Straight off the vine

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Organic food production and consumption is a growing phenomenon throughout the country. Food production by means of organic methods makes up two percent of U.S. food products.

Organic products have shown a 20 percent annual increase over the past decade, making it the fastest growing sector of agriculture. This is a market that doubles in size every three years.

Retail reports of 2005, show that organic foods and beverages were at approximately 12.8 billion dollars.

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The philosophy behind organic growing is as much as a way of life as it is a production method. Organic farming is based on the idea that healthy foods, healthy environments and strong societies are seen as the natural way of things.

The question is, what makes organic products different from and more attractive than conventional products?

Organic foods and conventional foods differ mostly because of the growing methods. The essential characteristics of organic farming are design and the implementation of an organic system plan that describes the practices used in producing crops and crops and livestock.

Unlike conventional products, organic products have to be certified, meaning the products must be grown and processed according to uniform standards that are verified by the USDA. Certification includes annual submission of an organic system plan, inspection of farming fields and inspection of processing facilities.

Organic and conventional products also differ in chemical use. The methods used in organic production are largely based on nature’s principles of production. This means that organic products are free of commercial pesticides and fertilizers. Instead, methods like solar energy, recycled waste and regenerated soil are used.

Since pesticides and fertilizers are not used, how, then, do farmers ensure their crops?

Organic farmers build healthy soil by nourishing the living components already present. They control weeds through crop rotation, mechanical tillage and hand weeding. Insect problems are controlled through using soil organisms, beneficial insects, insect predators, mating disruptions, traps, barriers and birds.

Mostly, organic farmers use cover crops and crop rotation to manage field ecology, which effectively disrupts the habitats for weeds, pests and disease.

A common misconception about using manure as a fertilizing method in organic production is that organic food could be at a greater risk of carrying the E. coli virus. However, strict guidelines, such as, manure must first be composted and it must be applied at least 90 days prior to harvest to allow time for the breakdown of pathogens.

The second aspect of the organic craze is the consumer element. Consumers want products produced by nature’s principles of production. However, consumers do not solely base their preferences on the restricted list of materials that may be used in organic production. Today, consumers and the population are so environmentally conscious that they will pay premium prices to support farmers with integrated crops and livestock enterprises to ensure food and farming opportunities for the future.

The most noticeable problem with organically grown products is the higher price in the marketplace.

The organic price tag is higher because it reflects the true cost of growing food. Prices for growing organic food include costs of growing, harvesting, transporting and storing.

Intensive management and labor used in production also drive the price up because they are frequently more expensive on the organic aspect.

The organic market has not faced industrialization yet because there has not been an agreed-upon set of guidelines approved. However, recent trends are driving organics more into being industrialized with the demands rising.

Organic producers are being forced to standardized, specialize and centralize control of production because of demands for consistency and uniformity of product quality.

In 2006, reports showed approximately 10,000 certified organic farmers in the country as opposed to only 2,500 – 3,000 in 1994. Still, most of organic products are sold in niche markets such as roadside markets and farmer’s markets that are controlled by the Community Supported Agricultural Association.