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What We Can Learn from the 2014 Organic Production Survey

September 22, 2015

Washington, DC – Last week the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) released the results of the 2014 Organic Production Survey. This is the first comprehensive survey of the organic industry since 2008.

This blog summarizes some of the more interesting findings of the survey.

Editors Note: Farmers were required to fill out the 2014 Organic Production Survey. However, the results are self-reported, so there may be discrepancies between this data and the National Organic Program’s List of Certified Organic Operations. These discrepancies may exist because the survey includes farms exempt from certification, gaps in the lists used to distribute the survey, and the fact some farms may have multiple certifications. Exempt farms are those earning less than $5,000 annually from organic sales.

Organic Farmers Producing More on Less land

The survey found that there has been a decrease of about 10 percent in total organic acreage since 2008 (4.1 million to 3.7 million). This decrease of about 400,000 acres is double the approximately five percent decrease in all cropland found by the 2012 Census of Agriculture between since 2007.

However, organic farms had $5.5 billion of sales in 2014, a 72 percent increase since 2008.

While it is concerning that there has been a reduction in the total certified and exempt organic acreage, it is encouraging that the farms that have organic acreage have seen greatly increased sales.

This implies that organic farmers are doing more with less and seems to indicate that farmers have increased their efficiency as they have become more comfortable and more experienced with the production method.

Fewer Organic Farms but More Certified Organic Farms

According to the survey, there were 14,093 certified and exempt organic farms in 2014, which is down 3 percent (447 farms) since 2008.

The number of certified organic farms increased by 1,731 while the number of exempt farms fell over the same period. Exempt farms are organic farms with less than $5,000 in sales that choose not to become certified.

Given that organic sales greatly increased over this period it is likely that the increase in certified farms was a result of exempt farms increasing sales and becoming certified.

During the 2008-2014 period the number of exempt farms decreased by 60 percent from 3,637 to 1,459 exempt farms.

Losses From GMO Contamination Higher in Some States

While the total number of organic farms that reported direct financial losses from contamination of organic crops by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) from 2011-2014 was found to be relatively small,  less than 1 percent of all organic farms, a closer look at the state level data shows that there is some variance in level of farmer losses.

First, it must be noted that these are direct losses to individual farms and are self-reported.

These numbers likely don’t included any estimates about losses caused by loss of a market, such as was the case when non-approved GMO wheat was found in Eastern Oregon in 2013 or when China rejects shipments of grains because of the presence of unapproved GMO crops.

The percentage of organic farms experiencing losses in Illinois and Nebraska were both over 5 percent, while the number of farms with losses in California, the state with the most organic farms, was just over one tenth of one percent of farms.

In general, it appears organic farms in the Midwest experience more contamination. This could be attributable to the prevalence of GMO corn and soybeans plantings in those areas.

Notably, Texas accounted for over half the total reported losses with $3.8 million in losses total between three farms. While this represented just over 1 percent of Texas’ organic farms, the losses these farms experienced were huge.

Milk Dominates Sales but Crops are Largest Segment of Total Sales

Milk is by far the leading organic commodity in terms of sales, with $1.1 billion worth sold in 2014. This is more than double the sales of the next leading organic product, eggs at $420 million. Chicken sales are third at $372 million.

organic milk sales

The largest crop in terms of sales is lettuce at $264 million making it the fourth most valuable organic product overall.

Despite milk and poultry leading the way in sales, organic crops still dominate in terms of total sales, making up 60 percent of the $5.5 billion in total organic sales in 2014.

One reason for this could be that feed costs were reported as the highest production expense, even higher than farm labor. Farmers reported feed costs of $927 million, slightly more than reported labor costs of $917 million. These high feed costs can be a barrier to farmers entering the organic livestock market.

The Coasts Lead the Way on the Value of Organics, but Interior States Dominate on Acreage

Seven of the top 10 states for organic acreage are in the interior of the country. Among interior states, Montana leads the way with 318,000 organic acres, just less than half the organic acreage in California.

 organic acres 10 not bluetop 10 sales

Wisconsin, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Texas, and Idaho, all interior states, are among the top ten states for organic acreage.

Washington and Pennsylvania, which have the second and third highest organic sales, don’t even crack the top 10 in terms of organic acreage.

It is likely that this is the result of the fact that California, Washington and Pennsylvania are known to be large producers of specialty crops, which require less land than corn and soybeans. Vast amounts of land are needed to raise corn and soybeans to feed livestock and poultry.

Most Organics Sold within 100 miles, but not Directly to the Public

The survey found that 46 percent of organic sales have their first point of sale within 100 miles of the farm and that 80 percent of organic sales are within 500 miles.

organics distance traveled

This is juxtaposed to the fact that only eight percent of organic sales are made directly to consumers through farmers markets and CSAs. This indicated that the most organic crops are sold through intermediaries either for processing or distribution across the country.

Use of Green and Animal Manure is the Most Common Organic Production Practice on Organic Farms

The survey included a question about what kinds of organic practices farms utilize. They surveyed the use of 13 different organic practices. Green manure or animal manure, used to improved soil health, is the most widely utilized.

The second most popular practice was buffer strips which are often used to benefit pollinators, harbor beneficial insects, and as a protective measure against harmful insects and diseases.

Unfortunately, the survey did not offer a specific question about the use of cover crops outside of the green manure question. We hope that NASS will consider including cover crops among an extended but more precise list of organic practices during its next survey.


This survey was conducted as a follow-on to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The 2014 Organic Production Survey was modeled after a nearly identical survey conducted in 2008 as the first follow-on survey of organic producers following the 2008 Census of Agriculture. NASS also conducted a more limited survey of organic agriculture in 2011, which was aimed at only certified operations, and primarily focused on the collection of price data to inform the development of organic crop insurance policies.

The 2014 Organic Production Survey results are the compilation of the answers to questionnaires sent to all organic producers, including exempt farms and farms transitioning to organic, in January 2015.  The survey was distributed in 2015, but the questions cover the 2014 crop year.

Categories: General Interest, Local & Regional Food Systems, Organic

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