Organic Farmers Cultivating a Growing Agricultural Industry

Article excerpt

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

Like a clove of garlic planted in the fall, organic agriculture is slowly, steadily growing in Oregon.

There are more than 300 certified organic farms and food processors in the state, serving natural food stores, restaurants, farmers' markets and subscription programs.

Organic growers remain a fraction - less than 2 percent - of total agricultural production in the state. But demand for fresh, locally raised food is on the rise.

"It's a niche that's strong and has been growing," said Laura Barton with the Agricultural Development and Marketing Division of the state Department of Agriculture. "The organic industry is alive and well."

Producers are answering the call for products such as organic milk used to make organic cheese and organic grains for flour used in certain bakeries.

"I think the demand is coming from all sectors," said Chris Schreiner with Oregon Tilth Certified Organic, a private group that estimates that it certifies 80 percent to 90 percent of all farms in the state that achieve organic certification.

"You've got more and more organic products showing up in conventional grocery venues. Those are huge markets in terms of the people they reach," Schreiner said.

Community-supported agriculture, in which households sign up for weekly produce deliveries from local farms, and farmers' markets also are springing up in more communities. They, too, provide an outlet for organic producers.

"People are taking an interest not just in how their food is grown but where it's grown," Barton said. "That leads them to support producers that grow crops in a manner that takes care of the land and is mindful of natural resources."

Chic restaurants and gourmet grocery stores such as the Whole Foods chain rely on organic foods to appeal to affluent, college-educated consumers who don't mind paying higher prices, she added.

Jack Gray, co-owner of the 25-year-old Winter Green Farm in Noti, west of Eugene, sees support building for the organic way.

"The demand is definitely out there," Gray said. "We project 20 percent growth this year."

At 150 acres, the farm is one of the largest organic operations in the state, with everything from lettuce and cauliflower to blueberries and burdock.

The largest distributor of organic produce in the Northwest, Eugene-based Organically Grown Company has seen annual growth of 20 percent a year, marketing director David Lively said.

The company, owned by a group of farmers and staff members, serves a region that stretches from Ashland to near the Canadian border, with warehouses in Eugene and Portland and smaller distribution centers in Central Point and in Kent, Wash. …