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Wisconsin organic farming:
Report shows strong sector

May 24, 2012 | 0 comments

First in a three-part series on organic farming in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin ranks second among states - behind only giant California - in the number of organic farms, according to a report presented at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Laura Paine, the department's grazing and organic specialist, told members of the DATCP board that a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture organic census showed there are 1,222 organic farms in Wisconsin. (California has 2,714, according to the census.)

Wisconsin is also second in the number of organic acres being farmed, with a total of 195,603 acres.

The Badger state is also second to California in the number of farms that are transitioning to organic production which the report noted puts Wisconsin in a good position to grow its future capacity.

Paine's report said that Wisconsin has seen a dramatic growth in organic agriculture since the creation of the National Organic Program (NOP) by USDA in 2002. Since that time the number of organic farms in the state has grown 157 percent.

The Organic Status Report was presented to the citizen policy board for DATCP during its meeting last week in Madison. It is produced biennially by the department along with the University of Wisconsin's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS.)

The latest USDA census of organic agriculture, done in 2008, shows significant sales of organic products in Wisconsin at $132.8 million - placing it sixth in the nation in terms of sales. That translates to 4.2 percent of the total organic sales in the United States.

Those sales are led by dairy farmers with $85 million in organic milk sold in Wisconsin and that represents 11.4 percent of the U.S. total. California sales of organic milk total $133 million.

Behind Wisconsin in terms of organic milk sales were Texas with $80 million, Oregon with $69 million and New York with $60 million.

According to the report, milk from cows accounts for 64 percent of sales of organic farm products in the state.

Paine noted that Wisconsin leads the nation in the number of organic dairy and beef farms and also ranks first in the number of farms raising organic hogs, layer chicken and turkeys.


But vegetable growers aren't far behind. Wisconsin ranks third in the country in the number of organic vegetable and melon farms and is in the top five for organic berry farmers. The report puts Wisconsin in the top six for organic fruit and tree nut farms.

Wisconsin ranks at the top among states for farmers raising several organic field crops including corn, oats, barley, winter wheat, hay and silage. Of course many of these crops are grown to be fed on the farm to livestock.

Paine's report commented that these home-grown feed grains and forages help make Wisconsin's organic dairy farms more profitable than their counterparts in other parts of the country. In many other areas of organic production, many of the inputs are purchased.

A 2011 survey done by University of Wisconsin Madison showed that the state's organic vegetable farms range from small market gardens growing a wide variety of vegetables to larger farms that grow bigger quantities of a few crops for processing.

These growers fill a niche from farmer's markets to retail sales.

The growing of produce organically is a labor-intensive proposition and the survey found that a typical Wisconsin organic farm, growing vegetables, employs two full-time workers and one part-time worker who works there all year.

Some of the surveyed farms employ up to 20 workers and some organic farms have volunteers who exchange their labor for a share of the farm's produce, but the survey did not ask growers to distinguish between paid employees and those volunteers.

Seventy-five percent of Wisconsin's organic vegetable growers plant less than 12 acres and 71 percent own the land they farm.

The report showed that two-thirds of these growers don't depend on outside loans for capitalization.


Paine noted that Wisconsin has a robust organic processing sector that adds value to the organic milk, meat, produce and other commodities that are produced here.

A 2011 survey done by DATCP found that gross income for Wisconsin organic processors ranged from over $100 million to under $10,000. Most of the state's well-established organic processing businesses reported sales growth from 2008 to 2011 despite the economic recession.

But newer companies didn't fare as well. Only one company that was launched in the economic downturn showed sales growth.

The 2008 data on organic farms was collected by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service as a follow-up to a 2007 census.

The survey included farms that were certified organic, those that were transitioning to organic production and those exempt from certification.

The report explains that some farms are exempt because their sales total is less than $5,000 per year. They are still required to follow organic standards and are subject to audits, Paine explained, but because certification can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per year, these lower-income farms are not required to have it.

The growth in Wisconsin's organic farming sector mirrors the national and global growth in this sector, according to the report.

Globally, 87 million acres were farmed under organic management in 2008, representing nearly 1.4 million producers in 154 countries. This represents a 9 percent increase in organic acreage compared to 2007.

Certified organic acreage in the United States reached over 4.1 million acres farmed by 14,540 producers in 2008.

The states ranking behind California and Wisconsin in number of organic farms included Washington with 887, New York, with 827 and Oregon with 657.

The USDA's National Organic Program provides more recent data than that 2008 report on the number of certified organic farmers and processors in the state. While the census includes various categories of organic farmers the NOP data from 2011 shows only the certified organic processors and farms.

According to those numbers there were 170 certified organic businesses and processors and 1,159 certified organic farms.

The largest numbers of these producers are in areas adjacent to the headquarters of Organic Valley in southwest Wisconsin.

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