Small Farms: A Drop In The Organic Bucket

For people in the “Food Movement,” the ideal sort of farm would be a small, organic farm that is “local” by at least some definition of that term.  This is most likely to happen in California, so it is interesting to look at a detailed report that came out last week from the University of California with statistics about organic agriculture in the Golden State from 2005 to 2009.  On page 12 of the document there is an interesting table that breaks down the organic market by the magnitude of sales.  It goes from organic farms that have $5,000 or less in sales a year to those that sell more than $1 million.  It lists what percent of all the organic farms and what percent of all the Organic sales fall into each “scale” category.

A summary of these data is shown in the graph and table above.  Indeed, 29% of California organic farms fall into the <$10,000/acre/year range which corresponds to what can be produced on 0-2 acres.  There were 676 such farms in 2009.  Together they produced so little of the Organic sales that they show up as zero percent in the UC document.  If you go to the slightly larger farms (sales of up to $100,000 and probably in the 2-20 acre range), you add another 35% of organic farms and the combined 64% of this definition of “small” organic farms produce 4% of sales of organic in California.  In California we have a lot of small organic farms (~1,491 out of 2,330 in 2009), but they don’t produce much of the total organic production that is sold.

What Is a Small Organic Farm? What is Large?

There is no consensus agreement on what constitutes a “small farm” or what makes something an “industrial farm.”  The next category of organic farms have sales between $100,000 and $1 million/year.  Are those large or small?  It all depends on your definition.  These are farms in the 20-200 acre range if they are producing fruits or vegetables, and they account for 25% of California organic sales.

According to this UC study, the vast majority of organic products come from the 8% of organic farms with at least $1 million in annual sales (72%  of total sales in 2009, up from 68% in 2005).  These are farms with average sales of $3.6MM which would correspond to something like 700 acres in the case of fruit or vegetable crops.  There are ~186 Organic farms of this scale in California.  In many cases, these are the organic divisions of much larger farms or grower/shipper organizations which also provide the bulk of conventional produce. I’m confident that if you had a chance to visit these farms you would be impressed with their operations in terms of environmental stewardship, labor practices and food safety practices.  This is true for both their organic and conventional production.

So, What Does This Mean?

It means that if you are getting your organic food from small farms, you are part of a tiny, elite, sub-section of the organic market which is already a small percentage of the overall market, even in California.  The “small farm, organic” sector is not a meaningful contribution to the food supply.  That is not a value judgement, it is just a mathematical fact.  We are talking about 0-4% of  organic which represents only around 5% of even fruit and vegetable crops even in California. 4% times 5% means 0.2%.

The Food Movement tells us that “small-scale, organic farming” is the ideal.  They don’t tell us that an absurdly tiny fraction of our food supply fits their criterion.  They don’t explain how that could realistically change.



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  1. SBG

    Firstly, I have no idealogical preference between ‘small organic’ and ‘industrial organic’ as both are significant improvements over conventional systems.

    Are you making the argument that because ‘small organic’ currently only represents less than 0.2% of the market it is pointless to pursue it?

    That would be akin to saying in the 1990’s that renewable energy is not worth pursuing because it only represents a tiny fraction of total generating capacity.
    Change has to start from somewhere!

    Additionally, ‘small organic’ can and probably will grow to represent a much larger fraction of the market whether you like it or not. Rising energy prices are aleady putting pressure on conventional ag and its synthetic nutrient addiction. Peak phosphorous will also throw a spanner in the works and be equally catastrophic to current farming practices. Small organic farms supported by human labour instead of oil, and maintenance of biological cycles instead of synthetic nutrient imports will just grow out of neccessity.

  2. Steve Savage

    I’m only pointing out that what many consumers believe – that Organic comes from small farms – is really not true. As for growth potential, Organic is highly dependent on animal agriculture for compost, bone meal, blood meal etc. That is not an endless resource. As for phosphorus, Organic is in the same boat because all the phosphorus ultimately comes from the same mined resource. Synthetic nitrogen comes from the essentially endless and cycling nitrogen gas in the atmosphere. The energy to capture it via the Haber Bosch process just requires hydrogen and that does not have to come from fossil fuel. As for the human energy part, demographic changes in Central America are going to make it impossible for us to continue our shameful lack of a guest worker program. I’ve been watching Organic since the late 70s and after all those years it still only represents 0.52% of US Cropland. To think that it will ever be more than a niche is unrealistic. I’m much more interested in the very real improvements in the sustainability of the 99.5% of agriculture which tends to be ignored

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