My humble beginnings in the organic industry began in 1976 in a small coop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The people were eclectic, and I was drawn to the culture as much as I was the idea of providing healthy, unadulterated whole foods to my community. I was swept up in a movement of sorts, getting back to the land and to nature. Growing, selling and eating organic foods were a palpable crusade of Birkenstock-bedecked, new-age folks who wanted to leave the world a better place through food and agriculture. I joined the game with full force and never looked back. Fast forward almost 40 years later and where have we come?
Every year the Organic Trade Association (OTA) studies and surveys the organic industry. According to their latest, sales of organic food and non-food products in the United States broke through a record in 2014, totaling a whopping $39.1 billion, up 11.3 percent from the previous year! This is amazing consider the struggle we have with tight supplies in sectors such as dairy and cereal.
Back in 1997, when I was just starting my own business, organic food sales were just $3.4 billion and under 1 percent of total food sales. The hard work paid off and now organic is at 5 percent of total food sales! Our growth rate of 11.3 percent totally eclipses the overall food industry growth rate of 3 percent! No wonder conventional companies want a piece of the action, it's once again palpable!
As I now sit at my desk and cogitate on the possibilities I wonder if we have really hit the big home run. Should we be satisfied to be 5 percent of food? At the OTA Policy Conference USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that there are currently 19,474 certified organic operations in the United States and 27,814 around the world. The number of U.S. certified organic operations rose by more than 5 percent in the last 12 months. Sure that's great, and I wouldn't give it back, but it is still only 2 percent of total agriculture in the U.S. Has my life's work been spent for 2 percent of a home run? What kind of ball game is this?
Think about the potential organic agriculture has. Shouldn't we be striving for more than 2 percent in this world of ecological woes? An increase in organic acreage has the potential to build and preserve our top soil, clean up our nitrogen and pesticides laden waters. Studies show organic agriculture sequesters carbon, protects wildlife and pollinators, and definitely reduces our exposure to toxic chemicals. Did you hear the latest on glyphosate being a likely carcinogen? You can be guaranteed that there will be none of that in your organic dinner!
Did I mention we have extreme supply shortages? Have you walked into the store and witnessed the bare naked dairy and eggs sections, devoid of organic provisions? Another recent OTA study displayed that imports of organic soybeans and organic corn -- the main ingredients in organic feed for the expanding U.S. organic dairy, poultry and livestock sectors are up sharply. We continue to import corn and soy because there aren't enough organic acres and organic farmers in the U.S. growing these items.
Yet despite these dingy signs the organic dairy sector posted an almost 11 percent jump in sales in 2014 to $5.46 billion, the biggest percentage increase for that category in six years! Think of what we could do if we had enough organic feed! No strikes, no fouls, organic milk in every glass!
We clearly need a few things to help protect and grow this robust phenomenon that is the organic market. We need more organic farmers. Plain and simple we need to recruit young people and train existing farmers. We must provide technical assistance to help farmers' transition land into certification. We need more science and research to help organic farmers produce more efficiently with higher yields. Organic seed breeding and research is essential to help producers succeed in the midst of a changing climate.
This can all be accomplished and much more if the organic community pools their funds and approves an organic research and promotions program. The Organic Check-Off is an idea whose time has come. If everyone pays a little, we can have enough funds to match USDA research dollars at land grant universities. Transitioning farmers will have the technical assistance and training to bring more acreage under organic production. The public can be educated on the true meaning of organic.
I am ready to swing hard this time at bat to bring my team home. The bases are loaded and we have this one chance. Won't you join me and sign on as a supporter of Groorganic? It can be the World Series legacy we leave future generations.