Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields

Written by Steve Savage

In 2008, the National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA conducted a detailed survey of Organic agriculture in the US.  Participation rates were high with Organic growers, so the data is quite reliable.  What it showed was probably surprising to many.  After at least three decades of “rapid growth,” Organic now accounts for 0.52% of harvested US cropland. NASS did not go ahead and compare the yields of Organic crops to equivalent data for the rest of agriculture, but all that data is publicly available and I have posted a comparative analysis on SCRIBD (which is also embedded at the end of this post). Organic crop yields are generally lower, but it is hard to put that into perspective.
What does it mean for Organic corn yields to be 71% of the national average?  What does it mean that Organic soy yields are 66% of the national average?   One way to put this in perspective is to ask the question, “how many years ago was non-Organic ag getting the kind of yields that Organic saw in 2008?” Through a host of technical and operational advances, the yields of most crops in the developed world have been increasing steadily ever since the mid 20th century.  This is a very good thing because we have thus been able to feed a growing world population without even more land-use-conversion than has happened.  A high research investment crop like corn has yields that have been going up at a pace of 2 bushels/acre/year even for the national average. Even a low research investment crop like oats has seen yields increase by about 0.4 bushels/acre/year. So it becomes interesting to take the 2008 Organic yields and compare them to historical data about yield trends.  The graph below does this for US Soybeans and has a key that will pertain to the following illustrations. The yield data for Organic soy came from a total of 1,331 farms and 98,113 acres, so it is probably not an artifact.  That 2008 Organic yields of a nitrogen fixing crop would be like those of 29 years ago is surprising.  My guess is that it reflects higher weed competition and less moisture retention because of tillage.  Soybeans are not a pesticide-intensive crop, but perhaps some seed treatments and an occasional foliar spray account for some of the difference.
It is interesting that Organic grain corn yields are equivalent to the trend from only 21.5 years ago (2,146 farms, 143,432 acres).  In this case there is also the fertilizer difference, but my guess would be that the Organic growers get the benefit of the massive investment that has been made in Corn genetics. Organic wheat production is equivalent to that from even earlier eras – 57 years for Winter Wheat and 58 years for Spring Wheat on a national basis.  Even on a single state basis, the differential is large.  See the graphs for South Dakota Spring Wheat and New York Winter Wheat below.

(The SD Organic data comes from 92 farms and 20,867 acres)

(The NY Organic data comes from 44 farms and 2,417 acres)
Since wheat is a relatively low input crop, the difference is probably a function of fertilizer efficiency, weed competition, and moisture loss during tillage.
The crops listed above have less than 1% Organic acres and often far less.  However, the same time equivalents are seen for the row crops that have a more significant Organic share.

(Organic Flax is 4.1% of the US total,85 farms, 13,958 acres)
(Organic Oats are 2.94% of the US total, 1,040 farms, 41,016 acres)
(Organic Barley is 1.25% of the US total, 578 farms, 47,227 acres)
As we enter into a new round of rising global food prices, the idea of a production system that effectively eliminates decades of of productivity gain is not attractive.  Organic row cropping is unlikely to ever be employed on a significant acreage, and from a food supply perspective, this is a good thing.
There are additional crops and state-level examples available here (also embedded below).  Graphs by Steve Savage from USDA NASS data.  You are welcome to comment here or to email me at feedback.sdsavage@gmail.com
A Detailed Analysis of US Organic Crops

Written by Guest Expert

Steve Savage has worked with various aspects of agricultural technology for more than 35 years. He has a PhD in plant pathology and his varied career included Colorado State University, DuPont, and the bio-control start-up, Mycogen. He is an independent consultant working with a wide variety of clients on topics including biological control, biotechnology, crop protection chemicals, and more. Steve writes and speaks on food and agriculture topics (Applied Mythology blog) and does a bi-weekly podcast called POPAgriculture for the CropLife Foundation.

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