Can it maintain standards while expanding?

Executive Summary

The organic-foods sector of the U.S. agriculture industry has grown substantially in recent years, even as overall farm income has been declining. The expansion of this sector has caught the attention of some major food producers, such as General Mills and Hormel, which are buying up organic brands. There has also been a growth spurt in farmers who sell their products locally, either to retailers and institutional buyers or directly to consumers. While these sectors are still a relatively small part of the overall industry, analysts project they will continue to grow at a double-digit rate. The growth of these sectors marks a turn in the evolution of U.S. food production as emphasis shifts from quantity – high yields and efficiency – toward quality, especially flavor and nutritional content.

Some key takeaways:

  • The number of certified organic farms grew 13 percent in 2016, and sales of organic foods rose 8 percent that year.

  • As organic food has grown in popularity, the standards used to define what qualifies as an organic product have stirred controversy.

  • There is also debate over whether major food companies that buy organic brands will maintain their quality standards.

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Resources for Further Study



Berry, Wendell, “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture,” Counterpoint Press, 2015. A farmer, writer, poet and novelist delves into the institutional division of agriculture from culture and argues for the need to put agriculture in context within place and community.

Cronon, William, “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West,” W.W. Norton, 1997. A historian explores the ever-deeper, yet ever-more opaque connections between the great city and its surroundings, including the provision of grain and meat.

Fromartz, Samuel, “Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grow,” Harcourt, 2007. A business journalist and editor-in-chief at the Food and Environment Reporting Network looks at the underpinnings and evolution of the organic-foods industry.

Miller, Daphne, “Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up,” William Morrow, 2016. A physician and daughter of failed homesteaders visits and works on various farms to understand the links between farming and health.

Patel, Raj, “Stuffed & Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System,” Melville House Publishing, 2014. A policy analyst examines various aspects of the global food system, from poor nutrition, monocultures and labor to convenience foods and “food sovereignty,” the right of people to choose and grow healthy food in ecologically sound ways.

Pritchard, Forrest, “Growing Tomorrow: Behind the Scenes with 18 Extraordinary Sustainable Farmers Who Are Changing the Way We Eat,” The Experiment, 2015. A farmer and author visits 18 farms around the United States to understand what farmers are doing and why, how they are distributing what they grow and process and the ups and downs of the business.


Genoways, Ted, “Bringing in the Beans: Harvest on an American Farm,” Harper’s, Sept. 2017, A writer profiles the travails of a Nebraska farm family.

Heckman, Joseph, “A history of organic farming: Transitions from Sir Albert Howard’s War in the Soil to the USDA National Organic Program,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Sept. 2006, An agronomist and Rutgers professor explores the background of the organic movement as well as some of the long-standing divisions that have existed between organic and conventional farmers.

Hesterman, Oran B., and Daniel Horan, “The demand for ‘local’ food is growing – here’s why investors should pay attention,” Business Insider, April 25, 2017, Two food and farming entrepreneurs highlight the opportunities for growth in the local-food sector.

Ikerd, John, “6 Reasons Local Food Systems Will Replace Our Industrial Model,” In These Times, May 18, 2017, An agricultural economist and University of Missouri professor emeritus looks at the context of the local food movement and provides insight on why it is here to stay and will grow.

Reports and Studies

“Agriculture at a Crossroads,” International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, 2009, This assessment takes a broad, yet deep look at the factors driving change in agriculture worldwide, how they tie in with sustainability and what can improve outcomes for food security and sustainability.

“Expanding Organic Production in the United States: Challenges and Policy Recommendations,” National Organic Coalition, Nov. 2016, This white paper includes a look at the costs unique to organic production in the United States, the challenges involved in expanding it and ways to assist expansion.

“Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2009, This government publication explores the value of local food systems.

“The Organic Watergate—White Paper | Connecting the Dots: Corporate Influence at the USDA’s National Organic Program,” Cornucopia Institute, May 2012, A food policy watchdog group examines how the membership makeup of the federal government’s National Organic Standards Board influences what is legally recognized as being organic.

Brown, Gabe, “Regeneration of Our Lands: A Producer’s Perspective,” TEDxGrandForks, March 20, 2016, A rancher and farmer delves into the problems that stem from neglecting soil health and what remedies are available.

Pinchot, Ariel, “The Economics of Local Food Systems: A Literature Review of the Production, Distribution and Consumption of Local Food,” University of Minnesota Extension, Sept. 2014, This paper looks at various ways farmers sell directly to consumers, consumer attitudes toward those sales channels and barriers to growth. It includes an annotated bibliography.

The Next Step


Goldschmidt, Bridget, “Organics Becoming More Affordable, Accessible,” Progressive Grocer, Sept. 14, 2017, Price and availability of organic food are two major concerns for shoppers, according to a recent Organic Trade Association survey.

Lempert, Phil, “Expo East: Organics Are Mainstream And Shoppers Are Buying, Future Millennials Kids To Create A Boom,” Forbes, Sept. 15, 2017, Accessibility to organic food is growing, according to a new research report discussed at the 2017 Natural Products Expo East, an annual trade show.

Oggi, Italia, “Amazon starts price war on organic foods,” Euractiv, Aug. 28, 2017, Following its purchase of Whole Foods, Amazon announced it will lower prices on some food products, including bananas and avocados.


Philpott, Tom, “A Top Chef’s Beef With Farm-to-Table Food,” Mother Jones, Oct. 27, 2017, A renowned Manhattan chef argues that the farm-to-table trend encourages chefs to “cherry-pick” the best produce and leave growers without a market for other, more unconventional crops.

Reusing, Andrea, “Farm-To-Table May Feel Virtuous, But It’s Food Labor That’s Ripe For Change,” NPR, July 30, 2017, The increasingly popular farm-to-table restaurant trend relies on an industry plagued with labor inequality, argues a James Beard award-winning chef.

Truong, Debbie, “At one Virginia school, a twist on farm-to-table,” The Washington Post, Oct. 1, 2017, The Environmental Protection Agency gave an award to a Virginia high school this year for its hydroponics project that turned its campus into a sustainable farm.


Brown’s Ranch
3752 106th St., N.E., Bismarck, ND 58503
A multi-generation farm that focuses on soil-care practices, including cover crops and rotational grazing.

Cornucopia Institute
PO Box 126, Cornucopia, WI 54827
A group that researches and investigates agricultural and food issues; informs family farmers, consumers and others as well as the media; and advocates on behalf of family, organic and local farms.

Food & Water Watch
1616 P St., N.W., Washington, DC 20036
An organization focused on water and food issues, including the implications for growers and consumers of the industrialization of organic agriculture.

Hartman Group
3150 Richards Road, Suite 200, Bellevue, WA 98005
A research firm that focuses on consumer trends within the food and beverage industry.

Juniper Hill Farms
1547 N. 2000 Road, Lawrence, KA 66044
A vegetable and hay/alfalfa farm run by a first-generation farmer.

Organic Trade Association
444 N. Capitol St., N.W., Suite 445A, Washington, DC 20001
Association representing U.S. and Canadian members who are growers, processors, distributors, shippers, certifiers, retailers and farmer associations.

Packaged Facts
11200 Rockville Pike, Suite 504, Rockville, MD 20852
Research firm that publishes market data in the food and beverage and consumer goods sectors.

U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, DC 20250
Government agency responsible for administering federal agricultural laws and programs.

DOI: 10.1177/237455680104.n1