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Looking to Harness ‘Great Potential,’ Pa. Banks on the Future of Organic Agriculture

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by Cassie Miller, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
July 26, 2023

As demand for organically grown food continues to increase across the country, Pennsylvania is bolstering its efforts to capitalize on the trend and position itself as a leader in the organic sector through substantial investments at the state level.  

Building on the Pennsylvania Farm Bill, which allocates $1.6 million annually to support organic farming, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed another $1 million investment in organics in the 2023-24 fiscal year budget, calling organics the “future of Pennsylvania agriculture.”

Shapiro’s budget includes funding to create the Organic Center of Excellence to act as a “gateway” to services and resources for farmers and producers transitioning to organic farming. 

To that end, the administration has said that the Organic Center of Excellence would provide a “coordinated, multi-faceted, and strategic effort to invest in and nurture the growth of organic agriculture.”

The center would remove obstacles for producers, such as streamlining access to state services and building on existing public-private partnerships with industry groups such as The Rodale Institute in Kutztown. 

On a visit to Rodale last week, Shapiro touted the investments by his administration to grow the organic industry with the help of private partners. 

Gov. Josh Shapiro and Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding celebrate Organic Field Day and meet veteran farmers at the Rodale Institute on Friday, July 21, 2023. (Commonwealth Media Service photo)

“We need to come together to support this innovation with smart investments – and that’s what our Commonwealth has done with the Rodale Institute, investing over $5.3 million in grants that fund research and job training initiatives,” Shapiro said. “My administration will continue to make these investments, fully funding the Pennsylvania Farm Bill and creating an Organic Center of Excellence to support the future of Pennsylvania agriculture.”

By the numbers

“Pennsylvania currently ranks third in the nation in organic sales and fourth in organic farms, with great potential to continue advancing this sector,” Ashley Fehr, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said. 

The organic farming boom has nearly tripled in the commonwealth over the last decade, increasing from 421 organic farms in 2011 to 1,125 farms in 2021, a 167% increase, according to the department.

By comparison, the number of organic farmers nationally grew from 8,516 organic farms to 17,430 over the same period, reflecting a 105% increase. 

Organic farming is also fueling economic growth in the commonwealth’s $132.5 billion agriculture industry. 

In 2021, Pennsylvania farms produced and sold $1.09 billion in organic commodities, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. That figure is a 48% increase from 2019 — the last time the USDA organics survey was conducted. 

The top organic commodities in Pennsylvania as of 2021 were livestock and poultry, generating $730 million in sales, and mushrooms, generating $95.4 million.

The transition process

The process for farmers and producers wanting to make the transition to organics can be arduous, taking multiple steps over several years before many can receive the organic certification. 

The first step, which can be one of the most difficult for farmers, is to adopt organic practices and discontinue the use of prohibited substances for three years unless they can prove that substances prohibited for the organic certification were not used on their farms during the last three years. 

During this initial transition, it is not uncommon for farmers to experience crop failures and monetary losses. 

“We know on the other side, it’s more profitable, but it’s just getting them through that transition period and so that is why all of this transition support is coming out,” Diane Kobus, executive director for Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a Pennsylvania-based organic certifier said. 

After the three-year wait, farmers and producers must develop an organic system plan to comply with USDA organic regulations and submit an application to a certifying agent for review. 

After reviewing the plan, an inspector will visit the site to determine if the operation meets regulatory compliance. If so, the certifying agent can issue an organic certification. 

With that in mind, Pennsylvania Certified Organic, which is based in Centre County, is working to certify agricultural producers in organic farming across 25 states, making it the fifth largest organic certifier in the country. 

Kobus said that while the benefits of organic farming are numerous, the reality of transitioning to organic can be challenging to navigate for traditional producers because it requires a significant amount of paperwork.

“It’s just a whole ‘nother way of farming and in doing business,” Kobus explained. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture also recognized that without state-level investments in support and resources, Pennsylvania’s farmers will not be able to meet the growing demand and capitalize on the organic industry. 

“The Commonwealth must continue to give Pennsylvania farmers, producers, and processors support to capture the benefits and opportunities of the organic marketplace, which has grown faster than the ability to meet Pennsylvania consumers’ demand,” Fehr said. “At the same time, that marketplace continues to get more competitive, and while information is readily available, it can be overwhelming to find trustworthy and reliable sources, and our farmers’ time remains incredibly valuable and limited.” 

But the investments aren’t just coming from the state level. 

Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, both Democrats from Pennsylvania, introduced federal legislation to support organic farming. 

The bill would amend the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998 and the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 to expand organic research. 

Pa. Sens. Fetterman, Casey introduce bill to expand funding for organic farming

Fetterman said the bill would expand resources for the “critical” industry. 

“We’re one of the top organic-producing states, and we need to keep it that way,” Fetterman, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement announcing the legislation. 

Kobus said creating new funding streams for research in the organic sector is incredibly important, not only because it could help knowledge of organic practices become more widely available but because it shields the research from potential outside influences. 

To illustrate that point, Kobus pointed out that many institutions have their research funded by multinational corporations, as well as pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

“Where research money comes from is really important,” Kobus said. And so, we don’t really have those corporations to lean on for funding. Like, no corporation is going to fund research that is going to put them out of business.”

A ‘win-win-win’

Supporters of organic agriculture point to its myriad environmental benefits as reasons to support the transition, including its ability to mitigate climate change by increasing the soil’s ability to sequester carbon and reduce erosion, as well as its ability to reduce groundwater contamination due to the lack of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers used in organic farming. 

But there are economic benefits too. 

In 2021, Pennsylvania organic sales were 9.8% of the nation’s total organic sales volume, according to USDA data. 

“It [organic agriculture] creates more jobs, it creates a better revenue for the farmers and it’s better for the environment and the community,” Kobus said. “So I mean, it’s like a win-win-win situation when we’re talking about any of those areas — economy, environment, job creation.”

Kobus also said that organic agriculture can help support supply chain resiliency by reducing the nation’s demand for international goods, such as feed-grade grain for livestock. 

“The more that we can grow locally, the more we can have resiliency in that supply chain,” Kobus said. “It’s costing the farmers less and they have better access to it.” 

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.