Demand for Organic Foods Soaring

6 May

Dairy cows munch lazily on a grassy hilltop overlooking Traders Point Creamery as 23-year-old Marc Murnane strides into the organic creamery’s store in search of chocolate milk — lots of it.

In short order, he loads 12 one-quart bottles, at $3.50 each, into a box bound for Chicago, where his girlfriend’s father is among the growing number of Americans who’ve developed a taste for organic foods.

“He just loves the chocolate milk — and it really is the best stuff I’ve ever had,” Murnane says, describing the rich blend of sweet milk from grass-fed cows, organic sugar and cocoa.

The farm northwest of Indianapolis is part of a nationwide move to put organic foods in consumers’ reach.

Nationwide, the market for organic foods has soared from $3.57 billion in 1997 to $10.38 billion in 2003, according to Organic Trade Association. The group predicts sales will reach $14.5 billion by the end of 2005 as Americans buy everything from radishes to beef grown without conventional pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, antibiotics or growth hormones.

Indiana was late to join the organic food movement, which arose in the 1960s in response to modern chemical farming, but the state is starting to make up lost ground, said Cissy Bowman, executive director of Indiana Certified Organic, LLC.

As the state’s only government-approved organic certifier, she has given the stamp of approval to more than 50 Hoosier organic farms and expects that to double this year.

Herself an organic farmer, Bowman said the organic market has undergone incredible growth since she began raising organic vegetables 20 years ago on six acres near the Hendricks County town of Clayton.

“Any food you can think of, you can buy an organic version now. It’s not just that bag of whole wheat flour on the store shelf anymore,” she said.

Traders Point Creamery delivers to about 70 area stores, with weekly shipments to Chicago-area stores, but demand often outpaces supply, particularly during the winter and summer.

“The cows can’t keep up. We sell pretty much everything we produce,” said David Robb, the creamery’s manager of business development.

Cathy Greene, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, said the retail market for organic foods continues to grow about 20 percent each year.

Most people buy organic out of health concerns, she said. Some want to support environmentally friendly farms, but for others, it’s a quest for food with superior taste and nutrition.

“Whether the food tastes better or not is kind of subjective, but whether it’s more nutritious is something researchers are just starting to study,” Greene said.

According to the USDA, certified organic cropland in the United States grew nearly 75 percent between 1997 and 2001, the last year for which figures are available, and accounted for more than 2.3 million acres in 2001.

The USDA found an estimated 4,175 acres of certified organic cropland in Indiana in 2001, but Bowman said the 54 organic farms she’s certified in the state account for only about 2,370 acres.

Barbara Haumann, a senior writer with the Organic Trade Association, said there is no clear gauge of the nation’s organic agriculture industry. “The numbers are quite hazy,” she said. “The government just needs to do some better tracking.”

Although organic foods can cost two to three times more than their conventionally raised alternatives, Corinne Alexander, a Purdue University assistant professor of agricultural economics, said people, herself included, are willing to pay.

“I like the idea that right now the organic farmers are being rewarded with premium prices for their hard work. It’s really backbreaking work,” she said.

Traders Point Creamery’s 140 acres of pastures are planted with a mix of grasses and meadow plants that make its milk superior to that produced by grain-fed cows, said Robb.

The pastures are enriched with natural compost and by tilling under cover crops. The nutrient-rich droppings from the 60 Brown Swiss dairy cows also help green the fields, he said.

The fields thrive, Robb said, because they work in concert with nature. “The soil is a really a living entity, and chemicals kill all the good things in the soil when what we really need to be doing is stimulating those,” he said.

Organic Farming

With the organic market growing steadily, you may be interested in learning more about organic certification and organic production options.

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