Fall 2009

The Business of Organics

Fall 2009 cover
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With a short growing season and an elevation of more than 4,000 feet, the Klamath Basin has always pushed farmers to get a crop. But some in the flood plains of the Lower Klamath and Tule lake wildlife refuges have another advantage: Water floods their fields in the winter and creates favorable conditions for organic production the following summer.

In the fastest growing segment of the agricultural economy, Klamath County has more certified organic acres (31,000, or more than 25 percent of Oregon’s total) than any other county in the state, growing wheat, barley, hay, potatoes and other crops. Brian Charlton of Oregon State University’s Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center says rich flood-plain soils boost production, and the climate helps reduce pests. Farmers take advantage to grow one of the basin’s newest products, organic Klamath Pearl Potatoes, whose sweetness and light texture draw rave reviews from chefs in high-end restaurants. Also being eyed by the Klamath Basin’s organic producers is a new specialty potato known as Purple Pelisse, a variety high in antioxidants and developed through OSU leadership.

Since the mid-1970s, Oregon has been at the forefront of the organic agriculture movement. Oregon Tilth created the nation’s first organic standards, which were adopted by California and Washington state and became a model for the USDA’s national program. In the past decade, the number of certified organic farms in the country has grown by two-thirds. Although the USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture ranked Oregon 28th for value of all agricultural products sold, the state is in the top 10 for the number of organic farms and is now home to Amy’s Kitchen, the country’s largest producer of frozen organic foods.

Organic farms still account for less than 1 percent of the state’s agricultural acres, but OSU researchers are nurturing them by establishing predictable methods that meet standards and solve the everyday problems common to all food producers. Their efforts include one of the world’s largest certified organic blueberry trials. Studies are under way with hazelnuts, pears, cherries, potatoes (Oregon’s most valuable vegetable), forage and other crops. Dairy scientists from OSU, Cornell and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are comparing management and milk production on conventional and organic dairy farms.

Oregon’s organic sector brought in more than $88 million in 2007, according to the USDA. Recent news stories note that for the first time in a decade, the recession is taking a bite out of organic food sales. Nevertheless, as our cover story notes, organic farming has gone from being the commitment of a few to a mainstream business strategy.

— Nick Houtman