BY BRIDGET MACDONALD – MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
Acknowledging that organic food is no longer an anomaly in American supermarkets, Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced Thursday that the agency will conduct the first-ever Organic Production Survey this spring in order to gauge the breadth of organic agriculture in the United States.
While the term “organic” was once associated with health food stores and most often applied to fresh fruits and vegetables, consumers can now wash down organic Oreo cookies with organic Hood milk, or enjoy a wholesome meal of organic Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
A clearer picture of this booming sector is certainly warranted. In the 2002 Census of Agriculture, the value of organic sales amounted to $392 million from 11,998 farms. By 2007, sales had swelled to $1.7 billion, with only 800 more certified producers in the game.
Delayne Reeves of the Illinois Department of Agriculture pointed out there is not a lot of detailed information on the state’s organic sector, and said the survey will provide a useful snapshot of the industry’s growth. In terms of federal dollars allotted for agricultural programs, she said accurate data “allows us to compete.”
One of the main obstacles for farmers is the cost of certification. Reeves said the expense varies depending on the scale of an operation, but can be prohibitive, noting that there are likely quite a few producers in the state who grow according to organic guidelines, but are not certified.
“Even if they are totally following the guidelines, it’s just a matter of legally using the logo,” she explained. To offset the expense, the Illinois Department of Agriculture has developed a cost-share program to reimburse producers and handlers for certification expenses.
Reeves said as of now, there is a potentially higher price premium for organics, but added as more producers become certified and inputs become easier to obtain, the prices are likely to come down.
But there is room for growth, said Reeves, noting that for organic products, “The space on the grocery store shelves has increased.”