U.S. consumer demand for organically produced goods has grown continuously since USDA established national standards for organic production and processing in 2002. Domestic production of many organic crops and livestock specialties has also increased during this period. The U.S. had under a million acres of certified organic farmland when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. By the time USDA implemented national organic standards in 2002, certified organic farmland had doubled, and doubled again between 2002 and 2005. Between 2005 and 2011, certified organic pasture and rangeland fluctuated up and down, but certified organic cropland expanded nearly 80 percent, to 3.1 million acres. Organic livestock sectors have grown even faster.
For the Organic Production data product, ERS collected data from USDA-accredited State and private certification groups to calculate the extent of certified organic farmland acreage and livestock in the United States. Data are presented in tables showing the change in U.S. organic acreage and livestock numbers from 1992 to 2011 (see the U.S. tables section). Data for 1997 and 2000-11 are presented by State and commodity (see the State tables section).
U.S. producers dedicated approximately 5.4 million acres of farmland—3.1 million acres of cropland and 2.3 million acres of rangeland/pasture—to organic production systems in 2011, with some certified operations and cropland in every State. California continues to lead in certified organic cropland, with over 405,000 acres, nearly half used for fruit/vegetable production. Other top States for certified organic cropland include Oregon, Montana, New York, and Wisconsin. Nearly every State also had some certified organic rangeland/pasture in 2011.
While the adoption rate remains high, the overall adoption level is still low—only about 0.8 percent of all U.S. cropland and 0.5 percent of all U.S. pasture was certified organic in 2011. Obstacles to adoption by farmers include high managerial costs/risks of shifting to a new way of farming, limited awareness of organic farming systems, lack of marketing/infrastructure, and inability to capture marketing economies. U.S. producers embrace organic farming for many reasons—to lower input costs, conserve nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets, boost farm income, among others.
Adoption Levels Vary by Sector
Government efforts to boost organic production have focused initially on developing national certification standards to assure consumers of consistent product quality and on streamlining interstate commerce in organically grown products. In 2008, Congress included new provisions in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (2008 Farm Act) that expand support for the organic sector (see also the 2014 Farm Act Provisions). Also, many USDA agencies have started or expanded programs and pilot projects to help organic producers with production and marketing problems and risks.
Over 60 organic certification organizations, including 19 State programs and 3 county programs (in California), conducted third-party certification of organic production and handling in 2011. USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) implements national legislation, and implemented rules in October 2002 that required all except the smallest organic growers (less than $5,000 in sales) be certified by a State or private agency accredited under USDA's national organic standards.
Organic farming systems rely on practices such as cultural and biological pest management, and virtually prohibit synthetic chemicals in crop production and antibiotics or hormones in livestock production. For example, organic farmers provide habitat for predators and parasites of crop pests, rotate crops to maintain soil fertility, and cycle animal and green manures as fertilizer. Organic livestock growers try to accommodate an animal's natural nutritional and behavioral requirements.
Together, certified organic cropland and pasture accounted for about 0.6 percent of the U.S. total farmland in 2011. Only a small percentage of the top U.S. field crops—corn (0.3 percent), soybeans (0.2 percent), and wheat (0.6 percent)—were grown under certified organic farming systems. On the other hand, organic carrots (14 percent of U.S. carrot acreage), organic lettuce (12 percent), organic apples (5 percent) and other fruit and vegetable crops were more commonly organic-grown in 2011. Markets for organic vegetables, fruits, and herbs have been developing for decades in the United States, and fresh produce is still the top-selling organic category in retail sales. The most popular organic livestock and poultry specialties are dairy cows (approximately 3 percent of U.S. dairy cows were certified organic in 2011) and layer hens (2 percent of U.S. layer hens were certified organic in 2011).