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Organic farming a commitment to agricultural practices

Suzanne Kevlyn, Horizon Organic Published on 11 March 2014

Editor's note: Some of this information was presented in the March 12, 2014 InFocus department of Progressive Dairyman.

Organic farming is a commitment to agricultural practices that strive for a balance with nature, using methods and materials that are of low impact to the environment. Organic food is produced without using antibiotics, growth or reproductive hormones, persistent pesticides or fertilizers, genetic engineering, cloning or irradiation. Many organic farmers emphasize the use of renewable resources, biodiversity and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.

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Organic dairy production has been around for more than 20 years, and was fully codified with the USDA implementation of the National Organic Program regulations in October 2002. Since then, organic agriculture has continued to grow, averaging double-digit growth year over year.

In spite of the recession, the organic food and beverage industry continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of the food industry. Organic food is now a $29 billion business, up 10.2 percent compared to 2011. Total organic sales have steadily grown since the implementation of the organic regulations, with organic food now accounting for 4.3 percent of total food sales in the U.S.

Organic farming practices arose as a response to a variety of ongoing concerns from both consumers and farmers. Consumers are concerned about antibiotic resistance and the effects of growth hormones, pesticide use and genetic engineering. They are also concerned about water quality and the humane treatment of animals, and nearly eight in 10 parents express concern about genetically engineered foods leading to unintended side effects in the environment or in animals.

Many consumers see organic as being healthier or better for them and organic food as having better quality and taste – all enduring characteristics of what more and more consumers want from their food.

Farmers share similar concerns about the environment and health effects. They’re also concerned about soil and water conservation, whether their income can support their family and farm, if their children will come back to the farm, encroaching development from suburban sprawl and market volatility, which can impact pay prices.

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Horizon Organic dairy farmer and elementary school teacher Julia Deichmann of Belmont, New York, says, “In the classroom, I’ve seen how students can’t do their best when their bodies are lacking the proper nutrition. Some seem fatigued, distracted or rowdy. I believe that many issues like ADD and childhood obesity are partly due to pesticides, growth hormones, preservatives and other chemicals in our environment.

“We don’t feed these things to the cows on our farm, and shouldn’t feed them to our kids. I also believe that adopting a lifestyle with more organic food and products and eating healthier diets is part of the solution.”

Julia and her family recently received the 2013 Horizon Organic Producer Education (HOPE) Award, which recognizes families who advocate for organic agriculture in their local communities.

One thing helping to drive consumer and farmer interest in organic is continued media coverage of organic and other trends reflecting a desire for fresh and less processed foods. Studies such as The President’s Cancer Panel Report released in May 2010 advised consumers to choose food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones to help decrease exposure to environmental chemicals that can increase the risk of contracting cancer.

Additional published studies during the past two decades have continued to find links between human health and environmental health, and a wide array of books, films and articles in major media outlets such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have helped educate the public about the U.S. food system.

Consistent with this growing consumer and farmer interest, organic dairy sales are on the rise. Sales of these products grew to $4.6 billion in 2012, a 7.1 percent increase compared to 2011. Furthermore, organic dairy represents 15.7 percent of total organic food sales.1 Part of this may be attributed to a growing number of consumers who only purchase organic dairy. One quarter of parents buying organic milk in 2013 say they “always” buy organic dairy, which is up seven percent compared to 2011.

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This continued growth is not surprising when considering the extent to which organic has become mainstream. In 2012, nearly three-quarters of consumers said they purchased an organic food or beverage in the past three months. Adoption and consumption of organic products is only likely to increase along with the Millennial generation, adults born between 1977 and 1998, who now make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. population.

More Millennials have grown up with and place more value on organic products versus previous generations. Moving forward, they will continue to fuel industry growth as they begin to have families of their own, an important trigger for the adoption and increased consumption of organic food and beverage products, especially organic dairy.

What do these trends mean for farmers? With consumer demand and organic sales on the rise, the demand for organic farmers continues to grow, making value-added dairy opportunities available to more farmers. Currently there is demand for organic dairy farmers in the East, Midwest and Southwest.

For those farmers considering a transition to organic farming, it’s important to recognize that a conversion period is required for crop land, pasture and cows, and that a USDA accredited organic certifier must be selected. A key requirement for organic animal agriculture is that all organic ruminant systems must be pasture-based, meaning livestock must actively graze on a daily basis during the grazing season, have access to the outdoors and not be confined during the non-grazing season.

The benefits of organic agriculture may well be worth the transition. According to the USDA, organic farms have higher average sales than conventional farms. Additionally, a value-added farming model like organic is based on supply and demand. Pay prices are known ahead of time and farmers have seen improvements in soil and water quality. PD

Suzanne Kevlyn is Associate Director of Consumer Insights at Horizon Organic. Suzanne has more than 20 years of consumer research experience, as well as master’s degrees in both psychology and marketing research from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

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