Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Organics in Georgia - the warm up to Vidalia Onions

Several months ago I was doing some research on organic agriculture in Georgia and came across some USDA data from 2005 on certified organic acres in each of the 50 states. I wasn't really surprised to find that Georgia is listed in the bottom ten states for the total number of certified organic acres. In fact 8 of the 10 states at the bottom of this list are in the southeast. However, when I looked at just organic vegetable acreage (you know vegetables are the most profitable and intensive crop type per acre) GA suddenly leaps into the top sixteen states.

Why is that I wondered? Here's a few theories, organic grains (row crops) and livestock take up a lot more acres than vegetables, and these two areas of the organic market just haven't caught on yet in this region. There's a good reason for this. Organic row crops are more difficult to grow in the south due to our poor soils (less organic matter) and high weed, insect and disease pressure.

Regarding organic livestock, most of the nation's organic livestock operations are located out west closer to where the organic grains are grown. Unfortunately organic livestock doesn't mean much more than the animals are fed organic feed, and they aren't given hormones or anitbiotics. Now these can be good things but there are no animal density requirements (in other words 100,000 chickens in a house is o.k.), and no pasture requirements. So rotational grazing livestock operations are now considered the more sustainable choice to organic grain fed livestock. Most of our grass fed beef and other grazing operations don't bother to get organic certification because unfortunately the organic standard for animals has mostly been conventionalized.

So that brings us to vegetables, the mack daddy of the organic movement. 42% of all sales in the certified organic market are fruits and vegetables. And Georgia is somehow nestled up at #16. Who is in front of us? Well, they are some large producers. Here's a countdown of the organic vegetable acres in each of the top 16 states (data from 2005):

Georgia 606
Texas 625
North Carolina 640
New Mexico 643
Minnesota 750
Pennsylvania 869
Wisconsin 928
Vermont 963
Colorado 1,957
Florida 2,140
New York 2,952
Arizona 3,639
Oregon 3,737
Virginia 4,859
Washington 10,331
California 58,327

In '05 there were 98,500 organic vegetable acres total in the nation. Now look at California. They possess more than half the total number of organic vegetable acres in the entire country.

Things are changing quick here in Georgia. Take a look at the six year growth rate in organic acreage. This is just those folks who are certified. There is no information on the number of growers who are growing organically but don't seek certification.

6-YEAR GROWTH 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Certified Organic Acres 273 413 665 1,076 1,565 1,799

Now that's some growth. Over 6-fold in five years! So what's being grown on all this acreage. I put in a call last week to Vernon Mullins, the Organic Program Manager for the Georgia Department of Agriculture to ask. Vernon is a wonderfully pleasant fellow, and I could tell he was disappointed that they hadn't tried to figure out the answer to this question before. In fact, he was uncertain if they even could figure it out. He said that when people send in their certification registration, they often just list Assorted Vegetables. Hmmmmm. (but on the paperwork for organic registration, farmers are actually required to submit info on Product Grown, Amount Grown (Quantity), Annual Gross Sales, and Acres in Organic Production - so there is an answer to this question somewhere) He did mention that the only certified animal operation is a 28,000 head layer operation somewhere down in south Georgia. That's a bunch of eggs. I wonder where those are being sold.

One thing is certain, one of the fastest growing segments of organics in Georgia is in Vidalia Onions.

But for that story you have to stay tuned, we're just getting warmed-up.....to the Vidalia Onion!

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