Home on the Organic Range: Consumer trends help save a fading piece of America

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A solemn bronze bust, eyes expressionless, stares out from the lobby of the Shawnee, Kansas, Civic Center. The title of the piece: The Vanishing American Farmer. Indeed, Shawnee has roots rich in agriculture, but the only farmers left in this suburban Kansas City town are the ones listed under "F" in the telephone directory.

Since 1969, more than 800,000 farms have disappeared from America's landscape, as large corporate operations consumed smaller family-owned farms. By 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that half of all U.S. farm production will come from only 1 percent of all farms. For those wanting to preserve the livelihood of the family farm, few options for survival remain. One of the most viable is organic and natural farming, most successfully performed on small plots rather than thousands of acres.

It's estimated that organic products alone will be a $6 billion economy by 2001, with sales of organic food growing between 20 percent and 25 percent annually. A Food Marketing Institute study reports that organic and natural foods are available at approximately 73 percent of grocery stores and supermarkets. Of shoppers surveyed in FMI's study, more than 50 percent said they purchase organic or natural foods at least once a month; 35 percent said they actively seek out products that are labeled as "organic"; and 63 percent look for products labeled "natural." Purchase of organic products is highest among consumers between 18 and 29 (31 percent), with a heavier concentration of sales in the West (34 percent), according to the 1998 Fresh Trends Report published by The Packer.

"Organic farmers are not immune to forces that have been systematically reducing the ranks of farmers from our communities for the past 100 years, but right now it is a more viable economic proposition," says Mark Lipson, an organic vegetable farmer and policy program director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation. "The organic industry is helping people stay in business that otherwise might not be."

And it's a young industry: 40 percent of organic farmers have been farming for less than ten years. The average age of an organic farmer is 47.5 years old, nearly seven years younger than his or her conventional farm counterpart. In addition to being young, organic farmers are also highly educated, due to the heavy reliance on information technology. In fact, 32 percent of certified organic farmers have completed college and 18 percent hold graduate degrees.

While a significant portion of conventional farms are switching, at least in part, to organic farming, 58 percent of certified organic farmers began farming with organic production, and only 40 percent made the transition from conventional farming. Becoming organic is not simple. True organic farmers must be certified by a third party, ensuring that every aspect of the food cycle, from planting to shipping, is completed without the use of prohibited pesticides and fertilizers. And before certification can be granted, a farm must undergo a three-year transition period in which only organic methods are employed, to purge the land of leftover fertilizers and pesticides.

Typically, organic farms are small - around 140 acres on average, compared to 487 acres for the average conventional farm. But organic goods fetch a premium price. The average cost per bushel of organic soybeans is $16.50, compared to the average price for a bushel of inorganic soybeans: just $6.47.

As the industry continues to grow and profit, boomlets can be found everywhere. Organic fiber - cotton in particular - gets good returns. Mainstream apparel companies, like The Gap, Nike, and Levi's, are developing programs to include organically grown cotton into their conventional products. In 1997, large apparel companies purchased 2.15 million pounds of organic cotton. Farmers in five states - Texas, California, New Mexico, Missouri, and Arizona - led the production of U.S. organic cotton, more than 4 million pounds in 1998.

Clothing may be the most obvious use for organic cotton, but it's not the only application. Consumers can buy everything from organic cotton make-up removal pads to ear swabs, bedding, diapers, and stationery. Organic cottonseed oil can be used to bake Grandma's organic whole-wheat tofu chocolate chip cookies. Cottonseeds can be sold as feed for organically raised animals.

The USDA recently reversed a ban on labeling meat "organic," and while most experts think it will be months before organic meats arrive at the market, ranchers are eager to distinguish themselves in the same way their produce-producing counterparts have done.

Bison, raised without the growth hormones, antibiotics, or stimulants used on most beef cattle, is one meat expected to appeal to the natural-food shopper. Over the past 20 years, the National Bison Association has seen herds grow between 16 percent and 20 percent annually, a figure expected to continue well into the future. Buffalo meat is considerably more expensive, as well: A buffalo heifer calf sells for an average of $2,409 at auction, while a beef heifer calf sells for about $300 at auction.

Organic meats will have substantial impact on the rest of the organic community, says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Organic meat labeling will increase the demand for organic feed and organic compost. "We'll see these markets go from their current levels of between $100- and $200 million to $1 billion overnight," he says.

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