Going organic gaining steam
JOHN BUCHANANDespite skyrocketing U.S. sales of organic foods, to $21.1 billion in 2008 from $3.6 billion in 1997, increases in U.S. production of organic products are not keeping pace. And Florida trails other states in the number of certified organic farms and total organic crop acreage.
Published: July 4, 2012
Published: July 4, 2012
As a result, more than 60 percent of Florida specialty crop growers have expressed interest in organic growing, according to a December study from Gainesville-based Florida Organic Growers, a nonprofit education and certification organization founded in 1987.
"There is a steady and growing interest in both organic production and the organic marketplace," said Executive Director Marty Mesh.
The two main drivers of such increased interest are premium prices for organic products and the perceived environmental and health benefits of organic growing.
"The pricing premium that the organic market delivers for many crops is one of the main reasons for the interest," said FOG project coordinator Jose Perez, who trains farmers in organic processes and best practices.
FOG's Quality Certification Services arm provides USDA organic certification in 38 states and more than a dozen foreign countries.
Research from the Economic Research Service has documented that organic growers face higher production costs, Mesh said. "But when factored into gross receipts based on higher prices, the bottom line is that they have a better net return," he said. "And at the end of the day, what a farmer cares about is how much money he can make."
Marc Ellenby, owner of LNB Farms, founded in 1980, with 100 acres under cultivation at multiple locations in Homestead, decided 31/2 years ago to transition 15 acres to organic farming after attending a FOG workshop hosted by the University of Florida.
"We went to the seminar and immediately said, 'We can do this,' " Ellenby said. "And we did."
As of Nov. 1, LNB Farms will have completed the required three-year transition process and offer certified organic tropical fruits such as mamey, sapote, jackfruit and sapodilla. Ellenby is now planting red guava and passion fruit.
His primary motive has been the potential for higher prices, measured against the certainty of sustainability and safety.
"Higher profit margins are my hope," he said. "I'm not sure yet whether that is actually factual, because some of the crops we're growing are multi-ethnic crops."
LNB sells to Asian, Hispanic, Indian and Caribbean market segments nationally, with a focus on the Eastern Seaboard.
"And I'm not sure we'll ever see a pricing premium in those markets," Ellenby said. "Organic products are more important in the 'American' marketplace, like Whole Foods stores. And part of the reason we decided to go organic is that we really want to bring these fantastic tropical fruits to American consumers. They're little-known, but they are phenomenal.
"For example, the people who shop at a Whole Foods market don't yet know what a sapodilla is. But I can give you six different ethnic names for sapodilla that are well known in our ethnic markets. Everybody knows about it. So, our ultimate goal is to cross over to American domestic consumers. And we felt we could more effectively cross over if we were identified as organic products."
At the same time, Ellenby said, there is no doubt about the veracity of the other major benefit of organic farming. "We care about our own health and we care about the health of our workers and consumers," he said.
And by reducing their exposure to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, he said, LNB is acting responsibly in an age of heightened concern for environmental responsibility and sustainability.
The FOG study found that 85 percent of respondents cited "the production of safe and nutritious food for the public" as the No. 1 reason for their interest in making a transition to organic farming, while 76 percent of respondents cited "personal concern for the environment."
Nevertheless, Mesh said, one of the conclusions that came from FOG's research was that many farmers feel they lack the information necessary to successfully make the transition to organic production.
For example, he said, there is not easy, widespread access to current, accurate information on workable alternatives to traditional fertilizers and pesticides or reliable, cost-effective methods for controlling weeds.
That need for comprehensive, detailed information is now a focus of educational initiatives at FOG and the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
FOG plans to host several organic farming workshops this fall.
For more information, call (352) 377-6345 or visit www.foginfo.org.
For information on IFAS resources, visit edis.ifas.ufl.edu.