Organic Farming

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Organic Farming - Controversies, Entry Barriers, Benefits, and Examples

Alfalfa, wheat, and hay are the most planted organic crops in the United States, partially because of their role in crop rotation. Details on controversies, barriers, and benefits of organic farming are provided below.


Ineffective Oversight

  • There are legitimate concerns that the USDA Organic label may be on foods that are not actually organic due to a lack of oversight by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA. One example is three farmers that pleaded guilty to food fraud in 2018 after passing off conventionally grown corn and soybeans as organic. The Washington Post published an article in mid 2017, that is unfortunately paywalled, that went in depth on problems with the inspection system.
  • This was chosen as a controversy because if consumers can't trust that food labeled organic actually is organic, then the industry will be at risk. Studies show that the review and inspection process can be improved which can increase trust in the labels. Currently, only 26% of consumers trust organic food labels.

Organic Imports

  • Although importing organic food in and of itself is not controversial, the issue arises because there are concerns around whether the imported food is actually meeting U.S. organic standards. One concern is that there are some foods that "are routinely sprayed with chemicals during the process of clearing customs." Additionally, there is a problem with fraud regarding imported crops, with grain feed being one area that has had a particular problem.
  • This was chosen as a controversy because fraudulent organic products can erode the public's trust in the organic label which will ultimately hurt the farmers. Trust in the food regulatory authorities in the U.S. has already suffered some erosion.

Entry Barriers

Transition Period

  • For conventional farmers who wish to transition to producing organic crops and receive certification, there is a three-year period where they must farm using organic standards, but they will not be eligible for certification. Due to the increased expenses associated with farming organically, this period without certification can be costly. The farm will not have the benefit of the organic label but is still expected to follow all organic regulations.
  • Another reason this transition period is costly to farmers is that the crop yield usually decreases, so they have less product to sell. This period of increased costs and reduced income can be a barrier for farmers who want to transition to organic production.

Management Barriers

  • To receive organic certification, the record-keeping requirements are extensive as compared to what is expected of conventional farmers. These records include things like crop inputs, crop rotation, and how they plan to keep organic crops from being tainted by conventional crop management.
  • Additionally, for farms that produce both organic and conventional crops, separate storage areas are required to avoid contamination.
  • The learning curve for growing organic crops can be a significant obstacle for farmers who have spent their lives growing conventional crops. There is not a robust support system to learn the new techniques needed, although there has been some improvement in this area in recent years.
  • All these items mean increased costs, which can keep farmers from making the jump to organic farming.


  • In early 2018, it was reported that "organic farming is much more efficient at recycling nitrogen than conventional farming," which is ultimately very good for the environment. The study found that between 80% and 95% of organic crops nitrogen needs are met by recycled nitrogen sources, including compost and manure. Conventional crops rely much more heavily on newly created nitrogen, such as from synthetic fertilizers.
  • There are also other environmental benefits of organic farming which include reducing soil erosion; reducing human and animal exposure to toxic chemicals; and maintaining and improving soil structure.

Most Planted Crops

  • Alfalfa and hay together accounted for 35% of all harvested organic crops in the United States in 2019. The main reason for this is that both of these crops are utilized as rotational crops to maintain soil integrity.
  • Wheat is another crop that is used as a rotational crop in some locations, typically in the central Plains. However, wheat is also a crop planted for human consumption, and it accounts for about 19% of the overall organic acreage in the U.S.
  • Since not all crops planted are done so for human consumption, additional data on the largest organic crops based on sales was also found. This data indicates that annual revenue from organic apples is $327 million, followed by lettuce at $277 million, strawberries at $242 million, and grapes at $218 million. This data does not indicate what portion of sales are due to domestically grown versus imported crops.
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Insights and Trends - Organic Farming

Three trends in the organic farming market include the lower adoption rates of some product sectors, high level of direct-to-consumer marketing, and high farm and retail premiums.


  • The organic farming market in the US has been developing for some years. During this period, there were differences in the adoption rates of organic farming methods over conventional methods for some sectors.
  • For example, the market for vegetables, fruits saw higher organic farming adoption rates of 6% and 4%, respectively, compared to 0.3% for corn and soybeans, which are the most abundant crops produced in the US.
  • Despite potentially higher rates of return, farmers in the US have been slow to adopt organic production methods for corn and soybeans.
  • Between 2014 and 2015, the sales of overall crops and livestock in the US dropped by 11%. However, the sales of certified organic crop and livestock products rose 13%, with fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops constituting the top category.
  • Factors influencing the low adoption rate of organic production methods for farming corn and soybeans include "achieving effective weed control and the processes involved with organic transition and certification."


  • The organic farming market features high levels of D2C marketing of fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops, due to consumers' increased interest in their health and concern for the environment.
  • This trend, thus, provides the organic farmers and retailers with more extensive business viability, as it is more cost-effective. Certified organic producers also have access to the USDA seal, for which an increasing number of consumers always keep an eye out.
  • About 80% of farmers market vendors in Iowa, New York, and California say that farmers' markets provide a greater opportunity for business development than any other possible marketing outlet.
  • Fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops constitute the largest share of the organic farming market, with 36% of the total organic sales in 2018, rising by 5.6% from 2017 and amounting to $17.4 billion.
  • GlobalData revealed that 75% of US consumers are concerned about overly processed and unhealthy foods.
  • "Over 50% of manufacturers have said that D2C sales helped to improve brand awareness and boosted leads and sales for their channel partners."


  • The cost of products from organic farming is significantly more expensive than their inorganic counterparts, as organic farmers are required to obtain organically approved seeds, learn farming techniques through natural methods, and find their own markets. There are also additional costs incurred from sending the products from the farm gate to grocery shelves.
  • "For example, handlers and food processors must sequester organic and non-organic ingredients, while retailers must prevent the mixing of unpackaged organic and non-organic products." However, these costs have been holding for some years, almost maintaining the same rates and spiking occasionally.
  • A research study revealed that organic products had premiums of over 20% for all product categories except spinach between 2004 and 2010.


We obtained trends in the organic farming market from the United States Department Agriculture Economic Research Service, and researched further articles from sites such as Food Business News and Core dna, among others, to provide further insights for the request. We used two sources that are beyond Wonder's standard two-year time frame, both published in 2016 to give some relevant statistics. These reports provided additional useful information for the request. The first was from the United States Department Agriculture Economic Research Service. A more recent article backed this report, while the other was a webinar that provided supporting data for the findings obtained from a more recent report as well.

From Part 01
  • "For starters, nobody can tell the difference between conventional and organic food. It’s not as if organic corn and soybeans look, smell, or taste differently compared to their conventional counterparts. So, the only way to catch food fraud is by doing a chemical analysis. In this case, the analysis would look for the presence of pesticides that are banned according to organic agriculture’s (completely arbitrary) rules."
  • "[T]he [organic food] system suffers from multiple weaknesses in enforcement: Farmers hire their own inspection companies; most inspections are announced days or weeks in advance and lack the element of surprise; and testing for pesticides is the exception rather than the rule."
  • "Sales of organic food have more than doubled in the United States in the past 10 years, to $48 billion a year, but U.S. acreage devoted to organic grain has not kept up. Less than 1% of row crops in the country are certified organic, so U.S. organic grain farmers can’t produce enough feed for the animals that supply organic eggs, milk and meat."
  • "The next year, the Washington Post reported about a shipment of 36 million pounds of supposedly organic soybeans that was fumigated on the way from Ukraine via Turkey to California. Crops are no longer organic, and can’t be used to feed organic livestock, once they’re fumigated. But more than half of the shipment was sold to organic livestock farmers."
  • "Acreage planted to organic field crops is on the rise while land planted to non-GMO corn and soybeans declined, according to a new report from Mercaris, a market data and trading platform for the identity-preserved grain industry."
  • "Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in consumer-driven demand for organic crops. However, for many of the country’s large-scale farmers, the benefits of altering growing practices to meet this demand has been riddled with uncertainty."
  • "Over the last twenty years, organic food sales in the United States have seen a 15x increase, ballooning from just $3.4 billion in sales in 1997 to over $45 billion in sales in 2017. In 2017, the organic food market grew 6.4% year-over-year, which is significant considering the overall U.S. food market grew by only 1.1%."
  • "Consumers already associate organic products with environmental benefits, and view a lack of fertilizers and pesticides as one of their defining features. Because mainstream shoppers already assume that organically grown foods are better for the environment than conventional counterparts, it's possible that this study may not be radically different enough to draw new converts to organic food."
  • "Meanwhile, organic produce now accounts for about 15% of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic foods account for 5.3% of U.S. food purchases and are in 82.3% of American households."