Organic Survey Final Report
Issues Facing Organic Farmers in Idaho
Written 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 identified the need to investigate organic agriculture in more detail than that provided by certification records. 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 registered and certified organic grower survey and three focus group sessions with organic farmers.
Organic Grower Survey: 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 survey 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. The insights gained into Idaho’s organic industry will hopefully assist governmental, educational, and non-profit organizations in their efforts to meet the needs of organic farmers. Click here to download a copy of the Idaho Organic Growers Survey Report.
Organic Grower Focus Group Sessions: All organic growers in the state of Idaho who were certified or registered organic with the ISDA were invited to attend one of three regional focus groups. The groups were held on March 18 in Moscow, April 1 in Nampa, and April 2 in Twin Falls. There were five growers in the Moscow session, twelve in the Twin Falls session, and eight in Nampa. Each session addressed the same general topic areas and asked the participants to identify issues of importance to them and recommend solutions to address them. These topic areas were:
Summary of focus group findings:
The focus group sessions revealed Idaho’s organic farmers are philosophically committed to the ideals of providing healthy nutritious food, protecting the environment and supporting their local community. They believe they offer a model of economic sustainability and stewardship to a less stable and shifting Idaho agriculture. According to the farmers, the National Organic Program which establishes the standards by which a product is labeled “organic” is under constant political threat. Organic growers have no effective lobby, and feel the Idaho Department of Agriculture is not their advocate. Idaho treats the organic program as a second class citizen, frustrating the farmers who see the growing public demand for organic products as requiring a strong, well-funded and visionary program. There is widespread agreement that failing to enforce certain provisions of the program, such as the $5000 gross exemption, jeopardizes the good name of organic and risks the livelihood of organic growers who depend upon public confidence in the certification process.
The Idaho requirement for each grower to attend annual continuing education is not accompanied by any organized method of providing it. The ISDA is not mandated to provide the education. The University of Idaho, in the opinion of southern Idaho farmers at least, is not a reliable resource, and no other organization provides timely, organic-specific education. Growers unanimously agreed on the value for education on a wide-range of topics from understanding organic regulations to direct marketing.
While the farmers were critical of aspects of the state and national programs, they offered realistic solutions such as encouraging the Idaho Department of Agriculture to view the organic program as a viable and growing part of the state’s agriculture, clarifying rules and enforcement procedures, improving the ISDA organic website, providing more educational opportunities, and offering a clearly-written handbook for growers.
Click here to download a complete copy of the Idaho Organic Growers Focus Group Report.
Special thanks to Janie Burns for coordinating the survey and focus group research and for compiling the research reports.
* In early 2005, the Idaho Organic Alliance merged with Rural Roots. See the “About Rural Roots” section of our website for more information on the vision, mission and history of Rural Roots.
 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.