I recently read a news article claiming that, as of June 2016, a record 4.1 million acres of farmland in the USA was organic, up 11% over 2014; and that the number of certified organic farms rose 6.2 per cent to 14,979 over the same period. As a lifelong champion of organic agriculture, I was thrilled and wanted to know more.
The figures were attributed to a report by Mercaris, an online auction site for organic/GMO-free/other commodities that also prepares members-only reports using information from “many different information sources” including their own data on grain production.
Not being a member, I couldn’t access the Mercaris report, but its timing suggested that the authors may have used the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s (NASS) Certified Organic Survey 2015 report (COS), which had just been published in mid September 2016. Anyone can search the report online free of charge by downloading the full report. The report includes:
- 147 pages of raw data
- The blank survey
Alternatively you can read the executive summary, which is 34 pages of selected highlights with interpretation, including year-to-year comparisons.
According to the COS 2015, there were 12,818 certified organic farms in the US in 2015 (up 0.2% from 2014) encompassing 4,361,849 certified organic acres (up 19.74% over 2014). Hmm. Obviously not the same data set, but I liked the COS 2015 numbers too. Closer examination revealed, however, that the huge jump in certified organic acres was pretty much due to the certification of a single massive spread in Alaska (which went from 282 certified organic acres statewide in 2014 to 695,186 acres in 2015), and without that addition the number of certified organic acres was pretty much the same in 2015 as it had been in 2014. Sigh. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
So how accurate is the COS 2015 anyway?
NASS collects information directly from producers by mail, telephone, the Internet, or in-person interviews. They target all known certified organic producers in the United States. But participation is voluntarily and in this round only 60% of the farms contacted returned a completed survey… Oops. Some of the 40% who did not respond may have been too busy, others may have let their certification lapse, some others may have produced nothing in 2015 – but we have no information on them.
COS 2014 VS. COS 2015?
Tempting as it is to compare numbers from year to year, the COS reports vary from year to year. The COS 2015 report included only certified organic data, while the COS 2014 report included all organic data (certified, exempt, and transitioning). This means the 2014 data was a bit higher than it would have been had only certified data been used — so increases in numbers of farms and numbers of acres may have been slightly underreported.
Is there a better way to count organic farms and acreage?
The USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) leaves farmers out of the process and collects data directly from USDA-accredited certification groups. Unfortunately the latest year they offer data for is 2011 (see the ERS overview of organic agriculture). Their method isn’t foolproof either: if a farm has more than one certification it may get counted more than once, artificially inflating numbers.
Ultimately the number and acreage of certified organic farms may not really matter much. When it comes to measuring the growth of organic agriculture I would posit that what really matters is the production of usable product that is sold and makes it into the marketplace.
The ERS is on the ball when it comes to collecting and reporting data on production and sales of organic foods from a wide variety of sources, and the news is all good: production, demand, and sales of organic products have been growing by leaps and bounds and are expected to continue to grow rapidly. Organic food is increasingly easy to purchase and mainstream consumers are buying in. All in all, it’s a great time to be into organics.
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