||Growing an array of crops
remains one of the hallmarks of successful organic farming.
- Photo by Jerry DeWitt
When John Vollmer, a third-generation tobacco farmer in Bunn, N.C.,
decided to stop growing tobacco and start raising strawberries organically,
it was an unexpected move for someone who describes himself as a
"chemical-oriented farmer." Yet, Vollmer, whose main priority
was finding a way to keep the family farm in the family, recognized
that organic production might be a route to greater profits.
"It was not an easy transition for me to think in other ways,"
said Vollmer, a former agricultural chemical salesman. Yet, as he
read books on organic soil management, he soon found himself fascinated
by organic farming concepts. Over the next two years, he built soil
organic matter with composts and cover crops and carefully researched
organic techniques. Then he began his transition.
Since then, his two acres of organic strawberries have been so
successful that Vollmer brought another 25 acres into mixed fruit
and vegetable production using the same soil and pest management
techniques. While he has not certified that new acreage because
he still wants to apply agri-chemical sprays if needed, he now considers
himself more organic than conventional in the new field. In fact,
asked whether he has any doubts about organic farming, Vollmer replied
that he has only one: whether he should be transitioning those 25
acres now - or later.
Vollmer typifies the enormous changes that have occurred in organic
farming over the last 20 years. Two decades ago, it would have been
impossible to predict the huge expansion of the organic industry.
Since 1990, according to industry sources, growth in the organic
retail sector has equaled or exceeded 20 percent per year, compared
with 1 percent in the overall food industry. In 2005, according
to the Nutrition Business Journal, organic sales reached
$13.8 billion, accounting for approximately 2.5 percent of total
U.S. food sales. Following the establishment of federal USDA standards
for organic production in 2002, industry experts expect annual growth
of 20 percent well into the next decade.
"The food industry clearly continues to be excited about the
organic sector," said Catherine Greene, an Agricultural Economist
with the USDA Economic Research Service, who has been tracking growth
patterns of the organic industry since the late 1980s.
Fueling this rapid increase in organic sales are large numbers
of consumers who want organic food; according to a recent market
survey by SPINS, 68 percent of consumers have tried organic products.
Consumers also want organic foods across a wide range of categories,
including pre-packaged meals, salad dressings and even pet food.
In response to this explosive increase in demand, acreage in certified
organic cropland and pasture more than quadrupled between 1993 and
2005, according to USDA estimates. While organic acreage is still
only 0.5 percent of the total U.S. agricultural acreage, some production
sectors are much higher. For example, 3, 4 and 5 percent of all
apples, carrots and lettuce, respectively, are grown organically.