Organic agriculture and food processing is a relatively small but rapidly growing segment of Oregon's total agriculture industry.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, "Organic farming has been one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture for over a decade." The U.S. had fewer than 1 million acres of certified organic farmland when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. By 2002, when the United States Department of Agriculture implemented the National Organic Standards, certified organic farmland had doubled. It doubled again by 2005. The United States had 4.8 million acres of organic farmland by 2008 - 2.7 million acres of cropland and 2.1 million acres of rangeland and pasture - according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Organic Trade Association says Americans spent $20 billion on organic food and beverages in 2007 and were forecast to reach nearly $23 billion in 2008. Organic food sales are projected to increase an average of 18 percent each year from 2007 to 2010. Organic products accounted for 2.8 percent of food and beverage sales in the U.S in 2006. Oregon ranks fifth in the country for the number of organic and exempt certified farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2008 Organic Production Survey. Oregon had $155,613,000 total organic agriculture sales in 2008, fourth among all states, with nearly 5 percent of all U.S. Organic agriculture sales. Concerns around food safety, nutrition, and impacts on the environment from the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are some of the factors driving the growth of consumer demand for organic products. The list of goods and products that are billed as organic appears to be ever-increasing. One of the latest organic products is being produced in Ashland, Oregon. Cascade Peak Spirits, Oregon's first organic distillery, recently began offering its O-N, or Organic Nation, vodka at liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. They are also producing an organic gin. In late 2007, Bend-based Deschutes Brewery debuted their Green Lakes Organic Ale, the first to be brewed with Salmon-safe certified hops. Deschutes worked for nearly six months with Oregon Tilth to receive organic certification for its 50-barrel brew house, and the new Oregon microbrew now meets National Organic Program standards.
Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water. Organic food handlers, processors, and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people. This definition was passed by the National Organic Standards Board in 1995.
So does organic mean that those products are completely pesticide free? No, organic crops can be inadvertently exposed to agricultural chemicals that are now pervasive in rain and groundwater due to their use over the past 50 years, and drift via wind and rain. However, when residue testing detects prohibited substances at levels that are greater than 5 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency's tolerance for the specific residue detected, the product must not be sold, labeled, or represented as organically produced. U.S. organic certification standards allow application of botanicals or other non-persistent pest controls. Botanicals are derived from plants and are broken down quickly by sunlight and oxygen.
The seeds of the organic movement were planted in the public's consciousness during the 1960s and early 1970s. A book by Rachael Carson, Silent Spring,raised public awareness of the ecological problems associated with the use of agricultural chemicals and particularly, synthetic insecticides. Water pollution related to fertilizer and pesticide use, along with the two energy crises in the 1970s, provided added incentive for some farmers to reduce use of farm chemicals.
Oregon and Washington were early implementers in the organic movement, with the establishment of the Oregon-Washington Tilth Organic Producers Association in the early 1970s. In 1982, the Willamette Valley chapter of the Tilth began an organic certification program to protect and promote organic farming. These standards became the blueprint for the eventual National Organic Program.
In 1989, the CBS news show Sixty Minutes did a feature on Alar, a chemical used in apple orchards that was eventually abandoned after studies linked it to accelerated risk of cancer. That resulted in an immediate increase in sales of organic products. Due to inconsistent or non-existent state laws, inadequate enforcement programs and fraud all threatening to undermine the value and meaning of "organic," a coalition of stakeholders persuaded Congress to pass the Organic Food Production Act in the 1990 farm bill. In 1992, the USDA appointed the National Organic Standards Board and established the National Organic Program to develop a uniform set of organic standards for the U.S., which were implemented on October 22, 2002. The Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) program remains the main certifying agency in Oregon for the USDA's "organic" label and offers organic certification services throughout the USA and internationally.
According to Laura Barton, from the Agricultural Development and Marketing Division of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, "You have two types of organic growers in Oregon. There are the people who believe in it as a lifestyle and a philosophy as a way of nurturing the soil. Then there are the more conventional growers who have seen that the profitability and margins are much higher for organics." Ms. Barton also states, "organic production is attracting a number of retired Oregonians who are operating on small acreage as a hobby or second career."
livestock farms in Oregon. Estimated acreage of certified organic farmland totaled 115,502 acres, up from 45,429 acres in 2005. The amount of certified organic acreage about doubled from 2006 to 2008, as shown in Graph 2.
Forage makes up 77 percent of the certified acreage. Forage acreage has grown rapidly to meet demand to supply organic dairies. Graph 3 shows estimates of distribution by crop for organic acreage in 2008.
Farm gate sales data are available from 2007. Information was reported from 75 percent of the certified farms, representing 85 percent of total acreage. Estimated sales in 2007 totaled over $89.3 million, an increase of 53 percent from 2006.
The coastal region has specialty crops - including cranberries and blueberries - but mostly grows forage crops, and includes several dairies located in Coos and Curry counties. Southwestern counties - Jackson, Josephine, and Douglas - have vegetables, mainly corn and squash, herbs, garlic, grapes, as well as beef cattle.
Hood River Valley and Central Oregon are also diverse production areas. The area contains 42 percent of the state's organic vegetable acreage, 50 percent of tree fruit and 70 percent of dry pea acreage. Sweet corn, potatoes, onions, and green peas are also important crops. Eastern Oregon, mostly the Columbia Basin and Southeastern Oregon, had over 85 percent of the state's grain production and more than 20,600 acres of forage. Alfalfa is mainly produced in Southeastern Oregon. Eastern Oregon has several dairy and cattle operations.
Data regarding organic food processing are more difficult to obtain. Many food processors that are certified by Oregon Tilth Certified Organic also process non-organic products. The 2007 Oregon Tilth Directory lists over 100 processors and handlers that they have certified, as of January 2007. While not an exhaustive list, it represents the most complete list of organic certified food processors in Oregon.
Amy's Kitchen continued to expand since sprouting up in an expansion to Southern Oregon and even despite the loss of 30 jobs split between their Santa Rosa and White City operations, a Medford Mail Tribune story published February 19, 2009 stated they still had 600 full-time positions at their White City plant in Jackson County. According to Amy's Kitchen's website, they are the "nation's leading natural frozen food brand. Amy's is #1 in popularity and sales." The expansion of Amy's to Oregon was a large feather in Oregon's organic cap.
Rising costs such as labor and fuel, tight grain supplies, and rising demand will impact organic operations, as they have traditional agriculture operations. However, as more competition among organic producers crops ups - pardon the pun - consumers may see the price of organic goods ease a bit.
For more information, see:
Oregon Tilth homepage at tilth.org
2007 Oregon Census of Agriculture at http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Full_Report/usv1.pdf
U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2008 Census of Organic Agriculture Survey
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service organic production data and tables- by state and in excel format data www.ers.usda.gov/Data/Organic
Organic Trade Association homepage at www.ota.com/index.html
Washington State University's Profile of Organic Crops in Oregon- 2008