Organic farms grow in Idaho, nationwide
The number of acres under organic production more than doubled in the United States in the 1990s.
Participation in the Idaho Department of Agriculture's Organic Program has increased by about 20 percent a year since 1990.
"It's consumer-driven," said Margaret Misner, manager of the Idaho Department of Agriculture's Organic Program. "People are looking for alternatives and organic produce is an alternative."
MaryJane Butters, owner of Paradise Farm Organics in Moscow and a national authority on organic farming, sees both good and bad in those statistics.
While it might seem large jumps in organic production would be entirely positive, "it also means some very big lobbying powers are stepping into that niche," Butters said.
A large portion of the increase in organic production is the result of companies like General Mills getting in on the organic trend because there is a profit to be made, she said.
"They saw this market was growing and they moved on it with the vengance of a big corporation," she said.
In the first year of the Idaho organic program, 11 applicants sought certification for 750 acres. Last year, more than 170 applied to the program and the number of acres in organic production jumped to about 100,000.
Nationwide, more than 1.3 million acres are under organic production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.
"It's definitely increasing," said Dani Vargas, produce manager of the Moscow Food Co-op in Moscow.
The co-op, which sells about $20,000 worth of produce a month, saw a 37 percent increase in produce sales last year.
Vargas said she has seen an increase in demand as well as the availability of organic foods.
Idaho's primary organic products are apples, barley, beans, carrots, herbs, lettuce, peaches, potatoes, squash, wheat, wild rice, alfalfa, milk and beef.
Butters was part of the advisory group that developed Idaho's organic standards, which she said are among the highest in the nation.
"Those of us who started the organic movement from a grassroots level will have to remain vigilant to see that the standards remain high," Butters said.
To be certified organic, produce must be grown in soil that has been free of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics or other synthetic materials for at least three years prior to harvest.
Organic growers in Idaho and other states have been certified by private and governmental agencies since 1990.
By October, the various certifying agencies, including the Idaho Department of Agriculture, must meet national organic standards which were put in place last year.
Also this year, growers with annual sales of $5,000 or less may register as "organic" rather than "certified organic" growers, Misner said.
Far more acres of fruits and vegetables are grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides that are not officially "certified organic" under the program.
For years, the Moscow Food Co-op has purchased everything from potatoes to blackberries from area residents, which are sold as "local no-spray" produce.
Butters said true organic farming should mean more than simply growing food without chemicals.
"We're seeing those big companies moving into the organic marketplace," Butters said. "For them it's not a way of farming, it's a marketing niche."
Butters said the challenge will be to see that high standards for organic agriculture aren't watered down for the benefit of General Mills or other food industry giants.
"Organic shoppers want to know who their farmers are," she said. "And that will be our saving grace."