by Marion Nestle
Apr 7 2014

USDA’s enthusiastic (?) support of organic production

The USDA, whose job is to promote industrial agriculture, is usually an  uncomfortable home for the National Organic Program, but occasionally says something nice about it.

A couple of weeks ago, the USDA announced how much the organic industry has grown and how much the agency is doing to promote it.

The organic industry, says USDA:

Comprises more than 25,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries.

Includes 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the United States alone, representing a 245 percent increase since 2002 (see list of certified USDA organic operations).

Enabled 763 producers to become certified organic in just 2013, an increase of 4.2 percent from the previous year.

Generated $35 billion in retail sales last year (this sounds like a lot but the food industry generates more than a trillion dollars in annual sales).

Here’s what the USDA says it’s doing to help organic farmers.

  • Providing access to conservation programs
  • Providing access to loans and grants
  • Funding organic research and education
  • Helping to mitigate pest emergencies.

And here’s what the farm bill is doing for organics:

  • $20 million annually for dedicated organic research, agricultural extension programs, and education.
  • $5 million to fund data collection on organic agriculture. t
  • Expanded options for organic crop insurance.
  • Expanded exemptions for organic producers who are paying into commodity “check off” programs.
  • Improved enforcement authority for the National Organic Program.
  • $5 million for a technology upgrade of the National Organic Program
  • $11.5 million annually for certification cost-share assistance to cover 75 percent of certification costs up to $750 per year.

Adds up to more than $40 million and sounds good, no?  Industrial agriculture gets $20 billion a year.

Organics are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. food supply and all too easy for USDA—and Congress—to ignore and not take seriously.

Upping sales would help.  A lot.


  • pawpaw

    For a recent discussion of USDA and organics, see presentations and discussion by Kathleen Merrigan, Chellie Pingree, and others at the Camden Conference: To paraphrase Merrigan, increased support for organics is one thing the new farm bill got right. As an organic grower, and participant in certain USDA programs, I’m hopeful about the new and ongoing commitments to organic. We meet tonight for our local farmers market planning; one topic of discussion is strategies to increase sales.

  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    I would like to know what food movement people think? Is the goal to have more products for them to buy that are “certified organic” or is the goal to have more organic practices incorporated on more farms? In Upstate NY, we have some 7,200,000 acres of farmland (1/3 of it devoted to forests and perennial pastures). Out of that only 165,000 acres are certified organic. When those of us dairy farmers who are doing our best to practice conservation, produce good clean milk, and take care of the land try to speak with food movement leaders, by and large they blow us off. I am exhausted from food movement people telling me they only drink organic milk and adamantly refusing to learn about deep rural NY. Please check the Plant Code on your milk carton at This week’s Stonyfield “organic” in our local Upstate stores was actually hauled in from Plant Code 06-01 (California). I also sick from the misinformation out on Stonyfield’s website. Why can’t food movement leaders actually speak to regular farmers?

  • hereatlast

    More sales would help, but is the market demanding organic? It isn’t clear that at a direct market level, the demand for organic is there.

  • pawpaw

    At the link I gave in my other comment, Merrigan and other speakers note importance of “both/and” thinking vs. “either/or”, as we look forward on wise stewardship of land and water.

  • Lorraine Lewandrowski

    Thanks, PawPaw! As columns of developments march upon the dairy farms Upstate in some areas, farmers are fighting for the land. In other parts of the state, there is massive farmland abandonment. 3,000,000 acres of former dairy farms stand empty or little used now. So much wild and pretty beauty out in deep rural NY. Unfortunarely food convos are centered mostly on local/organic. When will the wild and big landscapes ever be appreciated?

  • pawpaw

    Don’t want to post too often, but you asked yesterday:
    Demand exceeds supply for certain organic items at our direct market level, and is not price sensitive when quality is there. We choose to produce those organic items that return a decent profit, and are adapted to our region. Some are same as conventional price, others are priced higher to reflect our costs (mostly labor). We compete with hobby farmers, some of which ignore their labor when setting their conventional produce prices.
    Many customers shop for a story along with their food, but also for quality. Organic used to have the rap of poor quality/high price. We succeed when delivering high(est) quality (including appearance and taste), thereby making price secondary. Organic is one ‘story’, so is local/regional food; preserving greenspace and ecosystem stewardship are others. As in previous thread comments, we need to encourage both/and conversations over either/or.

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