For additional information about the USDA's goal to increase certified organic operations in the U.S., please see: "USDA has uphill road to organic goal"

Government committed to organics; growers cautiousHeralding organics as the next frontier of economic opportunity for growers, President Obama’s administration reiterated its faith in the sector in a June report on U.S. agriculture.

“Strengthening Rural Economies: Lessons from a growing farm economy” cites organic farming as one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture.

From 2002 to 2008, organic acreage grew 16.5% annually on average. In 1997, organic food’s retail value was $3.6 billion; in 2008, it was $21.1 billion, according to the report,

“Organic foods continue to gain market share in the food industry, climbing to 4.2% of U.S. retail food sales in 2010,” according to the report.

Obama and Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, want that growth to continue. To that end, the USDA set a goal in 2009 to increase certified organic operations by 20% by the end of 2015.

A focus of that goal is in the Southeast. Fresh produce accounts for the largest sector of organic sales at about 40%, according to the USDA.

Views, however, differ on how to encourage expansion.

The June report pointed to returns on the USDA’s investments as evidence that the sector can be even more profitable than it has been.

“For example, USDA research on weed management for organic vegetable production has produced techniques and tools that can help control 70% of weeds at 15% of the cost of hiring workers to weed by hand,” the report states.

John Shuman, president of the Southeast Produce Council, said higher production costs stop many growers from converting from conventional.

“Labor is the biggest cost,” said Shuman, who is also president of Shuman Produce, Reidsville, Ga. “I can’t speak for other (commodities) but for sweet onions, labor is our only form of weed control for our organic crop.”

Demand and the cost difference between organic and conventional are other major stumbling blocks Shuman sees to organic expansion.

“A lot of it is market-driven,” Shuman said.

At Stemilt Growers LLC, Wenatchee, Wash., marketing director Roger Pepperl said organic growth will remain that way.

“I think the federal government is going to have a hard time influencing the organic sector,” Pepperl said. “When things get out of sync the only thing that makes it work is the free market.”

Laura Batcha, executive vice president of the Organic Trade Association, Brattleboro, Vt., said the association supports the USDA’s goal.

She said U.S. organic growers, particularly produce growers, are in a position to reap huge profits, both domestically and with exports now that there is an equivalency agreement with the European Union.