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The organic approach means profit for more and more farmers

(Wednesday, March 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- JILIAN MINCER, Kansas City Star, 03/18/03: Long before organic produce appeared on local grocery shelves, Kevin Mellor's family taught him about farming without pesticides.

"My grandparents were into organic farming," he said. "Part of it was the cost, and part of it was that they didn't want to put pesticides on the foods that their kids would eat."

Mellor felt the same way, even before his daughter was born. That's why he chose to grow his produce organically when he bought his first farm in 1996.

"I did it for the environment," said Mellor, who now farms 12 acres, of which 25,000 square feet are under protective cover. "The flavor of the foods is also so much better."

Mellor's experience isn't unusual. A growing number of farmers locally and nationally are using organic methods to raise everything from produce to poultry.

And besides concerns about the environment and pesticide-free eating, more farmers are adding a simple economic reason for going organic -- increased demand. Where farmers markets once were the main outlet for such products, organic growers now find their crops and livestock in demand from local restaurants and subscription services to national chains of natural-foods supermarkets.

While the percentage of organically grown products is still extremely small in the United States, it has become one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Certified organic cropland more than doubled from 1992 to 1997, according to Cathy Greene, an agricultural economist at the USDA's Economic Research Service in Washington. And it doubled again between 1997 and 2001, the most recent data available.

In 2001, 2.3 million acres of cropland and pasture were in organic production. However, only 0.3 percent of the nation's cropland and 2 percent of its produce are being farmed organically.

Greene said that preliminary data from 2002 indicate that the amount of certified organic cropland keeps increasing.

In addition, an unmeasured number of farms follow pesticide-free practices but are not certified organic. Some of those farms haven't been going without pesticides long enough to get certification. Others have decided not to seek the national designation because their customers know and trust them and they want to avoid the costs and paperwork involved in certification.

Though the majority of organic growers are small, family-owned operations, a growing number are larger farms that have made the switch because organic products have become more profitable than many conventional crops.

Sue Baird, the Missouri Department of Agriculture's organic program coordinator, said organic farming probably was growing even faster in Missouri than the national average.

She said several factors were contributing to the increase.

"Food safety issues have become paramount in people's minds," said Baird. "Especially with terrorism, people have decided that they want to buy local."

She added: "Farmers also are becoming more educated about the dangers of pesticides. They're looking for ways to do procedures without the pesticides."

Another factor contributing to the increase in organic farmland is that growers who had traditionally raised crops such as wheat are looking for other sources of income. For some, that means the fast-growing organic market.

National organic food sales have grown 20 percent annually since 1990, according to Scott Silverman, organic program manager at New Hope Natural Media, which publishes Natural Foods Merchandiser.

Retail sales in the United States climbed to $8.5 billion in 2002, up from $1 billion in 1990.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., said: "This is a food safety issue. Environment is a close second. People are voting their own green dollar."

He said that consumers are switching to organic products because they worry about what's in their food, from pesticides on produce to antibiotics and hormones in milk and meat.

The Midwest, he said, has lagged behind the West Coast in organic production because it has lacked the infrastructure, which includes packing houses and refrigeration.

Sonja Tuitele of Wild Oats Markets, which is based in Boulder, Colo., and has three stores in the Kansas City area, said the chain had grown from 35 stores in 1996 to 100 in 1999.

Today's organic-food customer is quite different from those who shopped at food cooperatives in the 1980s. Back then, shoppers seeking organic products tended to be from the vegetarian, Birkenstock crowd.

Today's shopper is just as likely to be a suburban soccer mom who also shops at Wal-Mart.

"We've seen the market grow by leaps and bounds," said Tuitele, whose chain is the second-largest group of natural-food supermarkets in the United States. "Our customers say that organics taste better, and they're better for people and the environment."

The largest, Whole Foods Market, opened a store in Overland Park last year. It's based in Austin, Texas, and has grown from its first store in 1980 to 142 stores now.

In its latest earnings report in February, Whole Foods said the chain's sales for the most recent quarter were up 18 percent, to $924 million. A company official said same-store sales were up at least 10 percent for the fourth straight quarter.

Many mainline supermarkets also have added organic-produce sections.

"We are carrying upward of 45 different organics in our stores," said Lou Malaponti, director of produce operations for Balls Food Stores. "We are not seeing huge increases, but we are seeing gains from year to year."

One reason for the increases is that the price difference between organic and non-organic has dropped substantially in recent years as more high-quality organic products have become available.

That's been good news for area organic growers, many of whom now sell their products directly to local restaurants, grocers and consumers at farmers markets or through vegetable subscription services.

"I think there is a growing demand for organic and a growing demand for local products," said Diana Endicott, who owns Rainbow Organic Farms in Bronson, Kan. "It's not just that it's organic; people like the quality. Everyone buys it because of the tasty quality."

One of the advantages to local farming is that you can trace a product to its source, she said.

The products also are extremely fresh because it is not unusual for farmers to harvest a crop only a few hours before selling it at the local farmers market or to a grocery store or restaurant.

"There are more and more people becoming aware that they are what they eat," said Dan May, who with his wife owns a Vernon County, Mo., farm they call Organic Way. "Do you really want to eat genetically engineered food?"

The Mays have been farming organically for eight years and now produce more than 150 varieties of different plants.

They started with green beans, purple beans, corn, tomatoes, lettuce and carrots, but now they try new crops every year.

"Organic is good, but local organic is even better," said Dan May. "Buyers should know where their food is coming from."

The federal government now requires farmers who sell more than $5,000 worth of products to get certified if they want to label themselves organic.

While the intent of the regulation was to help consumers, many small organic growers are choosing not to go through the federal certification process because of the paperwork and fees.

"I don't agree with the system," said Mellor, who has chosen not to be nationally certified. "Why should the poor little organic farmer have to pay for these services?"

Instead, he'll use the same organic growing methods and sell his products to about 45 different customers, including many restaurants and grocery stores. His products also are sold at the Stover Family Farms store at 419 Main St. in the River Market area.

"We have a lot of requests for a lot of different things," he said. "They understand the quality."

Ed Reznicek decided more than a decade ago that he wanted to use organic farming techniques.

"I did credit counseling with farmers during the 1980s, and I saw what they paid out for fertilizers and chemicals," said Reznicek, who is now general manager for the Kansas Organic Producers, a cooperative. "It takes a period of time to learn a different system, but once you have it in place, I don't know if it's more difficult" than conventional farming.

Reznicek, who has about 400 acres near Nemaha, Kan., of which 110 are cropland, said that organic farming was a viable option for small and midsized farmers. His farm is an example.

"It's paid for, it's diversified, and it generates a profit every year," he said. To reach Jilian Mincer, call (816) 234-4918 or send e-mail to jmincer@kcstar.com.