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California Has Double The Organic Farms Of Any Other State, But Expansion Is Slowing

Andrew Nixon/Capital PublicRadio
Magaña Organic Farms owner Bertha Magaña (right) and her employees plant kale on her land in Prunedale.";

California has more than twice as many certified organic farms than any other state, according to the latest federal numbers.

While that might sound impressive, the rate at which farms are transitioning to organic is actually slowing.

The most recent USDA Agricultural Census compares numbers from 2012 and 2017. It shows 3,335 — nearly 4.7% — of California's 70,521 farms are certified organic. Sales from those farms represented 6.3% of total farm sales in 2017.

Wisconsin has the second largest number of organic farms with 1,537.

But when you look at trends in California the numbers show fewer acres in the state are in the process of becoming organic.

There are several steps a farm must take to become certified, including USDA regulations that any field or farm parcel must have had no pesticides, herbicides or other prohibited chemicals applied to it for a period of three years. 

In 2012 there were 465 acres transitioning from conventional farming to organic farming in California. That number dropped to 374 in 2017, a decrease of 20 percent.

Kelly Damewood is the CEO of California Certified Organic Farmers. She believes there are two possible reasons.

"I think the first factor is a general overall trend to consolidation,” Damewood said. “So, less people growing more and taking more of the market share."

Damewood said supply is also closer to catching demand than it was in 2012, with some of that produce rotating seasonally out of Arizona and Mexico.

"They may grow in California for part of the year, Yuma, Arizona for part of the year, and Mexico for part of the year,” said Damewood. "So, you do see a lot of California-based operations also starting to have Mexico-based operations as well, so that they can meet their buyers' year-round needs."

The trend nationwide shows an increase in transitioning acreage with a jump of 15%.

While California’s rate of organic expansion is slowing, it’s still adding more land than any other state. California was preparing to transition 374 acres in 2017. The next closest state was Ohio with an increase of 254.

Farmers completed a follow-up survey in January 2020, with new numbers expected in October.

Copyright 2020 Capital Public Radio