WASHINGTON — Organic is no longer a niche market. This sentiment was expressed by several stakeholders from the organic industry at the recent US Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum.

One of those stakeholders, Ryan Koory, vice president of economics at Mercaris, a data mining and trading platform company for the organic industry, said during the forum’s Organic Outlook session that organic food sales have grown 9% per year since 2009 compared with an annual growth rate of only 3% for conventional food sales over the same time period.  Mr. Koory also noted that in 2020, many categories of organic food grew about 11% while organic meat, poultry and fish grew almost 25%. And, despite limited access to products, a soaring inflation rate, and the consensus that organic food carries a price tag that is generally 10% to 30% higher than conventionally mass-produced foods, consumer demand for organic options remains positive.

Consumer demand for organic products, Mr. Koory said, is driven by many factors.

“Today’s consumer is looking for products that provide more than just nutrition,” he said. “They’re looking for things that have other benefits whether they be biological or social. Organic ticks a lot of those boxes.”  

Mr. Koory also commented on the growing strength of organic acreage. From 2020 to 2021, data collected by Mercaris showed US acres dedicated to organic field crops grew 7.1%, approximately 3.6 million acres, led by expansion in oilseeds and pulses. Soybean crop production is expected to have a record-breaking year with harvests projected at 9.4 million bus, Mr. Koory said. Corn, the organic industry’s largest and most well-established crop, had the smallest year-over-year growth last season. Mr. Koory does not expect the corn crop to grow much larger since the soybean market is expected to siphon off acres to meet rising demand. Also, Mr. Koory mentioned conventional corn farmers have now started using chicken manure, a common fertilizer used by organic corn producers, making it less available and more expensive to access.

While it may not have the most expansion, organic corn is, for the most part, domestically self-sufficient. Other organic crops, however, rely on imports to meet US demand, especially the bullish soybean market. But finding countries that comply with the USDA’s National Organic Program standards, and given current events in Eastern Europe, accessing organic products from abroad is becoming more challenging.

India, for instance, supplied 38% of US organic soybean meal in 2019-20, according to Mercaris. On March 31, 2021, the Organic Soybean Processors of America filed a petition with the US Department of Commerce and the US International Trade Commission alleging that the Indian government was selling organic soybean meal at less than fair value. The United States went from importing the equivalent of 15.5 million bus worth of soybean meal to just 1.5 million bus worth, Mr. Koory said.

Countries along the Black Sea region, including Ukraine, were also export partners of organic crops, including soybeans, but the current war in that region has complicated things.

“There’s a big difference between a short-term hurricane and a long-term war,” said Jennifer Tucker, deputy administrator for the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Approximately 1.1 million acres of organic field crops are present in Ukraine, and failure to access those crops would be a significant loss for the global organic market, Ms. Tucker claimed.

The opportunity is ripe for US farmers to respond to the expanding demand for organic products, but transitioning a conventional farm into an organic operation is a complex procedure. Amy Bruch, owner and operator of Cyclone Farm, Inc., said the process includes a waiting period of 36 months from the last application of synthetic fertilizer/pesticide, which can consequently reduce a farmer’s output. Plus, there are standards and practices established and enforced by the USDA’s National Organic Program that must be followed for products to carry the USDA certified organic label.

Managing pests on organic farms is one of the most difficult tasks and requires a holistic approach, said Gabriel Hughes, a risk manager and entomologist with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

“Organic farmers need to think creatively about locating, identifying, isolating, and diminishing pest damage as opposed to just preemptively and continuously spraying broad swaths of chemicals before problems even arise,” Mr. Hughes said.

“Organic farming isn’t deploying one or two practices on your farm, it’s an entire systems approach,” said Ms. Bruch, adding that it’s an approach that has found a firm foothold in the foundation of US consumerism.