Organic farmers in Minnesota seem to be sticking with it, even as the recession narrowed the price gap between organic and nonorganic crops.
The number of organic farms in Minnesota has increased from under 400 in 2000 to about 650 in 2010, according to a recent report by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
The report shows organic acreage in Minnesota was up 88 percent between 2000 and 2008, with 154,136 acres of certified organic farmland in Minnesota in 2008.
And survey data showed a majority of organic farmers in the state are optimistic about the future. In early 2009, when the recession was being felt across the country, 97 percent of the organic farmers surveyed said they planned to either maintain or increase their organic production.
"They really see opportunities for the future," said Meg Moynihan, organic and diversification specialist at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Moynihan said one reason organic acreage has increased so dramatically between 2000 and 2008 is because many farmers switching from regular farming to organic make the transition in stages.
"There are a whole set of management techniques that a farmer needs to learn in order to be a good and effective farm manager," Moynihan said. "The really seasoned ones, when they give advice to newcomers they say, 'Don't go cold turkey and try to convert your whole farm at once.'"
But organic farming still makes up less than 1 percent of all farming done in Minnesota. And it's possible the economic recession, which has been hard on both organic and conventional farmers, could have an impact on the number of new farmers who choose to make the transition to organic in the coming years.
"We're pretty stressed right now," said Lynn Brakke, who grows blue corn, soybeans and alfalfa and raises beef on his organic farm near Moorhead.
Brakke, a member of the Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force, said he's concerned that the effects of the recession might not yet be fully felt among farmers.
"When I talk to organic producers, they're all questioning whether they should be doing this," he said.
Wesley Moechnig, also a member of the task force, agreed that his organic dairy operation and farm near Lake City that raises alfalfa, grass, corn and barley has been struggling in the last couple of years. Most of it has to do with prices and with a drop in demand for organic grains.
"The biggest issue right now is the high prices on the conventional side, especially with grains, and the lack of demand on the organic side for organic grains," Moechnig said. "It's really coming to the forefront this fall."
The price of organic corn, for example, is not much higher than the price for conventional corn, he said.
Moechnig said he knows people considering a transition into organic that are putting off the transition. But he wasn't surprised to see no evidence of large number of organic farmers leaving the business, because he said once you're farming organic, it's hard to transition back to conventional.
"You can't really transition back very well in an economical matter," he said.
Still, Moechnig couldn't dispute what he and analysts have seen among consumers: growing demand.
Some analysts expected the demand for organic products would drop dramatically during the recession, but a United Nations report from last year showed global demand for organic products on the rise.
In the U.S., organic milk sales have declined during the recession after several years of rapid growth. But according to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic grew by about 5 percent in 2009. Growth had slowed from previous years but hadn't stopped.
"Everybody is very interested in organic, and they do buy all or part of their groceries as organic," Moechnig said. "People are just leery of what they're buying. ... It's a conscious effort by a lot of people to eat healthier in their minds."
Moynihan agreed that consuming organic products has become mainstream.
"Back in the 1990s, organic was seen as nutty or a phase or a fad," she said. "It really has grown to become 4 percent of the U.S. food marketplace."
George Boody, executive director of the Land Stewardship Project that promotes sustainable farming, said it was encouraging that the agriculture department report did not show a huge drop-off in organic farming tied to the recession.
"That suggests to me that there's a real interest in it on part of both consumers and farmers, and it's not a passing interest," he said.