Organic Acreage Trends

Organic Field Crop Acreage Grows While Non-GMO Acreage Declines

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
Farmers increased plantings of organic corn in 2018, a 2% increase over 2017, according to a new study by Mercaris, a firm that specialized in data transparency for the identity-preserved grain industry. (DTN Photo by Pam Smith)

MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. (DTN) -- Acreage planted to organic field crops is on the rise while land planted to non-GMO corn and soybeans declined, according to a new report from Mercaris, a market data and trading platform for the identity-preserved grain industry.

The number of farms certified under USDA's National Organic Program increased 3% in 2018 to 17,648, with the biggest gains coming in the Northeast, Corn Belt and West Coast.

Mercaris estimates the number of certified organic acres in 2018 will total 6.5 million, up 2% from last year.

"One of the things that's most fascinating about this report is looking at total acreage expansion relative to the number of certified organic operations," said Mercaris senior economist Ryan Koory. "Actual acreage expanded at a slower pace than the number of certified farms, and there's a bit of a spatial reason behind that."

Farms along the Great Lakes and East Coast tend to be smaller overall in acreage than in other parts of the country, like the Northern Plains. They're also closer to a major centers of demand, and that's one of the reasons driving a sizeable increase in organic soybean acreage in 2018.

Mercaris uses data from USDA's Organic Integrity Database, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Economic Research Service and other surveys to compile its estimates. The company shared general production changes with DTN, but kept specific acreage and related figures confidential for its data customers.

Koory said demand for organic livestock feed is one of the main drivers of organic crop expansion. Organic corn, soybeans and wheat are expected to account for approximately 1.2 million acres in 2018.

"If you look at the relationship in terms of domestic supplies, within the organic sector, historically the United States has been a major importer of corn and soybeans," Koory said. He estimates that last year, the U.S. imported 60% to 70% of its organic soybean needs and 30% of its organic corn use.

The number of certified organic corn operations increased 4% from last year, while overall acreage is set to expand 2%.

The growth was even stronger in soybeans. More than 2,500 operations produced organic soybeans, up 7% from last year. Overall organic soybean production also saw a 7% increase from last year, with large gains in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Missouri.

"There's a much bigger gulf in terms of demand and supply for soybeans in the U.S. than there is corn. I think that's part of why you're seeing more expansion in soybean acres, but that's a little bit of a tricky thing to say because organic doesn't get to function like the conventional sector," Koory said. "They rely much more heavily on crop rotation, and because they must do these crop rotation regimes to protect the soil and mitigate pests, they don't have the flexibility to just rotate in a cash crop of their choosing whenever they decide to."

The crop rotation effect is especially prominent in wheat acreage this year, he said. While the overall number of certified operations with wheat in their rotation are up 4%, the Mercaris acreage report notes that most of those gains are in the Corn Belt, where the average size of certified operations are smaller than in the central Plains.

Wheat is a more common part of the crop rotation in the central Plains, and Mercaris estimates wheat acreage there will decline 1% from last year as farmers grow more organic hay, small grains, soybeans, sunflowers, and dried beans, peas and lentils.

Altogether, Mercaris estimates organic wheat acreage will increase 1% year-over-year/acres. Wheat accounts for 19% of total organic field crop acreage.

"We could see wheat swing back big next year or the year after," Koory said.

Alfalfa and hay are the most widely grown organic crops, accounting for nearly 35% of all harvested organic acres in 2019, and the primary reason for that is its role in crop rotation. "You have to have a fallow period periodically. It comes down to maintaining soil integrity and plays a major role in acreage," Koory said.

To a large degree, the organic industry is flying blind when it comes to historical data about production.

"You couldn't imagine the conventional sector not having a planting intentions report or not having yield estimates or any kind of idea of what stock levels look like. These are all things that the organic sector has no perspective on," he said.

Farmers who are considering transitioning to organic production or adding more acreage can use better knowledge about rotation cycles to make their planting choices, Koory said. "If everybody kind of knows what's going on, you'll lose these peaks and valleys, because everybody will be off-cycle from each other and help smooth out that supply."


Mercaris also released an estimate of crops raised from non-genetically modified seed by extrapolating from USDA data on overall acreage and biotechnology usage rates.

In 2018, farmers planted fewer total acres of corn and soybeans and used more genetically modified seed varieties. As a result, overall non-GMO acreage declined 5% from 2017 to 12.1 million acres.

Total U.S. non-GMO corn acreage declined for the second year in a row. Iowa remained the largest overall grower, with total acreage flat from 2017; Indiana producers planted the second highest acreage, up 3% year-over-year. In contrast, Illinois's non-GMO corn acreage declined 39%, while the state's total corn acreage only declined 2%. Mercaris attributes the change in non-GMO acreage to farmers planting more GMO corn varieties. A number of states saw increased non-GMO corn acreage, but it wasn't enough to offset the reductions seen in other parts of the country.

Total non-GMO soybean acreage declined 7% from last year. The largest decline occurred in Missouri, which was the top grower of non-GMO beans in 2017. Illinois moved into the lead following a 3% increase, while Indiana came in second, with a 13% gain.

Koory said there are a lot of reasons why farmers choose to plant non-GMO seeds: Some are after non-GMO premiums, while others have decided they either don't need the biotech traits or are trying to save money with less-costly non-GMO seed.

"It's really hard to untangle, or nigh-impossible, with information available what is truly being produced for non-GMO markets and what's being produced because it behooves the farmer economically," he said.

Mercaris, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, issues reports and other market data aimed at providing transparency in the organic and other specialty commodities markets, as well as building a variety of auction and trading services to help farmers make better business decisions.

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Mercaris and DTN in August announced an agreement to provide exclusive market data to DTN Prophet X customers.

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Katie Dehlinger