Organic food sales boom during pandemic

PORTLAND — The produce section at New Seasons Market in Portland was bustling on a weekday afternoon. Customers were filling carts and handbaskets with organic produce.

Grocers and industry experts say the pandemic has driven record sales and interest in organic food.

“I think there’s probably a combination of reasons. Certainly there’s the local connection and people want to feel secure and have access to a stable food source. But I also think people are just really tuned into health right now,” said Sarah Brown, education and advocacy director at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that certifies organic producers.

Brown, herself a farmer, said interest in her organic products has doubled since COVID-19 hit.

According to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, the trend extends beyond Oregon; organics are experiencing record sales nationwide. Organic food sales skyrocketed during the run on grocery stores in March, but even as markets have settled, sales remain strong.

“Sales of organic fresh produce show no signs of slowing and continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of the Organic Produce Network, said in a statement.

The Organic Trade Association’s report for the third quarter of 2020 shows organic fresh produce sales are 16% higher than the same timeframe last year.

The West is leading in terms of growth rate. This quarter in the western U.S., sales of organic produce are up 20% higher than last year in the same timeframe and region.

Mike Boyle, vice president of sales and sourcing at Organically Grown Co., a wholesale distributor, said many consumers are return customers simply buying larger volumes, but he said the organic movement also picked up new consumers.

Packaged salads, fruits and herbs have generated the highest growth, data show. Berries are the top organic fruit seller, generating more than $217 million in sales, followed by apples and bananas.

Experts say consumers have also purchased larger volumes of organic meat, poultry, eggs and milk during COVID-19.

One farmer told Small Ag Press she spent weeks trying to buy a freezer, but Home Depot, Lowe’s, Jerry’s and other suppliers told her they were sold out and back-ordered for months since more Americans are buying freezers this year to stock up on locally sourced meat.

Organic produce is still a small segment of the overall produce sector, but experts say the numbers of organic farms and acres are growing.

Certifiers say more farms are going organic.

“As a certifier, what I can speak to is that there has been no slowdown in applicants getting certified. You’d think with disruptions in the supply chain, you’d see a slowdown, but farms and companies are as interested as ever in getting certified,” said Brown of Oregon Tilth.

Experts predict consumer interest will remain strong.

“I think that the organic industry is going to continue to grow,” said Boyle of Organically Grown Co.


Some farmers frustrated by conservation program rule change

The Trump administration this month made several key changes to USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program rule in the Federal Register — changes some farmers like and others don’t.

Advocates say the rule change will incentivize producers to expand conservation activities. Critics say the new rule tends to favor larger farms, leaving small and midsized farms unrewarded for conservation efforts.

CSP, a popular program run by USDA in all 50 states and established by the 2018 Farm Bill, offers financial incentives to farms that make conservation efforts, such as developing wildlife habitat, improving grazing conditions and sequestering carbon.

Since last November, USDA records show the agency received some 600 comments on the interim final rule. Based on that feedback, USDA staffers say they changed the rule. The changes include prioritizing some conservation goals over others, rewarding new conservation efforts more than existing ones and changing payment rates.

“The rule change calls into question whether the program exists solely to have an environmental outcome or if its purpose is to support farmers who are doing the right thing,” said Eric Deeble, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “I think those separate goals have to be balanced because these are taxpayer dollars. But the new rule isn’t balanced.”

Deeble called the rule change a “slap in the face” to small producers. He said farms with existing conservation efforts will receive significantly less support according to the changed rule than farms that have few or no conservation efforts in place but choose to make one new change.

“The rule places too much priority on new and big. I’d prefer a more thoughtful rule that rewards both existing and new efforts, and also considers farms of all sizes,” said Deeble.

Small farm leaders have expressed concern that the new rule rewards changes to large acreage or livestock numbers more than the faithful work of some small farms.

The new rule also leaves minimum payment rates ambiguous. In its original form, the rule awarded small farms a minimum of $1,500 per year if that farm met certain conservation benchmarks.

Now, experts say, the new rule may not set a minimum payment amount. Industry leaders say they fear small farms may invest in conservation infrastructure expecting to get reimbursed, but may not receive what they need to make it worth their time and money.

But some policy experts say the favoritism shown toward larger farms in the new rule makes sense. Realistically, they say, one large farm making conservation changes will likely have a much bigger impact on the environment than dozens of small farms making the same changes. The new incentive structure, therefore, is weighted toward large producers.

A USDA spokeswoman said the program has already been successful in helping farms reach conservation goals across the U.S.

In a statement, Kevin Norton, acting chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the final rule aligns better with the agency’s other existing conservation programs and will “help farmers put more robust conservation activities in place.”


Indoor farmer grows his greens vertically

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Ken Kaneko, founder of Forward Greens, recalls the first time he saw a vertical farm.

Kaneko was a tech scientist for Intel at the time, on a business trip to Japan. When he stumbled upon a Japanese vertical farm — plants stacked high to the ceiling — Kaneko said he remembers being amazed.

Back in the U.S., he researched indoor vertical farming. In 2017, he incorporated in Vancouver, Wash., and in 2018, he started selling microgreens to grocery stores across the Pacific Northwest.

Kaneko said the business is an intersection of his passions. He said he loves salad and is able to use skills he learned from the tech world.

“I’m not doing technology for the sake of technology. Every design has a reason,” he said.

Kaneko’s vertical farm is one of just a handful like it in the West.

Globally, vertical farming is taking root. “Plant factories” filled with vertically stacked shelves are gaining popularity in the Netherlands, Japan, Scotland and other nations. But experts say the U.S. isn’t likely to adopt vertical farming on a wide scale anytime soon.

“The Netherlands and Japan are small countries with relatively high populations. Here in America, we’ve got all kinds of space. Especially here in the West, there’s so much room. I’m betting for a while, it’s still going to be easier and cheaper to go wide instead of going tall,” said Mykl Nelson, instructor of urban agriculture at Oregon State University.

But for Kaneko and a few other pioneers in the Pacific Northwest, growing vertical has its perks.

The classic appeal, experts say, is that for urban dwellers, the greens are as local and fresh as it gets. Kaneko’s greens are shipped from 1 to 150 miles, whereas greens from Arizona or California may be shipped more than 2,000 miles to Portland.

Advocates also tout vertical farming as more “sustainable.” Kaneko said his greens use 95% less water, 99% less land and 100% fewer pesticides than conventional greens grown outdoors.

Nelson of OSU added that vertical farms also have more control over “weather” conditions and shorter harvest turn-around times.

Consumers are taking notice.

Jeff Fairchild, grocery buyer for New Seasons Market in Portland, said he has seen an increase in interest from shoppers.

Fairchild said the total market share, however, remains small. The microgreens may be delicate, delicious and locally grown, he said, but they still have to compete with big, crunchy heads of lettuce from places like Salinas, Calif.

And vertical farming, experts say, has other downsides. OSU’s Nelson said LED lighting, though decreasing in cost, is still expensive, and while vertical farmers are typically more sustainable in water use, their higher electricity use can translate into higher carbon emissions.

“Sustainability is kind of a nebulous thing because right now it’s really vague,” said Nelson.

Kaneko remains excited by the positive consumer response. His team produces about 500 pounds of greens a day, and Kaneko hopes to reach 1,500 pounds per day in the next few years as he expands into more stores.


Demand for winter vegetables takes root during pandemic

Demand for winter vegetables is growing as more consumers seek to buy local food during the pandemic.

Consumer interest in winter vegetables — such as Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic and winter squash — has typically been far outpaced by demand for imported warm-season vegetables such as tomatoes. But this year, experts say, the winter vegetable market is gaining traction.

“Winter vegetables are the fastest growing greens segment. The market for these crops, especially radicchio, chicory, spinach and purple sprouting broccoli, is expanding faster than any of us can keep up with,” John Navazio, a national plant breeder for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, said in a statement.

Shari Sirkin, executive director of Friends of Family Farmers, said the pandemic has prompted record produce sales for many of Oregon’s small-scale farmers, a trend she anticipates will continue through the cold seasons.

Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Markets Association, told the Small Ag Press shoppers appear eager for farmers markets to continue running during fall and winter.

Jessica Land, market manager for the Oregon City Farmers Market, told the Small Ag Press there is “definitely” an increase in winter vegetable interest among market shoppers. Months into COVID-19, Land said shoppers want to support local farms and avoid longer supply chains.

The challenge, Land said, is that in normal years, shoppers are more likely to try unfamiliar winter vegetables, like radicchios, at the suggestion of farmers while they walk the market. With social distancing measures in place this and many shoppers opting to order online this year, Land said it may be harder to encourage shoppers to try new things.

But the good news, she said, is that farmers are creating descriptions for their produce on the Oregon City Farmers Market’s app. Descriptions include statements like: “This vegetable tastes similar to” or “This pairs well with.”

Holly Hutchason, executive director of the Portland Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition, or PACSAC, said small farms that run CSA programs are also showing more interest in learning how to winter farm. Last year, she said, her coalition of 85 farms had seven farms offering winter shares; this year, she said, that has leapt to 23.

Researchers at Oregon State University have also picked up on the trend. With funding from the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, OSU researchers, in partnership with the Culinary Breeding Network, are launching a project called “Eat Winter Vegetables” this fall.

Heidi Noordijk, a small farms coordinator at OSU’s Extension Service, told the Small Ag Press the goal of the project is to increase production and consumption of winter vegetables in Oregon.

The project will host field days and events, including the 2020-21 Variety Showcase and Winter Vegetable Sagra, a virtual series of events featuring TED-style talks, interactive Q&A sessions, cooking demos and virtual field tours.

Friends of Family Farmers and similar groups will also be hosting “Fill Your Pantry” events this fall to encourage consumers to stock up on shelf-stable winter farm foods.


Some Oregon pumpkin patches almost got shut down

SAUVIE ISLAND, Ore. — Farmers say a lack of communication between government agencies and conflicting last-minute guidance issued to farms nearly shut down some Oregon pumpkin patch activities.

Farm advocates say visitors to Oregon pumpkin patches this weekend probably had little idea of the “crazy scramble” that happened behind the scenes to keep fall agritourism open.

Since spring, farmers have called Oregon Department of Agriculture, or ODA, and other agencies to ask how to safely operate pumpkin patches this fall.

Then last Thursday at around 5 p.m., less than 48 hours before many pumpkin patches were set to open, the Oregon Health Authority, or OHA, issued a last-minute change to ODA’s guidelines to some farms via email.

OHA’s rule, as interpreted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, an organization enforcing workplace safety, would have disallowed hay rides, corn mazes, tractor rides and similar “interactive” activities for any county still in Phase 1 of reopening. Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties in the Portland area are in Phase 1, as is Malheur County in southeastern Oregon.

“ODA’s previous guide for U-pick and pumpkin patch operations came out early this summer. So this OHA document came completely out of the blue,” said Samantha Bayer, policy counsel at the Oregon Farm Bureau. “Why weren’t the agencies coordinated on this?”

Emails obtained by the Capital Press show the new guidance was based on a chart from Gov. Kate Brown’s office that farm groups say had never been released to the public.

Aaron Corvin, spokesman for OSHA, told the Small Ag Press his agency has overall been nimble and worked hard to communicate clearly, but there have been a few minor hiccups.

“Every now and then, like this case demonstrates, you do … you get a situation where there needs to be some clarification. But from our end, you know, we’re able to pretty quickly get things ironed out and move forward,” said Corvin, who noted that the agencies corrected the miscommunication the next day.

Jonathan Modie, spokesman for OHA, told the Small Ag Press his agency works “really closely” with ODA and OSHA and that communication is “very fluid and collaborative.”

“Oh gosh, we’re working so hard to communicate clearly and listen to businesses. We definitely want to support our farming industries,” said Modie.

The Pumpkin Patch in Sauvie Island, Ore., founded in 1967, was one of the farms that would have been impacted.

Kari Egger, who co-owns the farm with her husband, Bob, said without a hayride option, the farm’s profits would have been hurt because the pumpkin patch lies a third of a mile from the main entrance, and the pumpkins are huge and would be difficult for some visitors to carry.

The pumpkin patch brings in about half of the farm’s annual sales.

The Eggers had prepared for months to open their pumpkin patch with new safety measures. They ditched a tractor-pulled ride for kids. They scrapped the hay maze and hay pyramid. They set up hand sanitizer stations, pre-picked pumpkin displays and signs reminding visitors that masks are required. They even set up online ticket sales.

“We felt like we went over the top,” said Egger.

So when Egger got the unexpected guidance Thursday, she called state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-District 16, who took up the farmers’ cause.

Because of Johnson’s help, just in time for the weekend, the Oregon Farm Bureau and the agencies crafted new rules for pumpkin patches that farmers say are simpler and more fair.

“Betsy Johnson and the Farm Bureau saved our hineys,” said Egger, “and they saved Halloween.”