October 2, 2013

Natural Foodie: New head of MOFGA moves to Maine, and he's impressed

By Avery Yale Kamila

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These folks are concerned with the potential for environmental damage caused by industrialized food production systems that encourage heavy pesticide use and over-fertilization using synthetic fertilizers. They worry about the potential for personal exposure to toxins borne on foods produced in these same systems.

Organic methods substantially lessen these risks, and that is one of the main reasons many folks are gravitating toward organic food.

People are also choosing organic because they prefer foods that have not been produced using antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified organisms. These treatments are generally ruled out or banned in the organic production system, and folks who want to avoid the possibility of exposure to such substances in their food will choose organic.

Earlier this year, the Organic Trade Association reported that 81 percent of American families are buying organic foods at least some of the time. This is a phenomenal percentage and a signal that interest among consumers in organic foods is continuing to grow.

In addition, the industry's sustained growth at the nine to 10 percent level, even during the recession, paints a vivid picture of strong interest and support for organic food.

All of this support bodes well for organic farmers in Maine. It's interesting to note that Maine is one of the few states in the country where the number of farms is actually increasing.

MOFGA's research shows strong growth in the number of organic farmers in Maine. The latest verified numbers say there are 582 organic farms here.

This growth is due, in part, to expanding market opportunities. More farmers' markets, community supported agriculture operations and direct sales to local and regional retailers and restaurants are offering inviting new economic opportunities to farmers.

That is helping bring a new generation to the farm. Many of these new operations are producing organic crops.

MOFGA's latest research shows that, overall, organic producers in Maine generated nearly $37 million in sales on 41,000 certified acres and supported 1,600 jobs in the process. This is a solid economic performance and one that will continue to grow as more and more consumers bring organic foods home to their families.

Q: While the market for organic food is robust, organic farmers continue to face obstacles, such as the high cost of grain. What issues are organic farmers dealing with today?

A: As with any food production enterprise, organic farming comes with a wide range of challenges, many of them economic, others regulatory and still others on the marketing side. At a very basic level, organic farmers face the challenge of continuing to build consumer understanding around the organic label. What is its value? What does it really mean to be certified as an organic producer?

This is not a desperate situation by any means. The USDA's certified organic label has only been with us a little over 10 years. It is still in its infancy and has lots of room to grow. However, numerous marketing studies have shown that consumers remain uncertain about distinctions among words like "organic," "natural," "free-range," "local," and lots of other such labels.

While it's clear to those working in the field that "organic" is a production method that is actually verified by outside certifiers, consumers sometimes have a hard time sorting that out.

The entire organic industry from farmers to processors and retailers face the challenge of helping consumers better understand the value they receive when buying certified organic foods and other goods.

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