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As Organic Industry Grows, It Edges Toward Mainstream

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

Chives bloom at the Student Organic Farm at Iowa State University. Sales of organic produce continue to rise, according to the Organic Trade Association.

Sales of organic food reportedly climbed to record highs in 2016, an indication organics are edging toward the mainstream.

In a new industry report, the Organic Trade Association says American consumers spent $43 billion on organic products in 2016, which accounts for more than 5 percent of total U.S. food sales, a high water mark for the organic industry.

The counter-culture movement that once agitated the food industry from the periphery has grown much closer to conventional says Iowa State University sociologist Carmen Bain.

“I think there’s a real tension among some producers, organic producers, consumers, advocacy groups, and so forth about what direction to they want organic to go in,” Bain says.

With organic products now coming from some of the nation’s largest growers and processors, such as Driscoll’s berries and Kellogg’s cereals, many early advocates have turned their attention to small, local farms.

Bain says with demand for organic produce continuing to grow, though, more farmers are likely to look toward organic production. It remains a challenge.

“There’s opportunities there for organic farmers and there are farmers who want to take advantage of this demand,” Bain says. “But they need some help in terms of some investment.”

She says that could include government or private sector financial help in transitioning land to organic production, such as a program to help sustain profitability during the three years it takes to transition to organic certification. But she says it’s also important to resolve differences in supports for conventional crops and organic ones, such as crop insurance.

The OTA report also shows growth in sales of organic products such as personal care items and cleaning supplies. Organic produce remains the driver in organic sales, growing last year almost three times as much as the growth in total fruit and vegetable s

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.