PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington state’s certified organic agriculture producers say that economic factors are the primary reasons that they are farming organically, however the majority feel that their farms are contributing more to environmental and social sustainability goals than to economic sustainability goals.
That is one of the findings from what is believed to be the first comprehensive survey of certified organic producers in Washington state. Jessica Goldberger, assistant professor of Community and Rural Sociology at Washington State University, conducted the survey between October and December 2007.
Goldberger mailed the survey questionnaire to the 684 organic growers within the state certified by the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Oregon Tilth. Three hundred fifty-six individuals completed and returned the survey for a 56.1 percent response rate.
Approximately 80,000 acres in the state are certified organic and the annual organic farmgate sales exceed $144 million.
“Organic farming continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture and Washington has the third highest number of certified organic operations in the country,” Goldberger said. “It’s important to know the characteristics, information sources, needs, opinions and challenges of our organic producers.”
So who are the state’s certified organic producers?
Nearly 78 percent of survey respondents were male and 22 percent female. Nearly 95 percent were white, three percent were Latino/Hispanic and one percent Asian. About 88 percent said they live with a spouse or domestic partner and 54 percent described themselves as the primary decision-maker on the farm.
Those responding to the survey ranged in age from 23 to 82, with a mean age of 52 years. On average respondents had spent 21 years as a farm owner, manager or primary decision-maker. Just over half had an undergraduate college degree and 15 percent held graduate degrees.
Slightly more than half said they had transitioned from conventional to organic farming methods, while 41 percent indicated that they have always farmed organically.
While farm size ranged from small acreage vegetable, berry and herb farms on the Westside to 7,000-acre grain and forage operations east of the Cascades, on average respondents had 111 acres devoted to certified organic production. The average farm also had 23 acres in transition to organic, 93 acres organically managed but not certified or in transition, and 228 acres in conventional production.
The women who responded reported smaller operations with a mean of 45 certified organic acres and 25 acres in conventional production compared to 131 certified and 289 conventional acres for men.
The top crops being produced on certified organic acreage were tree fruit (45 percent of farms); vegetables, melons and potatoes (37 percent); small berries and grapes (31 percent); forage crops such as hay (23 percent); and herbs (23 percent).
Thirty-seven percent of respondents reported gross farming receipts for 2007 of $250,000 or more, and more than 30 percent reported annual receipts of less than $25,000. That includes income from both organic and conventional production.
Nearly 95 percent said they intend to maintain organic certification for the next five years. Of those not planning to maintain certification the reason most often cited was that certification isn’t necessary to retain their customer base.
When asked about the biggest challenges to successful organic farming the high cost of organic inputs topped the list, followed by high labor costs and labor shortages, and variable or low crop yields.
When presented with a list of potential reasons for farming organically economic factors such as organic price premiums, consumer demand and economic sustainability ranked highest. Environmental sustainability, produce quality, health concerns and community values were also ranked highly. Female respondents ranked the environmental and health factors above economic factors as reasons to farm organically.
However, when asked about the sustainability of organic farming 74 percent agreed that applying organic methods is more environmentally sustainable the conventional farming but only 48 percent felt organic farming is more economically sustainable.
Goldberger said that she will continue to break out and analyze the data revealed by the survey results to better define the experiences and needs of the various sectors within the state’s certified organic industry.
“Aggregating the survey results tends to mask the impressive diversity of certified organic operations in the state,” she said. “Breaking out details of the specific sectors will help WSU Extension and other service providers better meet the needs of our whole range of organic producers.”
Survey details and additional results can be found at: http://crs.wsu.edu/facstaff/goldberger/organicsurvey/index.html.