Organic Farming Programs Can Be Eye-Opening

Organic farmer on tractor
Photo courtesy of California Certified Organic Farmers

The need for more organic produce growers is easily evident by looking at two sets of statistics, both of which are rising: sales of organic fruits and vegetables, and the age of the average grower.

Organic food sales in the U.S. have shown double-digit growth during most years since the 1990s, and this trend shows no sign of slowing. Annual growth in the nation’s organic food sales has generally exceeded 10% since the 2008 recession, according to USDA. U.S. organic food sales approached an estimated $37 billion in 2015, up 12% from the previous year.

When it comes to the top organic food sales, fruits and vegetables dominate. Fresh fruits and vegetables have been the top selling category of organically grown food since the organic food industry started retailing products more than 30 years ago, and they now account for nearly half of U.S. organic food sales.

Many think of organic sales as more of a direct sales experience, which is understandable, as that is where the movement blossomed. The number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. has grown steadily from 1,755 markets in 1994, when USDA began to track them, to nearly 10,000 today. But now, all major chain stores such as Walmart and Costco have huge organic food sections.

The U.S. also has a growing export market for organic products. Nearly three dozen organic exports, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, are currently tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau, and their value topped $500 million in 2014.

Growers Graying

The average age of the American fruit and vegetable grower is about 60. Though many growers that age have made the move into growing organic produce — the much larger returns are pretty difficult to miss — many of those involved in organic farming thought there was a need for fresh blood.

Among them was California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), one of the first organic certification programs in the country. In 2014, CCOF launched the Future Organic Farmer Grant Fund.

Jessica Beckett Parr
Jessica Beckett Parr

“Our board recognized that the majority of households are now buying organic foods, and our membership — which is primarily vegetable and fruit producers — report that they cannot keep up with consumer demand,” says CCOF Foundation Manager Jessica Beckett Parr.

“Both in talking with our membership and seeing it in the media, it was obvious there are quite a bit of shortages.”

It seemed clear the CCOF should help provide incentives for young people to get into organic farming, she says.

“Besides the supply issue, you have the graying of farmers across the country,” Parr says. “We needed to incentivize people to get into not just farming, but also organic farming, because it is different. From our perspective, there is a huge opportunity for young people.”

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