Organic Survey Final Report

Issues Facing Organic Farmers in Idaho

A Survey Report

Rural Roots March 2005 

Organic agriculture in the United States has been increasing in terms of sales volume and total acreage since the early 1990’s.  Nationally, the organic sector has recorded consistent growth at a 15 to 20 percent rate since 1990.  Idaho’s organic farming community has echoed this trend with increasing organic acreage and more farmers participating in certification programs.   

Idaho reported 50,869 acres in organic production and 149 organic farmers in 2003.  The value of Idaho’s organic industry was reported at $6.5 million.  Those numbers are not very instructive in describing Idaho organic farmers, learning about the markets for those growers, or exploring the challenges of farming and the marketplace. The Idaho Organic Alliance[1]  identified the need to investigate organic agriculture in more detail than that provided by certification.  Using funding from a specialty crop grant administered by the Idaho Department of Agriculture, the Alliance hoped to provide data to support more focused education and marketing efforts for organic growers.  The grant consisted of an anonymous grower survey and several facilitated sessions with organic farmers. 

This paper is the summary of the grower survey responses.  In spring of 2004, the Idaho Organic Alliance mailed a questionnaire to all organic farmers, growers, buyers and handlers registered or certified by the Idaho Department of Agriculture.  The survey hoped to accumulate more detailed information about organic farming and production in Idaho as well as insight into marketing and sales. One hundred ninety-five surveys were mailed.  Roughly 1/3 of these were filled out and returned. The results are based on those 61 returned surveys.  No effort was made to draw statistical conclusions from the information.  Idaho’s organic farmers are a small and very diverse group, raising a wide variety of crops and marketing in numerous ways, making meaningful conclusions difficult.  But basic, never-before-documented information was revealed.  This insight will hopefully assist governmental, educational, and non-profit organizations to meet the needs of organic farmers.  The survey questions and a compilation of the responses will be published in May 2005.  It will be available by request from Rural Roots at www.ruralroots.org.   

The following is a summary of the survey and the responses.   

Geographic regions

Respondents were asked to describe where their farms are located.  Thirty-four percent farm in Northern Idaho, 33% farm in South Central Idaho, 21% farm in South Eastern Idaho, 10% farm in Southwestern Idaho, and 5% and 2% farm in Eastern and Western Idaho respectively.  

Description of Idaho organic farms and farmers

Idaho’s farmers represent a broad range of organic farming experience --- from less than a year to 33 years.  Most farms, nearly three-quarters, are certified organic.   Respondents were asked to identify if their operations were certified organic or registered organic.  This question seemed to cause the respondents some confusion.  The National Organic Program stipulates that all growers whose organic gross is more than $5000 must certify, and those grossing less may do if desired.  The Idaho Department of Agriculture is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer organic certification and to conduct inspections.  While all certifying agencies must hold applicants to the terms of the National Organic Program, state and private programs may have additional requirements. Idaho requires all growers who claim the term “organic” to register with the state if under the $5000 gross, or to certify is over the $5000 gross.  The survey revealed that many growers identified themselves as both registered organic (66%) and certified organic (75%).   

Thirty-three percent of respondent farmers have some land in transition to organic production.  Half of Idaho’s organic farmers have used only organic farming methods from the beginning of their operations.  The number one reason given for farming organically was to avoid using chemicals.  Respondents were concerned about the safety and health of people, animals, land, and soil.   

Idaho farmers described the scale of their farms as ranging  from ones that primarily provide family food and some extra for part-time roadside sales, to nearly 4000 acres of BLM grazing land. Farmers identified a wide range of important crops, from traditional Idaho crops of hay, grain and seeds to livestock, herbs, and fresh produce. 

Major crops

Farmers were asked to list the most important crops produced on their farms, (Table 1). This was a self-defined ranking, and not necessarily reflective of profitability, productivity, or acreage.  Many listed more than one type of crop.  Two of the top three crops, hay and grain, were also grown by many conventional Idaho farmers.  A significant number of respondents listed specialty crops, or those more suited for direct marketing as being their most important products.   Direct marketed fresh vegetables constitute a very small part of traditional Idaho agriculture, but seem to be a significant group of crops for Idaho’s organic producers. 

Table 1.  Most important organic crops as reported by Idaho’s organic farmers

 

Hay

41%

Fresh Vegetables

38%

Grains

28%

Herbs

23%

Fruits

20%

Berries

20%

Livestock

16%

Flowers

15%

Seed Crops

10%

Medicinals

8%

Dry Beans / Lentils

8%

Other

16%

 

Major markets

Idaho’s organic farmers utilize a wide variety of markets (Table 2) and frequently sell in more than one category.  According to the responses, direct marketing is a very important marketing strategy.  Farmers markets especially appear to be extremely important for many growers.  Over a quarter of the farmers have enough crop volume to sell into the wholesale market or to use a broker.  Organic farmers report that about one-fifth of their crops are either eaten by the family or used on the farm in some manner such as livestock feed or seed.   

Table 2.  Markets utilized by Idaho’s organic farmers

 

Farmers’ markets

31%

Wholesale

28%

Broker

26%

Home (family) use

23%

Direct to retail

21%

On Farm use

18%

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

13%

Other:  flour mill

2%

Other Direct to Consumer[2]

43%

 

Organic Prices

Generally, the respondent farmers felt that they were receiving what they considered average organic prices for their product. A small (6%) group of farmers felt they could only ask below average prices, but nearly a quarter felt they could ask and were receiving above average prices.  Respondents speculated that low prices were the result of generally high organic prices and low financial strength of the community in which the products were sold.  Farmers felt the principal reason for above average prices was the high quality.

Seasonality

Most farmers’ crops are grown and marketed during their region’s typical growing season, but 28% reported either growing or selling their crops outside of the typical season.  Farmers reported using several methods to extend the season, including greenhouse and hoophouses.  When asked about the market potential for out-of-season products, respondents were very positive. 

Packaging

The survey asked farmers to describe how they package their crops or products for their markets.  Over a third of farmers package their products for farmers markets or other direct to consumer sale in reusable containers such as coolers or crates.  Fifteen percent deliver their products to restaurants or retail stores in reused wax boxes or other industry-recycled containers. Those farmers who sell into the wholesale market (24%) use new containers with their stamp or label. Most respondents felt that their packaging is adequate for their market.  

When asked what general packaging improvements would help, farmers commented “better,” “catchier,” “new,” and “fancier” labels, containers etc.  When asked about using the term “Idaho Organic” or similar location description as part of their packaging, 18% felt it affected the marketability in some way, 8% felt it did not, 11% were unsure, and 5% were unfamiliar with its use. The respondents suggested that  Idaho organic products could be better marketed by hiring a full time marketer or marketing team, creating more exposure for the products, and offering more public education.  

Transportation

Although half of Idaho’s organic farmers are marketing their products locally, all of the respondents noted distance to markets and the cost of fuel as important issues. Some respondents identified time and gas prices as making some potentially good markets cost prohibitive. 

Value Added

Adding value to organically-grown products is important to a quarter of Idaho’s organic farmers.  Forty-four percent did not report any value-added products, but a few reported 100% of their gross sales were from value added items. Some of the types of products made include herbal tinctures, cosmetic/body care, livestock feed rations, herbal teas, jerky-sausage, and canned/bottled/dried products.  

Value added goods were marketed in similar ways and proportions to other organic products noted earlier (Table 3).   

Table 3.  Marketing avenues for Idaho’s organic value-added products:

 

Consumer direct:

52%

Direct to retail:

28%

Other wholesale markets:

34%

 

Buyers of organic products

Respondents were asked where their buyers were located.  Sixty-two percent said they were local,   31% were regional. 18% were located out of region and 1 farmer reported exporting bean seed to the Netherlands.  As the numbers total more than 100 percent, some farmers apparently sell in more than one area.

Processing

Processing is a critical part of marketing some organic crops, such as dry beans, livestock, dairy, and seed.  About one-quarter of respondents process any crops on their farm. Eight percent use a local processing facility, suggesting that 30 percent of farmers process their crops before sale to the customer.  Respondents noted a lack of livestock and egg processing and flour mills.  Farmers seemed to be very aware of the vulnerabilities of their access to processing.  They cited that they had little choice and that sometimes facility management was not committed to organic.  Farmers specifically mentioned that the cost and distance for meat processing was a lost marketing opportunity. 

Advertising and marketing

A large majority of respondents (70%) reported word of mouth as their most important form of marketing their organic products.  Farmers’ markets, other retail markets, and articles in newspaper/other periodicals, also had high marks. A high number (59%) of respondents report doing “not much” marketing. Respondents were equally split on whether they felt the Idaho Department of Agriculture (ISDA) is doing enough to market the Idaho organic industry. When asked what the ISDA might do differently, the answers included more active promotion and education on organics to public and conventional growers, streamlining and making the governmental process more affordable, more rigid rules/fees for foreign markets/products, and even “we can all do more.” Eighty percent of respondents do not use any outside marketing resources, like consultants or marketing firms. Ideas about marketing that would benefit Idaho organic producers included improved packing/labels, a Buy Idaho Organics campaign, increased promotion and greater efforts from farmers groups, such as the Bean Commission.  

Market conditions

In 2003, the majority of respondents felt that their market held steady and that market trends were generally positive.  The survey asked growers if any of their crops were sold into the conventional market where the crops were just crops and not identified as organic.  Half of the growers said that they had utilized this marketing option and sold their organic product into the conventional market when there was no organic market available to them or the crop didn’t meet grade specifications. 

Several farmers mentioned that the weather caused some production losses and reduced their profitability.  Other threats to economic sustainability were weed problems, increased regulations, and large-scale corporate organic farms.   Some farmers worried that the lure of a profitable market would cause cheating and eventual erosion of consumer trust in all organic products.  

National Organic Program

Farmers were asked about the USDA National Organic Program Final Rule which went into effect on October 21, 2002.   There was no general consensus about the rule.  Most reported no impact positively or negatively on their organic production. For those that offered additional comments the most common thought had to do with the standard and need for it to be consistent. Some farmers  expressed concern about the future impact of the Rule.  They remarked about the maintenance of the standards, additional bureaucracy/paperwork, and competition from “big business” and larger mostly conventional farms that also raise some organic products.  

Organic information and education

For information and services, 49% of respondents would like the Idaho Department of Agriculture to offer regularly updated, written educational materials. Thirty-nine percent would like conferences/ lectures. A quarter of the respondents would like educational forums.  One third would like specific classes/workshops/web classes including organic strategies, techniques, production and research.  Among the other suggestions to improve organic production in Idaho were tax incentives, open meetings with organic advisory board, and pro-organic products campaigns for consumers.  

Organic farmer opinions about organic agriculture in Idaho

The survey gave the respondents the opportunity to voice their opinions on any aspect of organics in Idaho. When asked what they thought the Idaho Department of Agriculture’s role in Idaho’s organic industry should be, the majority of responses stated it should educate and inform both the public and farmers, to regulate and monitor the program, and to promote organics. The Department falls short in bureaucratic ways such as being short staffed, under funded, being slow to inspect land and process paperwork, and having complicated registration. They also do not meet the farmers’ expectations in their marketing efforts such as a lack of help in marketing products and not enough monitoring of markets. The ISDA was commended for offering good customer service from a staff of friendly and helpful people. They also have a strong licensing/certification program. Farmer comments on improvements ranged from “greater support of all kinds to small grower” to “continue – not broken, don’t fix” and “just keep rolling with it – politics of the regs will level off soon.” 

The general feelings about the future of organics in Idaho are optimistic. Some additional comments were wide-ranging include “promising but corporate organics is worrisome,” “very good – food is contaminated worldwide,” “poor – chemical farming has ruled since 50’s,” and “always to be a minority.”  

Farmers were asked about organic issues specific to their regions.  Those who responded mentioned the following: 

North Idaho:

- Lack of communication/advocacy/involvement

- Aerial crop spraying

- Roadside weed spraying

- Need organic livestock processors certified by USDA

South Central Idaho
:

- Need organic meat production – lack is hurting markets 

All regions:

- Not enough farms/farmers 

Economic conditions and organic agriculture

For 29% of respondents, the condition of Idaho’s economy did not affect their market in 2003.  A small percent (13%) felt that Idaho’s economy affected their markets in a positive manner.  A similar percentage (11%) had the opposite opinion, reporting that their markets were negatively affected.  Respondents offered a range of ideas about Idaho’s economy such as “depressed economy – less to spend,” “more people paying attention to health and relationship to clean food,” and “people will not go out of way for clean food but will drive to Wal-Mart weekly”.   Some of the variables that changed, improved or worsened market conditions include weather and drought, mad cow scare (encouraged people to look at organic beef), and increasing public interest in organics.  

Summary

The answers provided by Idaho’s organic farmers suggest they are a diverse group, growing a wide range of crops on small gardens to very large farms.  Despite the diversity, there is a heavy reliance upon local direct marketing for crops and value-added products.  Farmers markets are an important venue.  Idaho’s organic farm products seem to be riding the crest of a strong market, so strong that most farmers feel that word of mouth is their most important marketing tool and that there is little need to find buyers beyond their local area.  A measure of the market strength is the reported need for more farmers to fill niches and to meet public demand for organic products.   

Growers are generally optimistic about the future of organic agriculture, and most report they are receiving fair prices.  The organic market seems to be generally independent of Idaho’s economy in the farmers’ opinions.   

Idaho’s organic farmers are anxious for additional education.   The growers specifically mentioned more information on organic methods and direct marketing.  Organic crop choices (fresh market vegetables, fruits, herbs, and berries) are relatively minor crops by Idaho standards.  Information about their production is not as readily available as those for traditional Idaho crops.  Half of the respondents reported they have only farmed organically, suggesting these farmers are entering organic agriculture from non-farming backgrounds and could benefit from classes on general farming topics such as equipment, irrigation, soils, and cultivation.   

The organic certification program evoked no significant sentiment either positively or negatively.  Having been in effect only one year when the survey was taken, it might be too early to draw any conclusions.  Idaho’s organic farmers did point out some significant challenges in the future, including threats to the National Organic Program by corporate farms, and the lack of local meat processing. 

Specific Issues and Recommendations.   These recommendations are made without identifying the agency, institution, or organization best suited to perform them, except where the survey respondents made specific mention.  Since organic farmers exist in the overlapping worlds of regulation, education, and non-profit advocacy, it seems prudent to believe that they would best be served by cooperative efforts. 

  1. Provide strong support for Idaho’s farmers markets.  Organic farmers depend upon them.  There have been few educational opportunities in the past to help farmers learn how to sell at farmers’ markets.  There should be numerous events each year around the state to teach such topics as crop selection, post-harvest storage, display, salesmanship, signage, pricing, health issues, value-added possibilities, and time management.   Additionally, classes should be offered to help farmers’ markets managers to improve and expand their markets.  Information about the community benefits of farmers markets should be collected and disseminated to economic development agencies, public health groups, and other stakeholders to demonstrate the broad significance of agriculture as found at the farmers markets for community well-being.
     
  1. Provide strong support for all farm direct market opportunities.  Many organic farmers sell locally to restaurants, retail stores, to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, at roadside stands and on the farm.  There should be regular educational opportunities that help farmers succeed in selling through these venues.
     
  1. Provide growers with periodically published educational materials that include updates on the program.  Growers felt they need more regularly published information about what is happening with the organic program on both the state and national level from the ISDA.
     
  1. Provide growers with educational opportunities that address organic production and marketing strategies, tools and techniques, and updates on organic research.
     
  1. Reduce confusion about “registered” and “certified” organic.  The Idaho requirement for all growers to register or certify may have its merits, but can lead to some confusion.  Ensure the meanings of each are clear, and explain the rationale for each.
  1. Provide better communication between growers and the ISDA. 
     
  1. Promote Idaho’s organic products more actively as part of the ISDA marketing program.
     
  1. Provide more education about organics to the public, and to conventional growers.
  1. Support development of local meat processing capabilities.  Numerous comments were made about the opportunities that are lost to organic livestock growers because no organic meat processing is available locally.  The farmers are not the only losers.  Local consumers cannot purchase locally-grown organic meats, and the local economy is denied the jobs that meat packing plants would support.
     
  1. Provide growers with educational opportunities about fundamental farming practices and crop-specific production methods.  Many organic farmers would benefit from this basic education.
     
  1. Develop and support programs that encourage new farmers to begin organic farming, conventional farmers to adopt organic practices, and people seeking a career change to consider organic farming.  The growing organic movement requires more organic production and more organic farmers.

 

[1]  In early 2005, the Idaho Organic Alliance merged with Rural Roots, a sustainable agriculture non-profit organization headquartered in Northern Idaho.  The new organization of Rural Roots will serve the needs of small acreage and family farmers in all of Idaho.

[2] This category includes farm-stands, sales to neighbors and friends; other methods not covered above, and may include the respondents’ general marketing strategy. 

 

 

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