Organically grown are gaining ground Alternatives: An increasing demand from consumers for foods grown without chemical assistance promises to keep organic crops the fastest growing area of agriculture.

March 07, 1998|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

WYE MILLS -- The organic food industry has been the fastest growing segment of agriculture in recent years, and sales are not about to level off anytime soon, an industry official told a gathering of farmers attending an "Ag Alternatives" conference here this week.

Based on consumer surveys and the worldwide increase in the acreage used for growing crops without the use of chemical herbicides or pesticides, William M. Wolf predicted that organic food sales will grow at a rate close to 30 percent over the next two to three years. This is up from the 20 percent to 25 percent growth rate the industry has enjoyed since the beginning of the decade.

Wolf is president of Wolf & Associates Inc. in Salem, Va., and president of the Organic Materials Review Institute, a clearing house for information on organic products and what is allowed in organic production.

He was a keynote speaker Wednesday at a two-day conference held at Chesapeake College, sponsored by the Future Harvest Project, an Annapolis-based organization composed of farmers and environmentalists to promote and foster the economic stability of agriculture while protecting the environment.

Despite its strong growth, Wolf said organic foods are still a tiny ,, part of the U.S. market -- less than 1 percent last year. Although the final figures are not in, he said the industry expects sales for 1997 to come in at between $4.2 billion and $4.4 billion.

This flurry of activity presents some good opportunities for Maryland farmers, said Early Monroe, a free-range livestock and organic vegetable grower in Frederick County and president of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association.

Monroe said the change in people's eating habits are going to generate higher demand for organically grown vegetables as well as grain to feed livestock and soybeans used in the making of tofu, a main ingredient in such products as veggie burgers and fat-free imitation sausage.

Monroe said that organic food processors are paying about $16 a bushel for soybeans, slightly more than double the price of conventional beans.

He said that edible soybeans, used in a wide variety of processed food, are bringing $25 a bushel.

Monroe said he would like to see Maryland's agriculture and economic development agencies take advantage of this trend and move to make the state a center of organic food production.

He would like the state to assist private investors in setting up organic grain, livestock and dairy processing plants that would give farmers a market for their crops.

Last summer, Horizon Organic Dairy Inc., of Boulder, Colo., fTC began work on a dairy near Chestertown to help meet the demand for organic milk in the Baltimore- Washington market.

By next month, it is expected to be one of the largest dairies in the state, with 500 cows. It hopes to eventually milk 1,000 cows.

Robert Pooler, manager of the organic certification program of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the dairy is looking for local supplies of grain.

Horizon has said it will need nearly 2,600 tons of alfalfa hay each year along with 1,300 tons of barley and 891 tons of corn.

Pooler said that two other dairies, one in New York and one in Wisconsin, also are looking at the possibility of opening organic farms in the region.

Wolf said that dairy is the fastest growing part of the organic food industry.

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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