changes in the organic farm sector

While searching for some data, I found the latest release of USDA’s Organic Production Survey. The new data – for 2011 – is the second year of NASS’s targeting organic producers in the United States. I feel a bit sheepish for not having seen it until today (it was released in October!).

I crunched a few numbers to get a sense of how the organic farming sector has changed over the past three years. Of course, there are a few survey changes that agencies always do (and always annoy the user). I noted two big changes between 2008 and 2011: one, the 2011 data only covers certified organic farms, while the 2008 data covers exempt and certified farms (recall that farms that follow the standards set by the NOP but have sales below $5,000 in a year are exempt from the certification requirement). This change is a problem because the book I have for the 2008 survey seems to only report the number of farms and total sales for certified and exempt farms; the 2011 data is just for certified. Thus, we can’t track the change in the number of farms certified and their sales (well, people with access to the individual data can, but we can’t!). NASS did report the number of certified farms and sales by category (fruits, eg) for both years though, so we can do some digging.

The second change is one for the best – in 2008, the total for the field crop category wasn’t reported; instead, NASS reported farms and sales by each product. I have added the numbers for 2008 to see if I can compare to the 2011 data, and they don’t make sense (at least the number of farms doesn’t), so we can’t view that shift either. I remember being really cranky in 2009 when I was fiddling with field crop data, and had to enter tons of numbers in my spreadsheet.

So here is a quick comparison between 2008 and 2011:


2008 2008 2011 2011
farms sales* farms sales*
certified farms 9,140
farms with sales 8,516 3,532
vegetables 2498 685 1,966 1,072
fruit, exc berries 2272 411 1,664 485
tree nuts 391 31 309 47
berries 939 82 725 125
field crops 0.5 3,187 465
milk cows 1617 33 1,778 39
beef cows 367 6 332 8
other cattle/calves 1596 54 1,894 72
hogs & pigs 139 4 87 5
sheep & lamb 72 0.817 32 1
goats 45 0.144 34 0
layers 180 2 143 3
broilers 168 196 143 115
turkeys 85 9 68 23

* millions of dollars
Note: farms are reported in numbers, sales in dollars (millions)
Sources: National Agricultural Statistical Service, USDA; Organic Production Survey (2008) and Organic Production Survey (2011).

The one sweeping generalization that I quickly reached is that the number of certified farms with sales declined between 2008 and 2011 for most, but not all of the commodity categories. At the same time, the value of sales increased for most categories, even for those with a decline in the number of farms. Several possible explanations come to mind: (1) farms exited the organic industry after 2008 because of the recession; (2) farms grew larger in terms of acres, which I can check (but haven’t yet); (3) the value of farm sales increased because prices farmers were paid increased, or because they were more productive, or a combination.

I also noted the growth in the value of turkey sales – perhaps this is related to the new trend of heritage turkeys? In any case, it seems like a good, money-making opportunity for farmers.

About 1/2 of the value of farm sales (47 percent) is for vegetables, fruits and berries.

The number of organic farms reported by USDA from the survey is less than the nearly 13K certified farms in 2008 reported by ERS. Still, I can’t imagine that 3,000 farms exited the sector, so it would be interesting to see why these large differences still exist.

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6 Responses to changes in the organic farm sector

  1. George Kalogridis says:

    Thanks for doing the hard work

    Some notes of interest, organic bagged salad are 11+% of total (conventional & organic) bagged salad sales driven by T&A

    Berries sales are driven by Driscoll’s

    Drought brought higher prices but lower volume in field crops.

  2. parke says:

    That’s very informative! It was difficult to discern what results were most notable in the original report.

    • George Kalogridis says:

      From an economic standpoint Organic data: either from the Organic Trade Associations annual survey, (they don’t see the need for quarterly reports), retail sales, (which don’t include Whole Foods or Wal-Mart) or USDA ; is very much like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces.
      The reason for data gaps are most of the data is driven by marketing people, which the exception of ARS, there are simply no economist working in organics. You are doing a great service to the organic community.

  3. Gustavo says:

    Curious what the new data show about yields and the debate about whether organic farming is a viable alternative to input-intensive agriculture. What do you make of these?

  4. Britt says:

    I’m wondering about the decline in farm #s between 2008 and 2011 that you show in the chart. Is it possible that the decline is simply because the 2011 #s don’t include exempt operations? You say earlier that USDA doesn’t separate out exempt operations in their numbers for 2008, which prevents you from making any overall conclusions about the change in the # of farms.

    • admin says:

      Those numbers are not directly comparable since one captures exempt and certified farms, and the other captures just certified farms. It is too bad they didn’t collect exempt and certified in 2011, and report them separately. I am not sure if NASS has the funds to conduct this survey again, but hopefully they do and we’ll see what is happening to the number of farms. Another cross check is the NOP list of certified organic farms; once the end of the semester rush is over, I might check that source.

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