published on May 31, 2016 - 4:56 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff
Organics are the single-fastest growing segment in the food industry today — and more Central Valley farmers are taking notice.

At the most recent Fresno Food Expo in Central Valley, one nut company vendor said almost every buyer he talked to in wanted to know if his company had an organic product line. “Organic is red hot right now,” he said. “Buyers are willing to pay a premium if your product has that organic label.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture this month reported record growth in U.S. organic farming operations, with the Golden State continuing to lead the nation in organic output. Twenty percent of the country’s organic farms, more than 4,000 in all, are now located in California, according to the USDA.

Since 2014, the number of organic farms around the country has ballooned from 14,000 to nearly 22,000. And during the same time period, the total value of the country’s commercial organic output has jumped from $5.5 billion to $43 billion.

“2015 was a year of significant growth for the industry despite the continued struggle to meet the seemingly unquenchable consumer demand for organic,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Organic Trade Association (OTA).

According to Batcha, this year, even amid “supply challenges,” organic product sales in Central Valley are poised to register “their largest dollar gain ever.”

Fruits and vegetables continue to be the top selling major organic category, accounting for nearly 13 percent of all produce now sold in the U.S.

Dairy is the second-largest organic food category, capturing 15 percent of total dairy sales in 2015.

Non-food products, including clothing made from organic fiber and organic-based health supplements, are also growing exponentially, according to the OTA.

“Organic will continue to be the most meaningful farm-to-fork — and fiber—system,” Batcha said. “Right now, organic is a bright spot in agriculture and the American economy.”

The fact that major food retailers like Walmart and Costco now aggressively promote their organic product lines has certainly helped to supercharge organic sales.

Even U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged the recent boom. “Organic food is one of the fastest growing segments of American agriculture,” he said, calling the organic sector “vibrant” and adding that the burgeoning industry is “helping to create jobs and opportunities in rural America.”

Up to date information detailing organic operations around the U.S. is publicly available as part of the USDA’s recently launched Organic Integrity Database, a new system for tracking certified organic operations.

In the past, USDA published a list of certified organic operations updated once each year. With the new database, made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill, organic certifiers can add new operations and report changes to existing ones at any time.

The new system is also designed to provide data for market research and enable stakeholders to identify market opportunities and make supply chain connections in Central Valley.

According to Fresno County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Fred Rinder, requests from area farmers have doubled over the past year to begin the three-year certification process necessary to be recognized as an organic farming operation. (Among other rules and regulations, ag operators wishing to go organic cannot use pesticides on their properties for three years prior to being certified.)

“We are definitely seeing more requests for organic certs,” Rinder said, adding that the county does not break down organic versus non-organic output in its yearly crop report because of “cumbersome” and “possibly inaccurate and misleading” record-keeping differences between county and state systems.

But Rinder did report that new requests for three-year certifications for Fresno County’s three largest organic crops are booming, with the No. 1 organic crop, dried raisin grapes, up 20 percent from 2014. Almonds, at No 2, are up 50 percent from 2014, Rinder said, and processing tomatoes, the No. 3 most popular organic crop in Fresno County, are up a whopping 300 percent from 2014.

Asparagus is also up 200 percent in the past year — “Asparagus more or less came out of nowhere,” Rinder added. “Organic broccoli too.”

Meanwhile, pistachios seem to have gone in the other direction. “We haven’t received any requests for organic certs for pistachios in the past year,” Rinder said.

According to its most recent crop report, Kings County has more than two dozen organic producers working nearly 26,000 acres around the county. Those farmers are producing more than 70 organic crops including various nuts, tree fruits, vegetables, flowers herbs and field crops.

Madera County’s latest agricultural report reported 46 organic farms operating on more than 5,500 acres around the county, producing everything from organic popcorn and okra to table grapes and tree nuts. And in Tulare County, 90 certified organic growers are currently producing everything from organic citrus and grapes to olives and pomegranates.

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