More Ohio farmers go organic

The Columbus Dispatch

10/15/2015

By JD Malone

More Ohio-grown organic produce should be finding its way to supermarkets as an increasing number of the state’s farmers turn to this method of growing in a nod to consumer demand.

Though the image of organic farming is one of back-to-the-land hobbyists raising heirloom vegetables for farmers markets, Ohio’s organic farms have found that what was once a niche is now an industry.

The state’s organic farmers added 12,000 acres to their more than 500 farms and doubled sales between 2008 and 2014, the only two years of full U.S. Department of Agriculture census data on organic farming nationwide.

Another sign of Ohio’s organic farming growth is that 25 percent of organic operators get all of their income from their farm, up from just 14 percent in 2008. Last year, 34 of Ohio’s organic farms had sales of $500,000 or higher, more than double the number in 2008.

“A lot of farmers are seeing that there is a tremendous amount of potential in the organic market,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy program coordinator at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “We have seen more growth in demand than supply. The market opportunity is just incredible.”

Ohio’s organic producers grow peppers, squash and tomatoes, cut flowers and herbs. They make pickles, grow microgreens indoors and raise sheep. They also grow some organic corn and soybeans for animal feed. But the big growth in Ohio’s organic production has been in dairy and eggs, two longtime Ohio specialties.

Ohio’s organic milk production, with $36.6 million in sales last year, makes up more than 40 percent of the state’s entire organic production.

Perry Clutts converted his family’s 116-year-old crop farm near Circleville into an organic dairy, and he’s never looked back.

“We transitioned in 2007, and it has been nothing but asking for more and more milk,” he said.

Clutts sells to Horizon, one of the largest organic dairies in the nation. When his family’s tenant farmer retired, Clutts wanted to invest in something with a bright future. He knew his family’s farm, with its poor soil, couldn’t compete with conventional growers. He saw potential in organic products.

“Demand wasn’t great in 2007, but it looked like an opportunity,” he said. “It looked like something that would be around for awhile. I figured people would be more interested over time than less interested in these products.

“I wish I could pick things as well at Scioto Downs.”

Organic egg production has seen hockey-stick growth. The segment had sales of about $2 million in 2008 and grew to more than $17 million last year — about 19 percent of the state’s total organic sales. Ohio is home to enormous egg operations and trails only Iowa in egg production, so it makes sense that farmers here exploit an opportunity when they see it.

“It depends on consumer trends. If the consumers are asking for more (organics), farmers like us will continue to produce more organics,” said Lisa Timmerman, egg division manager for Cooper Farms in Fort Recovery, in western Ohio. “We are seeing a strong market for organics.”

Cooper Farms produces regular white eggs, cage-free eggs and about a year ago added organic eggs. Organic now makes up 5 to 6 percent of its egg business, Timmerman said.

Finding partners and making sure its operation met organic standards has been pretty smooth so far, Timmerman said. The company contracts with local farmers in Indiana and Ohio for its organic eggs.

“The key is that no matter what kind of eggs, cage-free, conventional or organic, farmers will be willing to produce what the consumers want,” she said.

Though it is growing in leaps, organic farming is a tiny fraction of the state’s agricultural footprint.

Ohio has about 75,000 farms and more than 10 million acres in production. The value of Ohio’s bounty tops $10  billion a year.

Lipstreu sees Ohio’s strength in conventional farming as a boon to its future organic growth. A lucrative organic grain market — for high-demand organic meats — could attract more of Ohio’s large, experienced grain farmers into organic production, especially as prices for conventional corn and soybeans continue to fall.

The U.S. imported more than $1.4 billion in organic foods in 2013, according to the USDA. A lot of that food, such as bananas and coffee, can’t be grown here. Soybeans and wine, of which the U.S. has abundant conventional producers, are also leading organic imports because demand far outstrips domestic supply.

Organic grapes won’t likely be a major Ohio crop, but Lipstreu sees grains like soybeans, wheat and corn as the next big growth area for organic farmers.

“We have seen some farmers split operations, doing both organic and conventional, testing it out,” she said. “There is a huge opportunity there.”