Organic food is gaining popularity.
Currently a more than $55 billion industry in the U.S., the pandemic has made organics even more popular as consumers concentrate on health and well-being.
According to Food Drive, sales of organic produce rose by more than 14% in 2020, adding an increase of $1 billion to that $8.5 billion segment of the organics market. While produce sales were up overall for the year, that’s a significant jump over the 10.7% increase of conventional produce.
But despite organics’ increasing popularity with consumers, only around 1% of all farms in the U.S. are certified organic because of the expense of converting. To be certified organic, the soil must be free of all herbicides, pesticides or other man-made enhancements, a process that takes two years or more.
To offset that disparity and pump up their supply chain, some companies in the food industry are joining grass-roots efforts to improve access to the resources farmers need to make the change. And with organics pioneer, the Rodale Institute in Berks County, some Pennsylvania-based companies are leading the way.
Bell & Evans, an organic chicken producer, and supermarket chain The Giant Co., are working with Rodale and other companies and organizations to grow the ranks of organic farms.
The Fredericksburg, Lebanon County-based Bell & Evans launched an Organic Grain Initiative, pledging $500 million to helping farmers convert to organically growing grains such a soy and corn, which it uses to feed its chickens. The goal of the initiative, which is in partnership with the Rodale and grain supplier, Cargill, is to convert 50,000 acres of farmland to organic.
“It’s just one more thing, having control of the quality of the organic grain,” said Bell & Evans owner Scott Sechler.
With the limited number of farmers growing organic soy and corn, companies like Bell & Evans must sometimes rely on foreign-grown grains to meet the demand. The foreign option is less desirable and has a greater risk of mishandling or mislabeling, he said.
“If you have a good product you can charge a little more,” Sechler said. “We’re the most expensive chicken, but were also the ones that are growing because people are sick of chicken that’s raised and processed based on ‘how cheap can you do it.’ If I’m going to be charging more for organic. I want to make sure it’s fully organic.”
Carlisle-based The Giant Co., has long been a supporter of carrying the organic produce in its grocery stores and participates in the PA Preferred program to support local farmers.
“Customers want to know where their food is coming from and how it is grown,” said Jessica Groves, social impact manager for Giant. ”We have an obligation as a food retailer to educate them and make those organics regularly available.”
To help promote organic and sustainable agriculture, the grocer launched a Healing the Planet program that partners with Rodale as well as Planet Bee Foundation and Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful. Giant hopes to raise about $1 million for each organization by asking customers to round up the dollar amount on their purchases, donate Giant Points or purchase a “Bee Bag” reusable grocery bag at any of its stores.
Money given to Rodale will help with its Organic Crop Consulting Services, which has helped more than 200 farmers convert to organic agriculture. The program launched in Pennsylvania in 2019 and is now expanding to states around the country.
Diana Martin, director of communications for Rodale, said it is important to see players in the food industry get behind the push towards more sustainable agriculture and she is pleased to see two Pennsylvania companies getting involved.
“Organic farming is going to be growing exponentially because of these corporations,” she said. “The story is about connecting the dots between demand and the support and now we have these corporations coming in to complete that loop.”
She noted that Pennsylvania is a bit ahead in the organic game compared to other states.
“A lot of people don’t know that Pennsylvania is such a powerhouse in organic farming,” Martin said. “We’re ranked no. 3 in the nation in organic agriculture sales.”
She said there are more organic farms in Pennsylvania than in other states, partly because of the influence of the nearly 70-year-old Kutztown-based Rodale Institute, but also because the state’s farms are small compared to the large industrial farms in other parts of the country.
Organic farming is six to nine times more profitable than conventional farming, so it pays for local farmers to get the most money they can out of each acre of land. However, converting can be costly and complicated, leaving many farmers hesitant to do it.
But, working with its grain supplier, Cargill, Bell & Evans will offer market access for transition crops during the process of converting to certified organic. Farmers will be guaranteed a dedicated market for their certified organic grains through Bell & Evans.
It will also fund the Rodale Institute’s organic consulting program to work with farmers on proper organic farming techniques and transitioning and to help them achieve the certification they need.
“There’s a lot involved,” said Sechler. “You need crop rotation. You have to have really good coordination of crops and markets.”
He said the experts at Cargill and Rodale can help the farmers manage such issues.
Giant’s initiative, Martin said, is also helpful to the organic cause because it raises consumer awareness by educating customers about organics and asking them to help support sustainable farming.
“Giant is helping by connecting with the customers,” Martin said.
She said the investment these companies are making in promoting organic farming is smart.
“Organic is profitable,” she said. “In the U.S. it is the fastest growing area for food. And, if you’re looking to the long term, a lot of commercial and industrial farming is just short-sighted.”
She also said it’s not just corporations in the food industry that should be interested in the cause.
“You need to ask ‘how do you make this healthier food available to your employees?’” Martin said. “You need to be the thinking about the food system and how we can improve and sustain the environment.
Martin said commitments by companies like Bell & Evans and the Giant Co. are a good start in the effort to get more stakeholders involved, but she said Rodale is hoping more corporations will get involved in promoting organic farming. “We’ve always worked with farmers and we always worked with consumers, but we can’t rely on that to make the massive changes we need to our food system.”