Before the advent of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and modern mechanized farming methods, all agricultural products could have been considered organic. But with increased concerns about environmental and health effects, organic products are steadily gaining wider acceptance among mainstream consumers and producers.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic farming has been one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture for more than a decade. There were fewer than 1 million acres of certified organic farmland in the United States when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, but certified organic farmland had doubled by the time the USDA implemented national organic standards in 2002 and doubled again between 2002 and 2005. Organic livestock sectors have grown even faster.
— Timothy Young, President, Food For Thought
However, organics still represent a minuscule fraction — less than 1 percent — of the nearly 800 million acres of American agriculture.
In 2005, for the first time ever, all 50 states had at least some certified organic farmland. That year, U.S. producers dedicated more than 4 million acres of farmland to organic production — 1.7 million acres of cropland and 2.3 million acres of rangeland and pasture — and anecdotal evidence suggests it has grown ever since.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, Michigan was 14th among the 50 states in the number of organic agricultural operations and 20th in number of organic acres devoted to crops and pastureland in 2005.
California was the leading state in certified organic cropland, with more than 220,000 acres dedicated mainly to fruit and vegetable production. Other top states for certified organic cropland were North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas and Idaho.
More than 40 states also had some certified organic rangeland and pasture in 2005, although only four states — Alaska, Texas, California and Montana — had more than 100,000 acres each. The USDA lifted restrictions on organic meat labeling in the late 1990s, and the organic poultry and beef sectors have expanded rapidly.
Source: USDA Economic Research Service
With the increase in the number of producers and the availability of "organic" foods to consumers, it's important to explain just what organic is, and what it is not.
Five years after the passage of the federal law that established standards and regulations for organic products, the following definition of "organic" was passed by the National Organic Standards Board in April 1995:
"Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony. 'Organic' is a labeling term that denotes products produced under the authority of the Organic Foods Production Act (of 1990). The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole.
"Organic agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from air, soil and water. Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of organic agricultural products. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."
Despite the emphasis on health, the definition also notes that "the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program is a marketing program and makes no claims that organic farming is 'better' in any respect than conventional farming."
The USDA's national organic standards should be considered in two parts: first, the verification system that includes certification of organic agricultural products and accreditation of certifying agents; and second, the production, handling and labeling standards under which organic agricultural products are produced and sold.
The NOP is consistent with internationally accepted guidelines for certification and accreditation. However, NOP requirements for production, handling, labeling and allowed or prohibited materials differ significantly from those of other countries, such as in the European Union, particularly in livestock production standards.
For example, the U.S. has no restrictions on irradiation in the production and handling of organic food, there are no restrictions on the source of manure and a producer may not list more than three ingredients/food groups on product labeling.
In order to become a certified organic operation, a producer must submit an Organic System Plan to a USDA-accredited certifying agent for approval. The OSP is a detailed description of how the operation will achieve, document and maintain compliance with all applicable provisions of NOP regulations.
Specifically, the organic label designates a set of farming practices and is not an indicator of "natural" food or any specific nutritional benefits. "Organic" is not synonymous with "natural." There is nothing in the U.S.D.A.'s National Organic Standards that defines or regulates the use of the term "natural," and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service regulates the term "natural" on meat and poultry labels.
"A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (use procedures that do not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural," according to FSIS definitions." urthermore, "The label must explain the use of the term 'natural' (such as: no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed)."
The "free range" designation makes no claim that the livestock actually lived or fed outdoors, but simply indicates that they had access to the outdoors after a period of confinement.
If a poultry producer and certifier determine that poultry needs to be temporarily confined for their health, safety and welfare, a provision of the USDA National Organic Program permits such confinement without loss of organic certification.
Organic Trade Association member companies in Michigan, 2008
CADILLAC PRODUCTS PACKAGING COMPANY
Troy (Packaging supplier)
CHARTREUSE ORGANIC HERBAL TISANES
ECO-SYSTEMS SUSTAINABLE EXHIBITS
Grand Rapids (Manufacturer, support services)
Macomb (Personal care retailer)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Beverly Hills (Support services)
Caro (Agricultural processor)
MAGGIE'S ORGANICS/CLEAN CLOTHES, INC.,
Ypsilanti (Organic fiber manufacturer)
Ann Arbor (Distributor, exporter, grower, importer, ingredient supplier, manufacturer)
ORGANIC POWER SOURCE LLC
Grosse Ile (Publisher)
PURITY FOODS INC.
XELA PACK INC.
Saline (Packaging supplier)
Source: Organic Trade Association
A GROWING TREND?
The organic movement has gone global, according to the Organic Trade Association, with at least 31 publicly traded national and international companies involved in manufacturing, processing or marketing organic products, including Campbell Soup Co., Chiquita, Whole Foods Market and even Nike. The Massachusetts-based trade group lists thousands of member and associate member companies involved in the organics industry, including more than a dozen members in Michigan, most of them in the southeast part of the state.
Many of these companies got into the organics business in the past eight to 12 years.
"Consumer awareness was a big challenge in the early years, but organic is now an established trend," said Timothy Young, president and chef of Food For Thought in the village of Honor, about 20 miles southwest of Traverse City.
Young founded his company in 1995, which now grosses about $1 million in annual sales and employs 10 workers.
Linda Shannon, president of Chartreuse Organic Herbal Tisanes of Trenton, which produces organic herbal teas, said the company grossed $30,000 in 2006, its first full year of operation. Since then, it has seen annual sales increases of 20 and 25 percent by selling to small, independent stores in 15 states.
"No one is taking a salary," Shannon noted. "Our goal is to get into larger markets like Meijer, Kroger and Whole Foods. We do sell to two Plum Markets in Ann Arbor and Bloomfield Hills, and a few IGA stores."
But there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome when trying to make a living by selling organic products.
"Price continues to be a challenge," said Food for Thought's Young. "When none of your costs are hidden, our products represent true costs which consumers are used to paying at the point of sale."
Shannon agreed. "The economy is the worst in 30-plus years, nationally and globally; small-business loans are hard to come by, and fuel costs over the past year have increased shipping costs for us and our customers," she said.
According to Young, "Based on the latest market research, organic is leveling off. Just why is debatable, but it's likely a combination of economic hardship and the proliferation of other social value marketing such as Fair Trade and the 'buy local' movement."
On the other end of the pipeline are the certified organic farmers who supply the manufacturers with raw materials.
Certified organic farms in Michigan can be found in specific pockets of traditional agricultural regions: in the northwest, southwest and midsection of the Lower Peninsula, as well as Marquette and Houghton counties in the Upper Peninsula.
The latest Michigan Department of Agriculture figures show 52 registered organic farms in 29 counties, concentrated in the Lower Peninsula's midsection and Thumb area, and on the Lake Michigan coastline.
Number of certified organic operations
in Michigan by county, 2008
Source: Michigan Department of Agriculture
Many farmers got into the organic act within the last 15 years or so, switching from traditional agricultural practices to certified organic acreage — a three-year process under MDA rules.
Michael Findlay, whose 2,000-acre farm near Caro is one of four certified organic farms in Tuscola County, has been in organics since about 1996.
"In the last two years we added 500 (acres); we're still transitioning that into organic," said Findlay, who grows spelt (a gluten-free grain that can be ground and used like flour), corn for feed, and several types of beans, including soy, black and snap.
Because organic crops represent such a small segment of the market, Findlay said he and other growers depend on each other to share information.
"My son and I have talked to growers from all over, around the state and places like Iowa," he said. "I picked up a couple of ideas just this fall and now I'm looking forward to next year so I can try them out. If one idea works, then that's enough."
Findlay's brother Bruce had been a conventional sugar beet grower since 1978 but he, too, decided to go organic in 1996. He now raises 750 acres of spelt, corn, soybeans, dry beans and clover seed.
Bruce Findlay said the lack of a marketing network for organic crops forces growers to work hard to develop partnerships with buyers.
"There's no real infrastructure there like on the conventional side," he said. "I have to find a buyer, and I've established two or three I like to work with, and we have to establish a price, and the point of delivery could be Michigan or Pennsylvania.
"It's evolving but it will take some time," he added. "I doubt there will ever be a Chicago Board of Trade for organics because it is such a small part of the market. With the Internet I can look at market prices guys are getting in New York or different regions of the country."
Fruits and vegetables are a big part of organic farming, and Almar Orchards in Flushing has been very successful in creating a high demand for its products in a short period of time.
"Since 2002 we brought small blocks in at a time and we've been totally organic for three years; before that we'd been in business since 1946," said manager Dick Alday.
Almar grows 20 varieties of apples on its 125 acres, along with organic tomatoes, pumpkins, squash and corn. Almar also raises organic pork.
Environmental concerns helped drive Almar's decision to go into organics.
"We were too small to stay with conventional (farming); we also wanted to clean up the orchard to help the environment because there's a creek that runs through here," Alday said.
The orchard is able to charge a little more for organics because of a crop of loyal customers, Alday said, and food co-operatives have turned out to be among the best of them.
"We established a good base of organic people, and a lot of our other people stayed with us because they liked our service," he said. "It's grown so much in the last five or six years."
Organic meats are also becoming more popular because organically raised livestock are grown without hormones, crowded living conditions or irradiation, which many consumers wish to avoid.
Graham Farms in Isabella County's Rosebush includes a meat-packing plant on its 850-acre operation for cattle, chicken and turkeys, and manufactures organic livestock feed that is delivered statewide.
"People who come here to buy our products aren't 'shopping' per se. They already want organics, and our clientele knows what we do," said owner James Graham. "There are more people looking at where their food is coming from."
Graham predicted the current economic downturn would only temporarily affect the long-term outlook for organic foods.
"I think it will slow it down or affect the growth, but I think in years to come the idea behind the organic food and the environment is going to be more prevalent," he said.
John and Suzanne Smucker, owners of Lamb Farm LLC in Manchester, went into organic meat production in 2000 with a consumer's point of view.
"We like to think beyond organics and look at the sustainability of the way it's raised on the farm," John Smucker said. "People are more concerned with the quality of the products; more big firms are entering the field and that's changing the quality."
The Smuckers raise about 200 sheep and 40 steers on 250 acres in southwest Washtenaw County. The cattle are not certified organic, John Smucker said, "but they are pasture-raised using organic principles."
"I think one of the things you're seeing is that organics is gaining more attention," he added. "There's more of a movement to buying local and understanding who the people are who are producing the food, and that perhaps is the next phase."
Roseland Organic Farms in Cassopolis is a 1,600-acre, second-generation operation that pioneered organic agriculture back in 1985 under the ownership of Merrill Clark.
"Dad had some land and was unhappy with what he was seeing in farming, and he had an interest in trying something different," said farm manager Lincoln Clark. "We were doing it before it was called organic, but he just didn't want to see all the chemicals and things go into the land.
"Later on it became more in style, more accepted, but back then he was the oddball."
The farm's organic beef, pork, hay, feed grain and vegetables were "literally unheard of in the stores," Lincoln Clark said.
"There were a lot of people who didn't fully understand what organic means. I sometimes wonder how we made it work — it's not easy still."
Despite the economic outlook, Clark believes that the growth of the organic food industry will continue as consumers desire more choice and transparency in their food purchases.
"People are looking more at buying locally grown so they can support a family, and they don't have to wonder where the food was raised," he said.
"I think there's a great interest in knowing where your food came from."
THE ORGANIC CERTIFICATION PROCESS
By Edward Freundl
Federal law allows for several options in establishing or following an organic certification program. If federal or state animal health authorities determine that stricter or more prescriptive actions are required, organic producers could be required to comply with these actions.
Option 1: A state may not establish its own State Organic Program or provide certification services under the national program. Under this option, organic growers may seek organic certification by any certifying agent accredited by the National Organic Program. The state would not be responsible for enforcement of the NOP; and enforcement would be shared jointly by the national program and the certifying agent.
Option 2: A state may choose to provide certification services under the NOP only. Under this option, the state would have to apply for accreditation. As an accredited certifying agent, the state would be responsible for conducting certifications, enforcing the production and handling standards of the NOP, and maintaining compliance with other applicable regulations of the national program. The USDA would be responsible for oversight of the state certifying agent. Organic producers and handlers within that state could choose to be certified by the state or any other accredited certifying agent.
Option 3: A state may choose to establish a state program. Under this option, all organic producers or handlers in the state would have to be certified according to the SOP, which would include the requirements of the NOP and the more restrictive provisions unique to that state and approved by the USDA. The state would assume enforcement responsibility, within its borders, for the requirements in the national standards and its SOP. However, the state may not initiate proceedings to suspend or revoke the accreditation of any USDA-accredited certifying agent; that authority is left to the USDA. Organic producers and handlers may seek and obtain organic certification from any certifying agent accredited under the NOP.