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Organic agriculture spreads to traditional ag areas

KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP)--Crunching on an organic apple may be a choice associated with the state's west side and its reputation for tree-hugging environmentalists.

But chances are that apple was grown on this side of the Cascades.

"I would guess that many people think organic agriculture is a Western Washington phenomenon," with its smaller farms and many farmers' markets, said David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist with the Washington State University Extension in Wenatchee.

But, he said, "The bulk of our organic farming is in Central Washington. It's a big deal."

Of the 92,555 certified organic acres in the state last year, about 66,000--more than 70 percent--were on the east side, according to a recent WSU report by Granatstein and his colleague Elizabeth Kirby.

Benton County was home to 13,121 of those certified acres, or 14 percent. And those numbers are growing rapidly. The number of acres in transition to certified organic status--it takes three years to transition conventionally farmed land--in Eastern Washington in 2008 was 8,609--compared with 771 on the west side.

Franklin County was home to nearly 1,400 acres in transition to organic. That was the second-highest amount of transitional acres in any county except Grant.

Franklin County farmer Alan Schreiber said more people are becoming concerned about their health, increasing the demand for organic foods.

"It is my sense that people care more about their food," said the Eltopia man, who farms 142 acres. Six of them are certified organic and 23 are in transition.

Proponents of organic production say it protects people's health and Earth's by reducing exposure to "toxic chemicals from synthetic pesticides that can end up in the ground, air, water and food supply," according to the Organic Trade Association website.

Techniques such as crop rotation, biodiversity and certain nutrient and water management practices allow organic growers to avoid many chemicals, the association said.

Bill Powers, founder of Badger Mountain Vineyard in Kennewick, started using organic methods about 20 years ago. After many years of working with conventional chemicals, he said he found "a better way."

For instance, Powers uses a 500-gallon tank to make compost "tea"--highly oxygenated water steeped with compost and other nutrients such as molasses and alfalfa meal. It provides economical and healthy bacteria and fungi for the vines without toxic chemicals, he said.

To control harmful cutworms that attack the vines, the longtime farmer devised a fan that fits on the back of a tractor to blow the worms into netting. "We've been using it for 10 or 12 years," he said.

For Powers and others, environmental and health reasons seem to be the main motivator for converting to organic growing, but selling produce for higher prices is another.

Schreiber, Granatstein and others said organic farmers fall into two general categories: those who start farming organically for the economic benefits, and those who do so primarily because they believe in its philosophies.

"It was a business decision," Schreiber said. "I believe that there's a demand for it."

Schreiber is not alone. A survey of organic farmers across the state found the top reason for going organic was higher prices earned for certified organic products.

Jessica Goldberger, an assistant professor at WSU, conducted the survey in 2007 to learn more about the state's certified organic producers.

One of the interesting results she found was that, although all the top reasons for getting into organic farming were economic, farmers said the top goals they were contributing to were more social and environmental.

Those included promoting soil conservation, establishing relationships of trust with consumers, reducing toxins in the environment and protecting human health, water resources and biodiversity.

While consumer demand, higher prices received, and economic sustainability were the most often cited reasons for farming organically, farmers haven't necessarily struck it rich. "When I attempt to measure sustainability of these farms, they're faring the poorest on economic sustainability," Goldberger said.

Schreiber said growing organic produce can be expensive.

"I don't know too many people who have gone organic who think it's been a huge financial success," he said.

Nevertheless, he added, "We would not be doing this if we didn't think there was financial incentive. We're selling more produce because of it. It distinguishes us. We're the only people in the Tri-Cities that sell organic asparagus. I don't think we make any more off of it in the end, but we're able to sell produce we wouldn't be able to otherwise."

That's not to say organic farming can't be profitable.

Steve Bannworth, vice president of sales for Watts Brothers Farms, which is owned by ConAgra Lamb Weston, said about 10 percent of the vegetables the farm grows are organic.

"At first, it's so extremely expensive to transition your land to organic. It's risky. You have to take a long-term approach," he said. "Now it's part of our culture. You can run a large commercial operation profitably--organically."

The organic food industry blossomed into a more than $650 million industry for the state in 2007. That's compared with an estimated $2.5 million reported in 1988, said Miles McEvoy, organic program manager for the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Despite the growth, those numbers still are a small portion of the overall value of agriculture in the state.

Farmers received $213.2 million in 2007 for their organic produce, according to the WSU report, a 48 percent increase over 2006. That compares to $7.6 billion in cash receipts in 2007 for all farm commodities, according to the Washington Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

So organic sales made up about 2.8 percent of the money farmers were paid in 2007 for their commodities before processing.

One of the major obstacles facing farmers interested in transitioning to organic crops is the three-year period required for land to be managed without prohibited pesticides and other substances.

During that time, crops are sold at a loss, Bannworth said.

"During that time, you have to absorb those additional costs and market your goods conventionally while farming organically," he said. "Plus, you have to get into that marketplace. You've got to have a really long-term view and be able to take some losses when you get into it."

Paying premium costs to farm organically while not reaping the premium sales price has been a major challenge for Abby and Jorge Sanchez of Pasco. But the couple, who bought more than 90 acres of farmland in Grandview a year ago, are committed to growing organically as much as possible because they believe in its environmental and health benefits.

"Now that we know what's conventional and what's organic, we don't have to worry about medical issues and things that affect our health," Abby said.

They put only water on their organic crops--which are on about 20 acres that are in transition--and, because of that, pay much higher costs for labor to control weeds and pests.

The Sanchezes said they wanted to grow all of their fruit, vegetables, wine grapes and silage corn organically, but the cost was too great starting out. So they first want to get themselves established--their land will be certified organic in 2011--and eventually produce organic cattle, corn and hay, as well.

On top of managing the farm, working their day jobs and taking care of their three kids, Abby also is on the board of the Tilth Producers of Washington, which educates about and promotes sustainable agriculture.

"My job is to promote organic in this region," she said. "It's hard because many people in the community don't appreciate organic. It's our job to educate."

The WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources has been tracking growth in organic agriculture since 2002. Its report offers a best estimate of certified organic crop acreage and includes data from a variety of organizations.

Between 2003 and 2008, organic acreage seems to have increased about 183 percent, the report says. And that explosive growth is largely driven by consumer demand, officials said.

People want more from their food; they want safer food. Health concerns are the top reason people buy organic products, Granatstein said, followed by the perception that organic foods taste better and are more nutritious.

As Powers tasted a Badger Mountain Vineyard merlot made from organic grapes, he talked about the clear fruit flavor that comes from them. And, he said, the organic wines his son, Greg Powers, makes don't have sulfites added as a preservative.

Benton County is the top organic grape producer in the state, with more than 1,200 certified acres, according to the WSU report. About 600 of those are organic wine grapes. Powers said Badger Mountain Vineyard was the first, and it was a challenge as they worked to create a balance of predator bugs to eat harmful insects.

"We were kind of ridiculed by a lot of folks. It always kind of hurts when some of your peers are looking down their nose at you," he said.

Cost was difficult early on, he said, but once the land was transitioned and they had a system in place costs dropped.

"You really have to do a better job of growing," Powers said. "We like to think we're leaving things a little better than we found them," he said.

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