PORTLAND — The escalating market demand for organic food has resulted in “almost a gold rush mentality” among producers seeking to transition their acreage and get certified, a speaker at the Oganicology gathering said.
“When anything approaches mainstream, we know what happens,” said Drew Katz, who coordinates Oregon Tilth’s work of helping farmers transition from conventional to organic production. “When it becomes really popular it loses its intrinsic value.”
In workshops and presentations during the Feb. 2-4 event, other speakers repeated multiple concerns. Perhaps chief among them: Organic’s rapid growth might come at a cost as big companies elbow their way into the market.
Katz said some Oregon growers are concerned that more organic production means they won’t be able to find sources of chicken manure, for example, or will get outbid for it.
More worries? Some U.S. farmers missed an opportunity tied to the soaring demand for organic meat and eggs. Foreign producers of organic feed jumped in with cheap soy and corn.
Meanwhile, organic sales increased to $6.2 billion in 2015, a 12 percent gain over the previous year, but the number of organic farmers dropped and organic acreage was essentially flat except for the addition of a gigantic organic livestock ranch in Alaska, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
One more: Millennials, those 18- to 34-year-olds, account for 52 percent of organic purchases.
“It would be shortsighted if we strive only to fill the shopping baskets of millennials and be happy at that,” said Katz, of Oregon Tilth.
He and other speakers said organic producers need to tackle the problems in a variety of ways. The industry needs more processors, distributors and storage capacity in addition to more farmers, they said, and should be telling the public about organic’s broader impact.
Katz said organic production can be an economic driver in rural areas, and while not a “silver bullet” for climate change problems, it can be a factor in reducing the effect.
Most speakers and attendees appeared to favor the “transitioning to organic” certification label hammered out by the Organic Trade Association and USDA. Such a label might allow farmers who are in the second-year of the required three-year transition, for example, to label their products that way and perhaps gain the higher price people pay for organics. Backers see the transition label as an “on-ramp” into the organic market.
Michael McMillan, sourcing manager with Organically Grown Company, said the industry needs to do “end to end supply chain engineering,” and market the value of the “social justice work” connected with growing food organically.
Other efforts are more localized. Erin Silva, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Extension program, said the university now offers a short course on organic grain production. It’s aimed at “traditional farm kids” who come from conventional farming backgrounds, she said. The course attracted 10 students the first year and double that this year, she said.
Organicology, held every two years, attracts a mix of organic growers and processors, buyers from grocery chains, activists, distributors and others. About 1,100 people attended this year’s event, which was held at the Portland Hilton.