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2017 Census of Agriculture Shines Bright Spot on Organic Production

April 29, 2019

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released the 2017 Census of Agriculture. The census, which is conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) every five years, shows continued and significant growth in the organic sector.

Nationally the number of organic farms counted in 2017 jumped to 18,166, which is up from 14,326 in 2012. The total value of sales of organic products more than doubled during the same time frame, from $3.12 billion to $7.2 billion. In Maine the number of organic farms held relatively steady, although the number of certified organic farms increased from 457 to 535. Farms that follow organic practices but gross less than $5,000 annually are exempt from organic certification but may be counted as organic in the census. The number of organic farms that are exempt from certification decreased during the timeframe.

In line with the national trend, the value of organic products in Maine shows significant growth. The total organic product sales for the state grew by approximately $23 million since 2012 to $60 million. Per farm organic sales in the state show a similar upward trajectory, with the average per farm total organic product sales calculated at $108,744 as compared to the average per farm market value of products for all other farms in the state, which dropped six percent since 2012 to $87,758. The numbers for organic production shine a bright spot on a report that ultimately shows some concerning trends in Maine and nationally.

Those trends include the following:

  • The average age of farmers continues to rise. Nationally the average age of farmers is 57.5, which is up from 56.3 in 2012. In Maine the average age rose to 57.4 from 55.1.
  • Maine saw significant declines in acreage farmed from 2012 to 2017, with 1,307,613 acres in farmland, which is down from 1,454,104 in 2012.
  • The total number of farms in Maine declined from 8,173 to 7,600.
  • Farms in the middle of the spectrum are being lost. There are more of the smallest and largest-sized operations.

These trends are obstacles that require policies and resources that support organic producers as well as those transitioning to organic production as a clear path toward revitalizing agriculture. The 2017 census ranked the state of Maine third in the nation for the number of beginning farmers, which offers proof that support programs like MOFGA's beginning farmer programs can work to reverse these trends.

A recent survey of graduates of MOFGA's Journeyperson Program, which assists farms that have been operating for fewer than 10 years, found that 92 percent of respondents are still farming and 87 percent are doing so in Maine. Graduates of this program are farming in all 16 Maine counties, and they are farming more than 10,000 acres throughout the state. These farms have created nearly 800 paid jobs and $10 million in annual sales.

Despite these encouraging numbers, policies and resources to support farms represent only one component of the work that needs to be done. All of us play a significant role in creating positive change with our daily food choices. The census indicates that the number of consumers purchasing local foods directly from a farmer grew by 114 percent nationally, and sales to local and direct markets are growing, although they still represent a small fraction of total sales. Ensuring continued growth of the agricultural community in Maine starts with purchasing foods and other agricultural products that are certified organic by MOFGA, thus supporting local organic growers. Search for MOFGA certified producers here.

Additional evaluation of census data will be included in the summer issue of MOFGA's newspaper, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

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