It’s no surprise to Jonathan Woodford that a new government survey ranks Ohio at No. 7 in the nation when it comes to its number of organic farms.
Woodford, who operates SugarWood Acres — the West Farmington farm his great-grandparents established that his family still owns — has seen evidence that interest in “growing organic” is increasing.
“Just in the past year to year-and-a-half, a lot of people seem to be transitioning to organic from conventional,” Woodford said. “I think a lot of it depends on the type of farming they’re doing, or amount of crops they’re growing and what they’re familiar with.”
Ohio is seeing double-digit growth in the number of organic farms, organic land in production and organic sales, illustrating the role of organic production in economic development, according to the 2016 Certified Organic Survey of U.S. organic farms. The report, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, shows Ohio’s organic sales increased by more than 30 percent since 2015 and the number of certified organic farms in Ohio is up by 24 percent. Since 2015, Ohio moved up from 8th to 7th in the nation in the number of organic farms.
As of Thursday, of the 18,262 farms certified organic, 952 were in Ohio and five were in Trumbull County, according to the USDA. California had the most with 4,903 and the District of Columbia had the fewest with nine.
Overall, the U.S. saw $7.6 billion in organic sales, as well as an 11 percent increase in the number of organic farms. More than 5 million acres of certified organic acreage are in production in the U.S., up 15 percent since 2015.
“The 2016 survey illustrates the strength of organic production and sales in the state of Ohio. Organic production continues to be a bright spot in U.S. agriculture,” said Amalie Lipstreu, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association policy coordinator. “As more farmers move land into organic production, it is important that we make sure we are doing all we can to support their success.”
For Woodford, 34, going organic seemed like a practical approach when he started running the farm about five years ago. Although he was raised on the land his family bought in the early 1930s, he said he “wasn’t really raised farming” and had “little to no” experience farming. There had been about a 15-year-gap from the time his grandfather retired until Woodford resumed operations.
This summer marked his fifth growing hay that is now certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
“I didn’t have a lot invested in equipment or supplies,” he said. “So, I could start from scratch. I didn’t have much money to put into it, so I just went the least expensive way I could and for me that was organic. I don’t have to add anything, so I don’t.”
Woodford works in maintenance for the Bristol Local School District, where his wife is a teacher.
His grandfather, who grew row crops, was a conventional farmer, using techniques that rely on technology, pesticides, chemicals and other synthetic, or man-made, tools to cultivate.
Woodford’s neighbor introduced him to growing organic, a farming approach that limits or excludes synthetic elements. Woodford uses chicken manure for fertilizer that isn’t chemical based. His farm, spread across 160 acres, where his grandmother, Martha Woodford, still lives, also produces maple syrup — a product his grandfather continued harvesting even after he retired. He has grown small grains like corn, wheat and oats.
To maintain his organic certification, Woodford follows national operating standards with a set of procedures and protocol.
Basically, each year he fills out about 30 pages of paperwork, sends it into the association, which then reviews it and sends out a certified inspector to walk the property and make sure he’s doing what he says he’s doing and following the necessary steps to operate an organic farm.
“I didn’t have fertilizer or the farming equipment you’d associate with conventional farming,” he said. “I was starting out fresh. My neighbor did organic farming and when I saw what was involved with both options I went with that. “
Woodford said his farm is part of the local supply chain, providing hay other area farms need to feed their animals.
“I think growing organic is still pretty new to a lot of people,” he said. “I can tell it’s been growing. You see more and more organic products in stores. There’s a market for it. Some people are afraid of conventional for whatever reason. They like seeing labels that say organic.”
Woodford said four out of five farms he delivers to along the same stretch of road are classified organic.
Despite the growth and strong consumer demand, investments in organic research through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Institute represent an average of just two-tenths of one percent of overall funding each year and Ohio has no extension educator positions dedicated to serving organic farmers.
“Organic production has not been able to keep up with demand, so this is a good time to review our agricultural funding as well as state and federal agency services to make sure investments are made in this growth industry so more Ohio farmers are equipped with the information, resources, and support they need to take advantage of this economic opportunity,”concluded Lipstreu.
Investments in organic farming could have larger economic impacts as well. According to a Penn State research paper on organic hotspots, on average, county poverty rates drop by 1.3 percent and median household incomes rise by more than $2,000 in counties with high organic activity that neighbor other high organic counties.
“I think many people go with what they know,” Woodford said. “If I were raised in conventional farming, and I was invested in that, I might have chosen that option. I’m not saying that conventional isn’t safe. I think a lot depends on what you’re farming, growing, producing and the amount.
“I personally stay with organic because it is natural. I can see the benefit. Hey, the earth has made it this far taking care of itself naturally. Why would I want to interfere with that?”