Any farmer can tell you this year’s weather has been a challenge, yet in spite of it, the number of acres of organic pasture, rangeland, and crop areas continued to grow by 7 percent, hitting a record 8.3 million. These acres were harvested by 18,155 certified organic farms—up 3 percent from 2018. That’s according to the fourth Mercaris Annual Acreage Report released last month.
“The high-level takeaway is we did see the number of operators harvesting acres [increase] this year,” says Mercaris Director of Economics Ryan Koory. According to Koory, the number of organic farms as well as field crop areas increased by 6 percent.”
This number, he says, is relatively standard operational growth for any year. Where 2019 was different was that the number of acres harvested per operation (which can be used to estimate farm size) remained flat, managing growth of only “modestly below 1 percent.”
That’s where the weather comes in. “There were acres that just weren’t able to get planted, and thus you weren’t able to harvest them. It’s likely that 7 percent would have been larger if we had not seen these weather impacts this year,” Koory says.
Provided weather next year is closer to the norm, Koory expects to see increases in acres harvested to reflect this year’s changes.
“The fact that overall we didn’t really see much reduction in average farm size and it was a modest increase, I feel like that’s also positive for the industry in terms of signals of growth,” he says. “Every year we see both the number of acres harvested and the level of operations continue to increase. Those are positive signs.”
Farmers joining the organic field are split between those converting from conventional farming to organic farming and those who have organic acres and conventional acres, according to Koory.
“We see lots of operations that are a blend—some conventional, some organic,” Koory says. ” And we see operators who have taken their whole conventional farms switching it over.
He laughs, however, at the idea that growth in organic farming might come at the expense of conventional operations.
“We barely cracked 1 percent of U.S. total acres this year in the organic sectors,” he says.
Food economist Jayson Lusk agrees with him.
“The increase is still from a very small base,” Lusk says. “By and large, organic is so small a part of the equation, there isn’t much effect on non-organic producers.”
Lusk, Distinguished Professor in Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, cautions against putting stock in percentage growth with a small base, but he agrees organics are on the upswing.
“There’s been a fairly steady positive trend in organic retail sales for the past few decades, offset somewhat by the great recession,” Lusk told Food Quality & Safety. “Increases in acreage have been fairly small, though slightly rising. I expect it will rise somewhat as commodity prices are low and producers look for opportunities to earn higher margins.”
The same way farming depends on the uncertainties of weather, retail depends on the economy, which may not remain the same very long. If there’s a slowdown, Lusk notes, organic demand growth could be checked. If there isn’t, and the growth continues, he says basic economics suggest a lowering of retail prices—but not by much.
“Only a small part of the retail price of food consists of the farm commodity, so impacts at the retail level are likely to be fairly small.”
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