NSAC's Blog

Organic Survey: Update and 2019 Recommendations

May 14, 2019

Organic produce at Washington DC's Dupont Farmers Market. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.
Organic produce at Washington DC’s Dupont Farmers Market. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is preparing to survey the nation’s organic farmers in an effort to collect data on acreage, production, and sales for a variety of organic crop and livestock commodities. Earlier this year, NASS announced that it would begin soliciting feedback on its proposal for the 2019 Organic Survey, which the agency anticipates should be underway by the end of the year. In advance of each organic survey, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) provides recommendations to NASS on how to improve the format and contents of the survey in order to best capture important trends in organic agriculture.

NSAC, in partnership with NSAC member group the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and the National Organic Coalition (NOC), recently submitted recommendations for the upcoming 2019 Organic Survey. The survey’s data is hugely important for organic producers and policymakers, and NSAC’s goal in providing early feedback to NASS is to ensure that data collection reflects the voices and needs of organic farmers and key stakeholders within the organic community. NSAC’s recommendations to NASS in advance of this year’s survey are outlined below.


The 2019 Organic Survey follows the Census of Agriculture, which was released last month, and seeks to provide a national estimate of organic crop production, costs, and management practices. The survey has become a valuable source of data on the health of and emerging trends in organic agriculture; findings are released every five years.

All certified organic, exempt from organic certification, and transitioning to organic operations will be surveyed – NASS estimates that 20,000 operations will be contacted as part of the upcoming survey. The survey will include questions on acres planted and harvested, livestock produced and sold, expenses, and sales.  

Interest in and demand for organic agriculture has been steadily increasing over the last few years. In order to scale up supply to meet demand, however, farmers and policymakers need to be able to identify the best tools, technologies, and policies to grow the industry and keep it competitive. The data collected by the survey also helps the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA) develop more organic prices elections for federal crop insurance policies.

Addressing Organic Contamination

NASS proposes eliminating the “GMO Presence in Organic Crops” question from this year’s survey, a question that was first included five years ago in the 2014 survey. This question asked for information about the economic losses organic operations suffered as a direct result of the unintended presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are prohibited under the National Organic Program (NOP).

In our recommendations, NSAC urges NASS to retain the question on GMO contamination given the impact of this issue on the future of organic production. GMO contamination is a real risk faced by organic farmers, which has potentially devastating consequences, including the loss of access to organic markets.

Organic farmers protect their fields from GMO contamination by installing buffer zones, delaying planting, and routine testing of their crops. These methods, however, do not provide 100 percent protection. To account for the GMO-related challenges organic farmers face, including the costs incurred in implementing measures to prevent GMO trespass, we believe the retention of the contamination question is critical. NSAC has also suggested amendments to the question that would improve clarity and simplicity, so that farmers can more easily provide useful information that in turn will inform future policies on GMO contamination.

Additionally, NSAC urged NASS to include of a new question on the unintended presence of pesticides. The addition of a question on the effects of unintended pesticides will further farmers’ and policy makers’ understanding of the economic losses organic farmers face as a result of pesticide drift.

Organic Production Expenses

Also under consideration for elimination is the survey’s section on production expenses – these questions collect total production costs paid by farms, as well as the percentage of their total expenses used to support organic production. Expenses include but are not limited to: costs for organic certification, agricultural inputs (i.e., fertilizers, soil amendments), livestock feed, and repairs and supplies. The data collected by these questions is extremely important in order to develop an understanding of which specific expenses are most significant for organic production.

Given the unique production costs that organic farmers face, information on specific costs is critical to policy makers’ understanding of the financial needs of organic agriculture The data collected in the organic production expenses section informs policies on research on organic seeds, risk management tools, and the financial needs and limitations of farmers transitioning to organic, among others.

NSAC also recommended that NASS modify the list of expenses asked about by the survey in order to increase alignment with the way that seed and plant costs are reported for the IRS. This harmonization would make the survey more farmer-friendly, and also increase response rates.

Crop Insurance

Organic farmers have struggled to access crop insurance policies that fully meet their needs and reflect the price premiums they receive for their crops. Organizations like NSAC have worked hard over the last decade to remove barriers and increase access to crop insurance for organic producers, however, much more work remains. In order to remove barriers and expand options for organic producers, more information is needed to understand current crop insurance availability.

In our comments, NSAC suggests expanding the current survey questions to ask whether: organic policies are available for certain crops; crop insurance adjusters and agents are familiar with organic production and insurance policies; insurance is a feasible option for the operation given the costs and frequency of their losses.

Transitional Acreage

Another important set of information regarding organic production includes data on organic transition. This data set includes a count of how much land is transitioning from conventional to organic production, which commodities will be produced on the transitioned acreage, as well as possible barriers to transition.

In our comments, NSAC recommended asking producers to identify:

  • What plans if any, they had for the future transition of additional acres
  • What crops or livestock will be grown or raised on future acres transitioned
  • Any potential barriers to transitioning additional land into organic production (e.g., limited availability of land, rising costs of farmland, lack of secure tenure on farmland)

We also asked NASS to explore ways to collect further details on the current use of the land intended for transition to organic production, if that land is not currently in agricultural production. This data can be used to help analyze trends underlying market shifts and organic growth, as well as provide background information on the decision farmers make to expand their business.

Availability of Certified Organic Seeds

Organic farmers are allowed to use non-organic seed if organic varieties are unavailable in a given region. How often organic farmers need to rely on non-organic seed, and for which crops, is important information both for farmers and also for policy makers making decisions about research and plant breeding programs.

NSAC strongly urged NASS to collect this information by adding an additional question on certified organic seed production to this year’s survey. If included, this question would help stakeholders to better evaluate whether farmers have sufficient access to organic seeds, and where future research priorities for organic plant breeding should focus.

What’s next?

NASS estimates the 2019 Organic Survey will be mailed to respondents in early January 2020, with a second mailing later that month to non-respondents. Those who receive the survey in paper format will also be able to submit their feedback online. Published results of the survey are expected to be released in December 2020.

NSAC and our partners at OFRF, NOC, and throughout the organic sector will continue working to ensure that robust, high-quality data is collected by NASS so that stakeholders can better understand  new and ongoing trends in organic agriculture.

Categories: Organic, Research, Education & Extension

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