J.I. Rodale, the late pioneer of organic farming more than 70 years ago, would be heartened to know the organic food movement in this country is stronger than ever.
Organic products are now a $50 billion a year industry and Pennsylvania – the state where Rodale established a research farm and built the foundations of a publishing empire that produced Organic Gardening and Prevention magazines among other titles – became the country’s second leading seller and producer of organic products in 2016.
So when Pennsylvania officials this year wanted to publicize the state’s investment in organic agriculture, it made perfect sense to make the announcement at Rodale’s namesake farm, the Rodale Institute, the 333-acre organic research farm in Maxatawny Township.
It was there that state Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County announced last month that Rodale Institute will get $500,000 for research. And Cheryl Cook, deputy secretary for market development at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, announced the state will be encouraging more traditional dairy farms to transition to organic dairy production from a $5 million pool for dairy-related programs.
“Our contention is that farmers could be more economically viable if they transition from conventional product to organic production,” said Jeff Moyer, executive director of Rodale Institute.
SECOND IN ORGANIC SALES
Pennsylvania is a large part of the growing organic food industry in the United States that is being driven by more health-conscious consumers who increasingly want food that is sustainably grown and free of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides.
In 2016, with $660 million in sales of certified organic commodities (crops, livestock and poultry), Pennsylvania was second only to California, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Overall, U.S. farms and ranches sold $7.6 billion in certified organic commodities in 2016, up 23 percent from $6.2 billion the previous year.
“We have a very strong market to support that transition [to organic],” Moyer said.
Organic farms represent only 1 percent of farms in the U.S., but the sector is growing. In Pennsylvania, the number of organic farms has skyrocketed.
In 2015, Pennsylvania had 681 organic farms. That number shot up to 803 – an 18 percent increase – in 2016. And many traditional farms, though not officially certified organic, are incorporating organic agriculture methods.
The Greater Lehigh Valley is home to many of the state’s organic farms, and many are transitioning from traditional agriculture to organic methods that eschew pesticides and herbicides.
Meanwhile, a new 50-acre farm near Long Pond, Pocono Organics, is partnering with Rodale Institute to create one of the largest organic fruit and vegetable operation in North America. It will provide 100 jobs and draw energy from a solar farm that powers Pocono Raceway in Monroe County.
Organic products fetch premium prices, which is good for farmers and the economy, Moyer said.
There are opportunities to produce organic products in every commodity, including vegetables, produce, grains, dairy, poultry and livestock, he said.
Organic agriculture can a useful economic investment tool that benefits local communities by creating jobs and business opportunities, according to research by Edward Jaenicke, associate professor for agricultural statistics at Penn State University.
In a white paper, “U.S. Organic Hotspots and Their Benefit to Local Economies,” Jaenicke wrote that investment in organic agriculture can lower a county’s poverty rate and raise median household income.
IMPORTED ORGANIC PRODUCTS
Despite growth of Pennsylvania’s organic market over the last 20 years, the state’s farmers are not producing enough of it to meet demand.
“As proud as we are of being No. 2 in sales, it doesn’t begin to meet the demand for organic consumption by Pennsylvania consumers,” said Cheryl Cook, deputy secretary for market development at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Retailers have to bring in organic products from other states to meet demand, “when we could be producing it right here in Pennsylvania,” Moyer said.
“Pennsylvania is blessed with beautiful weather, fairly good soil and a climate that allows us to grow almost everything but bananas and citrus. That’s not true about every state.”
ORGANIC MILK STILL STRONG
The state recognizes this unmet demand presents an opportunity for Pennsylvania producers and is throwing its support behind initiatives, particularly in encouraging more organic dairy farms.
While milk consumption has been dropping nationally for years, the organic dairy market is strong.
“What we’re seeing in the organic marketplace is fluid milk still sells. There is still a market for it,” Cook said.
“We need more Pennsylvania organic milk in our grocery stores.”
BOTTLING PLANTS NEEDED, TOO
The state Legislature allocated $5 million to the Department of Community & Economic Development for a number of dairy programs, including an initiative to help traditional dairy farms transition to organic methods, Cook said.
The money is expected to be available by mid-September.
But it is not enough to get more organic dairy farms in Pennsylvania, Cook said.
The state needs more bottling plants because much of the organic milk that is already produced in Pennsylvania has to be shipped out, bottled and then brought back in, she said.
LOW-INTEREST LOANS AVAILABLE
The state is getting behind organic agriculture in other ways, too.
The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or Pennvest, the state agency that provides low-interest loans for drinking water or wastewater treatment, will make its loans available to farmers who transition from traditional methods to organic.
Pennvest “has seen the light,” Cook said. “They’ve heard the message that organic production methods do a better job of retaining water in the soil. If the water is not running off, then the nutrients aren’t running off.”
Drew Smith, chief scientist at Rodale Institute, who was among the speakers at last month’s announcement, said a long-term, 39-year research project at the farm has shown that organic systems out-yielded conventional farming every year there was a drought or reduced rainfall.
AMISH FARMS ARE TARGETED
The announcement of the state’s new push for organic farming was arranged to coincide with Rodale Institute’s annual Field Day, when hundreds of farmers from as far away as Indiana toured the rolling fields on foot and by hay wagon to learn about some of the experiments being conducted.
A number of the visitors were Amish farmers, whose relatively small farms are considered the perfect size to transition to organic.
“It’s really hard to compete against conventional agriculture if they only have 50 acres or 100 acres and they’re trying to compete against somebody who has 1,000 acres,” Moyer said.
“So they have the ability to find niche markets. Organic is a niche market, but $50 billion is a pretty big niche.”
A LOT TO LEARN
“There’s a lot to be gained from the organic industry,” Schwank said at the announcement.
Organic methods are not only more environmentally friendly and easier on soils, but the health and nutrient values of the foods may be higher than those grown under traditional agricultural practices, she said.
The state Department of Agriculture is helping to fund Rodale’s collaboration with the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to study the nutritional composition of organic vegetables and the human health effects of eating an organic diet.
A former Penn State extension agriculture agent in Berks County for 20 years, Schwank was well acquainted with Rodale Institute and its research and knew it deserved state funding.
“I’ve watched as the research has grown here and understood that some of the work that’s being done here could have a very, very positive impact on not only Pennsylvania, but agriculture nationally and internationally,” she said.
INVESTMENT IN THE FUTURE
Schwank, Democratic chair of the Senate Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, was instrumental in getting bipartisan support for the $500,000 grant to Rodale in the 2018-2019 budget.
“I felt it was high time that Rodale got on that list as well, because I knew what was happening here would make a difference for Pennsylvania,” Schwank said.
“It’s an investment in agriculture and it’s an investment in our future.”