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Local Growers Try to Cultivate Interest in Organic Farming

By Chris Kauffmann
Orlando Business Journal
January 27, 2006


Sales of pesticide-free products topped $14.5B in 2005.

Charlie Roper's family has been growing crops in Florida
since 1857, but he sees a danger that small farms may go the way of the dodo bird.

That's why the general manager and vice president of Roper Growers
Cooperative in Winter Garden is taking part in "Generation Organic," a
national campaign to save the dwindling number of family farmers from
extinction by encouraging new and existing farmers to get into organic agriculture.

The campaign was launched last month by Organic Valley Family of Farms, an
18-year-old Wisconsin-based cooperative that represents 723 organic
farmers in 22 states, including the 14 Orlando-area citrus growers in Roper's cooperative.

"Organics is a growing market in the United States -- a lot of mothers and
fathers don't want to have to worry about the pesticides and chemicals in
the food their kids are eating," says Roper, who started growing
organically 11 years ago. "It's a way to get a different marketing approach."

Marty Mesh, executive director and charter member of the Florida Certified
Organic Growers & Consumers Inc. in Gainesville, is more blunt.
"If family farmers don't find a way to differentiate their product in this
day and age, guess what, they're gone," he says. "If we, as a society, put
a value on small farms, we need to support them. Reward them for their
environmental stewardship. It's more costly to do environmental
remediation later on."

Viable market

There is plenty of data to show that organic farming is increasingly a
viable market for new and current farmers. The sales of organic food and
beverages in the United States increased from $6.1 billion in 2000 to
nearly $10.4 billion in 2003 to an estimated $14.5 billion in 2005,
according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales were a mere $1 billion in 1990.

"It's been growing at a rate of 20-24 percent a year since 1990, notes
Barbara Haumann, spokesperson for the Massachusetts-based association.
"Consumer interest in organics is growing so fast, it's giving small
farmers hope and attracting new farmers."

While organics still accounts for only about 2 percent of U.S. food sales,
it is regarded as the fastest-growing segment of the industry.

It's unclear, though, how much of the organic sales are being generated by
small farmers and how much is being generated by conglomerates. It's a
"total mix," Haumann says.

In Florida, there are 115 certified organic growers, plus dozens of small,
uncertified growers. They cultivate everything from winter vegetables and
citrus to herbs, avocados and sugar, though citrus is probably the single
biggest organic crop.

"Basically anything grown in Florida is done organically," Mesh says.
"Some people are making a very good living selling produce to restaurants.

Chefs will search them out."

'Plenty of opportunity'

Roper, whose co-op members grow oranges on nearly 1,200 acres, found
success going with a large cooperative after initially going it alone for
several "difficult" years. Organic Valley, which registered sales of $245
million in 2005 and expects to do $285 million this year, does all the
national marketing and distribution of Roper's product.

"They ask us what do you need to survive and then they work out the prices
based on that -- it's all very open and positive and non-competitive" Roper says.

He adds that's a relief from the traditional seller-buyer relationship
where the seller tends to be at the mercy of the buyer.

As Mesh sees it, there is "plenty of opportunity" both on the national and international levels.

Haumann agrees. She points out that demand is outstripping supply as the
United States currently imports eight times as many organic ingredients as
it exports.

"There is definitely a need for more organic farmers in this country," Haumann says.

Organic Valley, which has doubled in size over the last three years, plans
to encourage that through a program of organic educational workshops, a
farmers' speaker bureau, Web resources, a farmers' hotline, financial and
technical support for farmers transitioning to organic, organic school
curriculum, and an organic farmer mentoring and internship program.
While it may be one of the more ambitious efforts, Organic Valley is not
the only organic cooperative in the country trying to boost interest in
the industry, and Haumann says that even some states are now getting into
the act.

 

 

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