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Transitioning to Organic Production

strips of interplanted row crops
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.

table of organic acreage and production

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