During the recent economic recession, the number of acres of certified organic cropland and pasture declined, but organic food sales continued to climb.
The USDA’s Economic Research Service, which tracks the U.S. organic industry, recently released several reports showing changes in both cropland and pasture acreage.
Fewer than 100,000 acres total were certified in 1992, and the number grew fairly steadily until 2008 through 2010, when acreage dipped as sluggish growth in consumer demand dampened the short-term outlook for organic producers, according to ERS analyst Catherine Green.
Since that downturn, acreage has rebounded, increasing to about 5.4 million in 2011.
Despite the fluctuation in acreage, demand for organic food has continued to grow, albeit at a slower rate than before. The USDA does not maintain official statistics on food sales, but industry data show a steady increase year over year.
In 2007, demand grew more than 15 percent, according to those data. That growth dropped to about 5 percent in 2009, and has recovered to about 10 percent annually, a pace projected to continue at least through 2014.
The market share of sales held by various food categories has been stable over the past decade. Produce (fruits and vegetables) and dairy are the top two categories, accounting for 43 and 15 percent of total organic sales in 2012.
That 43 percent is generated on only 16 percent of certified organic cropland. At the other end of the spectrum, hay is grown on 39 percent of certified land, yet accounts for only a quarter of 1 percent of organic sales.
The ERS report also looked at the international organic market , where both production and demand are growing, as is competition.
The U.S. imports tropical and semitropical crops like bananas and coffee, which totaled $353 million the first five months of 2013. Organic soybeans are also big imports, totaling $42 million in that time frame.
Big-ticket exports were led by apples, totaling $88 million the first six months of 2013, followed by lettuce ($45 million) and spinach ($16 million).