Colorado farmers going organic to meet rising demand
Transitioning from traditional to organic farming methods can be expensive
Colorado consumers show with their pocketbooks their desire for organic foods. An increasing number of Colorado farmers are working to ensure stores and farm stalls are stocked to meet the demand.
In three years, Colorado’s organic agricultural industry has more than doubled in sales, growing from $66.2 million in 2012 to $155.2 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Certified Organic Survey.
“Consumers are more and more engaged in their food purchases than ever before and are not only wanting to know where their food comes from but also how it was produced,” wrote Tom Lipetzky, the director of marketing programs and strategic initiatives at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, in an e-mail.
In 2011, the USDA reported that about 100,000 acres of Colorado farmland were certified organic, meaning it met specific requirements for farming and ranching methods. Now, organic farmland covers more than 155,000 acres statewide, with another 70,000 acres dedicated to organic pastureland and rangeland.
Transitioning from traditional to organic farming methods can be expensive. It takes about three years to gain organic certification, and there are expenses attached to complying with regulations. Many farmers transition slowly, beginning with a few acres.
The Hungenberg farm started on 7 acres in Greeley in 1907 and now covers 4,000 acres, largely planted in cabbage and carrots. Last year, for the first time, Hungenberg Produce dedicated about 62 acres to growing carrots using organic farming methods.
“With the market trends, it’s not going away,” co-owner Jordan Hungenberg said of consumers’ desire for organic foods. “People buy organic a lot, so we decided we were behind the eight ball and decided to try it.”
For farmers who sell to major supermarkets, the ability to put USDA “certified organic” stickers on produce goes a long way to ensuring financial success, said Becca Jablonski, an assistant professor and food systems extension economist at Colorado State University.
Tim Ferrell, owner of Berry Patch Farms in Brighton, has seen positive results. “That (sticker) carries weight in the consumer’s mind,” he said.
Ferrell’s farm has been certified organic for decades. He chose to grow organic for ethical reasons. “We just do not feel comfortable using fertilizers that would infiltrate the water table,” he said.
Ferrell also was drawn to the higher sales prices of organic foods.
Organic farming has a reputation of being expensive, but producers say that technological innovations have allowed them to grow and protect their crops efficiently and cheaper than in previous years while still using certified organic methods.
“As more and more research is done, we can use products on the plant that aren’t chemical,” said Kaylee Armstrong of Abundant Life Organic Farms in Hotchkiss. “People complain about costs and say organic is so much more expensive. We actually increase our prices to meet with conventional growers.”
Hungenberg said his company expected to lose 25 percent of its organic crop the first year, and he knew he’d have to hire more people to work the fields. Last season the company paid about 200 workers, as opposed to the usual 150-180, to work the fields, he said. Hungenberg lost about 65 percent of its organic crop, partially to a mid-summer hailstorm, but it remained profitable.
“All in all it was a success,” Hungenberg said of the first year of organic farming. “We made a little bit of money on the deal — not as much as we hoped, but … we were still flush and that was a good thing.”
Hungenberg plans to triple its planting of organically grown carrots next season, becoming the largest source of organic carrots in Colorado.
There are other concerns in the industry. One step in the evolution of organic farming that concerns Amstrong is the introduction of large corporations to the market.
“We don’t want to see them lobbying the government to make regulations lower,” she said, which could lower the general quality of organic food. “We’ve already seen it in the egg industry,” she said.
Programs exist to assist farmers with the costs involved in transitioning to certified organic farming methods, Jablonski said. In addition to a thriving market, Colorado’s dry climate is particularly hospitable to growing organic crops.
“We have less humidity less diseases… There are not a lot of organic sprays that one can use to combat mold and fungus,” Ferrell said. “We are in an ideal situation. Colorado is a fine state for farming organically.”
Samantha Fox of the Greeley Tribune contributed to this story.