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Organic farmers cultivating a growing agricultural industry

By Scott Maben 
The Register-Guard 4/20/05

Like a clove of garlic planted in the fall, organic agriculture is slowly, steadily growing in Oregon.

There are more than 300 certified organic farms and food processors in the state, serving natural food stores, restaurants, farmers' markets and subscription programs.

Organic growers remain a fraction - less than 2 percent - of total agricultural production in the state. But demand for fresh, locally raised food is on the rise.

"It's a niche that's strong and has been growing," said Laura Barton with the Agricultural Development and Marketing Division of the state Department of Agriculture. "The organic industry is alive and well."

Producers are answering the call for products such as organic milk used to make organic cheese and organic grains for flour used in certain bakeries.


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John Sundquist, a farmer in northern Lane County, is one of a growing number producing organically grown food as consumer demand increases in the form of stores, delivery programs and farmers' markets.

Photo: The Register-Guard, 2000

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"I think the demand is coming from all sectors," said Chris Schreiner with Oregon Tilth Certified Organic, a private group that estimates that it certifies 80 percent to 90 percent of all farms in the state that achieve organic certification.

"You've got more and more organic products showing up in conventional grocery venues. Those are huge markets in terms of the people they reach," Schreiner said.

Community-supported agriculture, in which households sign up for weekly produce deliveries from local farms, and farmers' markets also are springing up in more communities. They, too, provide an outlet for organic producers.

"People are taking an interest not just in how their food is grown but where it's grown," Barton said. "That leads them to support producers that grow crops in a manner that takes care of the land and is mindful of natural resources."

Chic restaurants and gourmet grocery stores such as the Whole Foods chain rely on organic foods to appeal to affluent, college-educated consumers who don't mind paying higher prices, she added.

Jack Gray, co-owner of the 25-year-old Winter Green Farm in Noti, west of Eugene, sees support building for the organic way.

"The demand is definitely out there," Gray said. "We project 20 percent growth this year."

At 150 acres, the farm is one of the largest organic operations in the state, with everything from lettuce and cauliflower to blueberries and burdock.

The largest distributor of organic produce in the Northwest, Eugene-based Organically Grown Company has seen annual growth of 20 percent a year, marketing director David Lively said.

The company, owned by a group of farmers and staff members, serves a region that stretches from Ashland to near the Canadian border, with warehouses in Eugene and Portland and smaller distribution centers in Central Point and in Kent, Wash.

The wholesaler grosses $20 million to $30 million a year, a far cry from the $200,000 in sales it had in 1983, its first year.

"We can do in three or four days now what we used to do in a year," Lively said.

As demand has grown, growers have plugged holes in the supply chain, he said. "It used to be hard to fill orders," he said. "Now we're able to meet that pent-up demand."

There's general agreement that more farmers have gone organic. But pinning down just how many isn't easy.

Oregon Tilth certified 266 organic farms in the state last year, including 32 in Lane County, with a total of $25.3 million in sales. In 2003, it certified 234 farms in Oregon and in 2000, 214 farms.

By another measure, state agriculture officials disbursed federal reimbursements to 311 certified organic farms and processors in the past two years. The funds help defray the costs of getting certified.

And the U.S. Census of Agriculture said that in 2002 - the latest year for which data were released - Oregon had 515 certified organic farmers and processors. But that figure may be inflated by producers that called themselves organic but hadn't yet attained certification under the federal standards that went into effect three years ago.

By any measure, there's been an increase not only in the number of farms, but the amount of acreage where organic methods are used, including avoiding pesticides and other chemicals.

Oregon Tilth reports that its clients farmed 16,871 acres in 2000 and 27,517 acres in 2004 - an increase of 63 percent.

That's not because new organic operations were especially large, Schreiner said. Rather, farmers already certified put more acreage into the program, he said.

"They're sort of testing the waters, and if they succeed, they convert more crops to organic production," he said.

Nationally, organic agriculture is growing 19 percent to 23 percent a year, said Junction City farmer Dave DeCou, executive director of the Organic Materials Review Institute, which approves fertilizers and other products that can be used in organic farming and food processing.

"It's something whose time has come," said DeCou, who also serves on the national board of the Organic Trade Association, an industry group. "There's been enough food scares that people want food they can feel comfortable with. People just have a sense that it's a healthier thing for them and their family.

"And often the food tastes better."





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