the physical, chemical, and biological condition of soil, minimizing soil erosion, and accommodating an animal’s natural nutritional and behavioral requirements. These requirements not only increase organic farm production costs, but impose additional costs on farm operators who are transitioning from conventional to certified organic production.
In 2008, U.S. producers dedicated approximately 4.6 million acres of cropland, rangeland, and pasture to certified organic production, more than double the 1.8 million certified acres in 2000, according to ERS estimates (see box, “Tracking the Trends in Organic Agriculture”). Certified organic cropland increased 41 percent between 2000 and 2005 and was up 51 percent between 2005 and 2008, reaching over 2.2 million acres. The organic livestock sector grew even faster during this period, with the largest gains in organic dairy and egg production. Certified organic milk cows increased steadily from approximately 87,000 animals in 2000 to over 200,000 in 2008, and organic layer hens grew from 2.4 million to 348 million. Nonetheless, U.S. organic crop acreage accounted for less than 1 percent of total crop acreage in 2008, much lower than that in many other countries, including Switzerland (11 percent in 2007), Italy (9 percent), Uruguay (over 6 percent), UK (over 4 percent) and Mexico (nearly 3 percent).
The relatively low level of organic farming in the U.S. may be attributed to several factors. When demand for organically produced food began emerging in the 1970s, few resources existed to help farmers with production and marketing. Although more resources for conservation assistance are now available for farmers considering the transition to organic production, the level of assistance through research and extension may be a limiting factor. Organic farmers also increasingly face competition from products with new labels like “locally grown.” And, the weaker U.S. economy over the past couple of years has presented U.S. organic producers with another challenge—dampened organic sales in some food sectors.