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Montana organic acreage nearly triples

(Thursday, May 1, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Agriculture.com, T.J. Gilles, 04/25: Montana's acreage under certified organic crop and livestock production has nearly tripled since 1997, says a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

From 1997 through 2001, the report says, U.S. acreage under "organic" crop systems has increased by 20 percent annually. During that same period, Montana's certified organic production nearly tripled, from 80,000 acres to 209,000.

"Among the 50 states, Montana ranks first in certified organic wheat" plantings, with 40,000 acres, says the Montana Department of Agriculture, which administers the state certification program. The state ranks second or third in acreage under organic cultivation for alfalfa, lentils, barley, peas, flax, buckwheat and pasture.

On the ground floor of organic production since the early 1980s, Montana's growth rate wasn't the biggest expansionist spurt since '97, says the USDA report. Neighboring Wyoming grew from just 75 acres in '07 to 17,000 (most of it pastureland) and Texas swelled from 31,000 acres to 266,000 (all but 40,000 of it pasture and range).

Under the original 1995 National Organic Standards Act, meat and livestock had to dine exclusively on organically produced feeds and forages to qualify for the organic label. A recent rider to that on behalf of a large commercial operation in the South has provided at least a temporary loophole to that law.

Getting the act together

Until last fall, several organic certification organizations each had their own definitions and standards for what qualifies as "organic," and litigation against competitors was the only recourse for producers who believed others were inaccurately labeling products or dodging the standards. Products bearing labels such as OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) or OTA (Organic Trade Association) had to earn those certifications through inspection and documentation of crop rotations and "natural" sources of fertility and pest containment. More uniform standards emerged via last October's implementation of the Organic Standards Act.

"Organic" became a legal term, and Montana is one of just 10 states authorized to run its own certification program without U.S. Department of Agriculture interference.

According to Montana law, organic production includes cultural and mechanic controls, biodiversity, crop rotation (including cover crops for weed control) and "green manure" plants for fertilization, intensive management and detailed record-keeping. Excluded are genetically engineered organisms, irradiation, antibiotics, and growth hormones.

"I see it as a viable agricultural entity that ties in with the concept of sustainable agriculture," says Doug Crabtree, Montana Department of Agriculture organic certification program manager. "Agriculture can't be sustainable if it doesn't sustain the farmer."

Big Sandy farmer Bob Quinn said Montanans are attracted to organic systems to get out of the rut of being price-takers for bulk commodities such as wheat.

"It is turning commodities into designer foods that people are demanding and pay a decent amount for ... in this way, we can receive our income through the marketplace and not through government subsidies."

Jon Schleuter, executive vice president of the Pacific Northwest Grain and Feed Association, puts it another way:

"It is a consumer niche for privileged people with the financial resources to buy a particular product ... It is the luxury of a privileged people."

Out of the mainstream

With nearly 70 percent of America's processed foods containing some ingredient (usually soy- or corn-based) that has been genetically modified, organic foods remain non-mainstream.

Montana's 209,000 acres (most of it pastureland or range) and 200-plus producers are tiny drops in the bucket -- less than 1 percent -- of Montana's total crop acreage and number of operations. The state is home to nearly 10 percent of total U.S. acreage devoted to organic production -- just 0.3 percent of total American farmland.

In contrast, about 9 percent of Swiss and Austrian farmland is under organic regimes. The U.S. total of 2.3 million acres of organically operated lands pales to Australia's 19 million acres or Argentina's 6.9 million. Even tiny Italy has 2.6 million acres under organic systems.

In Montana, organic farming and livestock raising may be seen as current extensions of time-honored attempts to increase income by securing niche markets. Land-locked, far from urban markets and seaports and facing some of the highest rail costs in the nation, Montana farmers also are among the nation's leaders in adding special traits and value to raw farm products.

Nearly a century ago, Montana farmers were among the first in the nation to conduct protein tests on wheat bargain for better prices. More than half a century ago, a disproportionate amount of the state's ranchers began measuring cattle's economic traits -- such as weaning weights -- to market higher-priced registered seedstock cattle coveted by out-of-state buyers.

By T.J. Gilles http://www.agriculture.com/default.sph/agNotebook.class?FNC=ArticleList__Aarticle_html___8394___806