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OTA: USDA organic survey shows importance of industry

The Agriculture Department on Thursday released a first-ever survey of U.S. certified organic agricultural production that the Organic Trade Association said proves the organic industry deserves more recognition.

“The 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey demonstrates the viability of organic production as a choice in American agriculture,” the Organic Trade Association said today in an email to The Hagstrom Report.

“With over $3.5 billion in farm-gate sales, organic ranks fifth among commodity classes and is larger than peanuts and cotton combined — organic truly deserves a seat at the policy development table,” the OTA said. “Our hope is lawmakers take this into account as they wrestle with an expired farm bill and critical organic programs that are effectively zeroed out going forward.”

The survey was conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service for the department’s Risk Management Agency to help refine federal crop insurance products for organic producers.

USDA-certified farmers and ranchers sold more than $2.2 billion in organically-grown agricultural commodities and more than $1 billion in livestock products in 2011, the survey showed.

Organic milk was the top livestock commodity last year, accounting for $765 million in sales, followed by chicken eggs and broiler chickens, earning $276 million and $115 million in sales respectively.

Corn led organic field crops in sales and accounted for more than $101.5 million in 2011, followed by alfalfa dry hay and winter wheat, accounting for $69.5 million and $54 million in sales respectively.

The survey said there are 9,140 organic farms in the United States and that 3.65 million acres were used to raise organic crops and livestock. Wisconsin is the biggest state in organic acreage, with more than 110,000 acres harvested in 2011, followed by New York with 97,000 acres and California with 91,000 acres.

Bloomberg noted in an article Thursday that the $3.5 billion, up from $3.16 billion in 2008, totalled 0.9 percent of total U.S. farm receipts and that the organic acreage amounted to 9.4 percent of the nation's 917 million acres of farm and ranch land.

According to the study, to qualify as organic, food must be produced without the use of conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, genetic engineering (biotechnology), antibiotics, growth hormones, or irradiation.

Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. Land must have no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.

The national organic standard, which became law on Oct. 21, 2002, states that all farms and handling operations that display the “USDA Organic” seal must be certified by a state or private agency that ensures the standards are followed. Certifying agents are accredited by the USDA.

Farms that follow the standards and have less than $5,000 in annual sales can be exempt from certification. These farms can use the term “organic” but cannot use the “USDA Organic” seal.