Consumers pay higher prices if they want organic products Cost-break expected soon with increase in supply

Agriculture

November 29, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

That organic broiler the family just finished off probably cost three times as much as a conventional bird.

Growing numbers of consumers are willing to pay a premium price for the peace of mind that their produce was grown in soil free of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, said James Duffy, chief of domestic marketing at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The same is true for chicken, pork and beef that have not been treated with growth stimulants or hormones.

Health food devotees are getting bigger bills at the checkout counter, but they could be in line for a price break.

Early Monroe, chairman of the Maryland Food and Farming Association, said organic products cost more at the store because they cost more to produce.

"Organic farming is much more labor intensive," said Monroe, who runs a chemical-free farm in Frederick County. "We don't use chemicals to get rid of weeds, we hoe them, pull them, cut them or cover them. We don't use herbicides to control insects. There's a natural herbal product we can use, but it costs twice as much."

He pointed to a 1,000-pound bale of oats, which costs $100, that will help his Black Angus cattle through the winter. "Nonorganic, it would cost $35."

It takes four generations to rid a cow of all chemicals in its meat, he said. If cattle get sick and need to be given medication by a veterinarian, they can't be sold as organic. They are sent off to auction at a significant financial loss.

Another factor is supply and demand. The organic industry is small and struggling to meet the demand of more health-conscious shoppers.

Monroe said he sells a 4-pound organic fryer for $12. "You can go to the grocery store and get a nonorganic 4-pound fryer for $3 or $4."

He said that if he is successful in doubling his poultry production next year he should be able to cut his fryer price to $10.50 while earning the same profit.

"Organic food will never be as low as regular food at the grocery store," Monroe said, "but consumers can expect some price breaks in the next year or two."

Pub Date: 11/29/97

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