California is home to 20 percent of the country's organic growers and is the only state with its own oversight program. Other states rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program to make sure organic products meet uniform standards and are appropriately labeled. National Organic Program highlighted the difficulty of regulating an industry that has grown between 14 percent and 21% annually over the past decade.
California leads the nation with the highest number of organic farms, land in organic production, and organic sales. Roughly 66% of organic sales in California are from produce, 25% from livestock, and the remainder from field crops. The majority of organic farmers in California plan to increase or maintain their current levels of organic production.
Organic farmers are exempt from the certification requirement if they gross less than $5,000 from sales of organic products.
Organic sales from California farms (81%) are made to wholesalers. 75% of sales to wholesalers are made to a processor, distributor, wholesaler, or broker. The rest are sold to retail chain buyers, other farms, or grower cooperatives. Only 7% of organic sales are made directly to consumers.
Nearly 75% of the direct sales are on site at farm stands or U-pick operations, or at farmers' markets.
outlets include mail order
and Community Supported
Agriculture, where consumers
typically pay a monthly
fee and receive a weekly box
of products from the farm.
The remaining 14% of California's
organic sales are direct
to retail, primarily natural food
stores and conventional supermarkets.
Direct sales to restaurants,
hospitals, and schools
make up only a small part of
direct sales to retailers. The first
point of sale for half of organic
sales in California was within
100 miles of the farm. Of course,
this included sales to wholesalers
who may subsequently ship
out-of-state or internationally.
The first point of sale is direct
to an international buyer for
only 2.5% of organic sales.
What does "organic" mean? Organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
The USDA has identified for three categories of labeling organic products:
100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients
Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients
Made With Organic Ingredients:
Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients
with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no GMOs (genetically
Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.
The USDA Organic issues a seal assures consumers of the quality and integrity of organic products. Organic-certified operations must have an organic system plan and records that verify compliance with that plan. Operators are inspected annually in addition there are random checks to assure standards are being met.
How does a farmer go about converting land to organic status?
Converting land to organic status is a three-year process. There is a two-year conversion process consisting of building up the fertility of the land. Produce grown in the first year cannot be stated as organic. In the second year produce may be stated as "In Conversion". It is not until the third year that produce may be stated as fully organic. Soil and natural fertility building are important parts of organic farming.
California produces more than 90% of all U.S. organic sales for 14 different commodities, including 99% of walnuts, lemons, figs and artichokes, and 100% of almonds and dates (Table 2). Of the top 20 organic crops grown in California based upon sales revenue, two are fruits (grapes and oranges), two are berries (strawberries and raspberries), two are field crops (rice and potatoes), and two are nuts (almonds and walnuts). The other 12 are vegetable crops. All of the top 20 crops have over $10 million in sales. Lettuce sales are at $175 million (from 190 farms) and all grapes are at $111 million (from 525 farms)"” representing the leading two crops. In fact, organic vegetable production in California is dominated by lettuce, which comprises 38% of all sales dollars. Lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, and celery together account for two-thirds of all organic vegetable sales. Grapes similarly dominate the organic fruit category, comprising half of the sales. The other four fruit crops garnering over $10 million are strawberries, oranges, avocados, and plums. Interestingly, 546 farms reported organic vegetable sales in California, compared to 1,539 farms reporting fruit sales. This indicates a relatively high number of small, organic orchards and vineyards in the state. California leads the nation in all of the major crop categories defined by NASS except field crops. Most notably, California farms did not produce any organic soybeans, even though this crop had $50 million in sales nationally. The most important field crops in California are rice and hay, with $19 million and $16 million in sales, respectively, which represents 69% of all organic rice and 15% of organic hay sold in the United States. Livestock, poultry, and products. The most important organic livestock commodity for California and the nation is milk from cows (Table 4). Production of organic milk from cows was reported in 37 states and over 2,000 farms. California is the leading state with $134 million in sales reported from 92 farms, followed by Wisconsin at $85 million in sales from 479 farms. Sales figures for Colorado, another large organic milk producer, could not be disclosed due to confidentiality restrictions that could otherwise reveal the income of the three farms reporting sales. Broiler chickens are the second most important organic livestock commodity in California, posting $129 million in sales, two-thirds of all U.S. sales, from only 17 farms. California also produces 20% of organic eggs, with $30 million in sales from 80 farms. Pennsylvania is the next most important state for both broiler chickens and egg production.
Table 3. Top Twenty California Organic Crops
Commodity Farms Acres --$ Millions-- CA%
Lettuce 190 33,431 174.9 186.6 94%
Grapes 525 22,762 110.9 122.2 91%
Strawberries 117 1,178 40.1 43.7 92%
Tomatoes 274 6,854 36.0 59.4 61
Spinach 100 6,882 32.0 37.4 86
Broccoli 111 4,289 30.2 33.2 91
Celery 44 1,443 26.2 27.1 97
Potatoes 16 2,749 20.6 24.7 84
Rice 73 15,068 18.9 27.5 69
Oranges 269 3,778 17.4 22.7 77
Cauliflower 66 1,859 16.8 17.7 95
Hay 109 28,778 15.7 107.8 15
Avocados 284 3,556 14.9 15.2 98
Onions 108 1,342 13.4 33.6 40
Fresh Herbs 93 4,661 13.0 27.4 48
Almonds 95 4,934 12.5 12.5 100
Prunes 133 3,067 11.5 11.9 96
Raspberries 59 284 11.4 12.9 89
Walnuts 205 4,279 11.1 11.2 99
Potatoes 106 1,977 10.5 30.0 35