Business of Ohio’s organic farms is growing

The Columbus Dispatch, JD Malone, 11/2/17

Ohio’s big corn and soybean farmers haven’t seen much in the way of sales growth the past few years, but that can’t be said for some of the state’s smaller players — those who produce organic produce, grains and dairy products.

Ohio’s organic farmers reported sales of $101 million in 2016, a 30 percent jump from 2015, while both the number of organic farms and acreage grew year over year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Certified Organic Study. Ohio ranks seventh nationally in number of organic farms — 575. That’s up from eighth in 2015.

“The 2016 survey illustrates the strength of organic production and sales in the state,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, in a news release.

“Organic” is a designation for food and other products produced under specific guidelines, including which fertilizers and pesticides can be used on crops and how much pasture and outdoor access animals have, enforced by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

For example, organic practices bar the use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, and the housing of animals completely indoors.

Ohio has more than 54,000 acres in organic production, which is tiny by agricultural standards, given that Ohio’s largest commodity crop, soybeans, covers more than 4 million acres. But given that organic farming only really put down roots fairly recently, it has been an achievement.

Byron Kauffman was one of the state’s pioneers in organic farming. He started growing organic crops 25 years ago on his Mac-O-Chee Valley Farm in West Liberty. He worked as a school teacher and farmed as a side gig because it was something he felt strongly about.

“There were not too many markets for products back then. You really had to search for a place to sell your goods,” Kauffman said. “That is not so much the way it is now.”

The number of venues has grown from just farmers markets and specialty grocers decades ago to major chain groceries.

Sales of organic products, especially of food, have grown by double digits every year for at least two decades, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic food sales are growing at about triple the rate of ordinary food. Overall organic sales jumped from $3.6 billion in 1997 to more than $43 billion in 2015.

Kauffman has grown a lot of crops over the years, from soybeans and oats to spelt and popcorn. Popcorn has become his niche. Surprisingly, spelt is something of a hit in Ohio. The state has more spelt growers than any other.

“It’s a good crop,” Kauffman said of spelt, a type of wheat prized for its nutritional value. “It’s vigorous and competes well with weeds.”

He worries now that organic food has become so popular that he is now competing with foreign sources of crops like spelt.

Ohio’s other big organic crops are milk — the state ranks ninth in the United States for its production — as well as eggs and vegetables.

Overall, the United States experienced a 23 percent rise in sales by organic farms in 2016, totaling more than $7.5 billion.

California is by far the leader in number of farms and sales. Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania and Iowa round out the top five states for organic farming.

Kauffman has enjoyed the boom in organic production, and he thinks it has moved from fad to trend as more people have embraced organic food.

“At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it, and it just became more and more as the market grew,” Kauffman said.

“In one sense, I am not surprised because the demand for healthier food is real now,” he said. “It’s a good thing for everybody.”