Medill Reports – Chicago
by Sachpreet Chandhoke

The presence of organic farms in Illinois could be a rounding error.

“I have been perplexed for many, many years why Illinois doesn’t have as much organic production as other states,” said Lynn Clarkson, president and founder of Illinois-based organic-only Clarkson Grain Company.

Of the 26.8 million acres of farmland in Illinois, only 30,662 acres – or one-tenth of 1 percent – are devoted to organic production, according to the first-ever survey of organic producers in the United States, released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic corn, soybean and winter wheat are the most commonly grown crops in Illinois.

California leads the nation in acreage devoted to organics at 2 percent.

“My theory is the other states didn’t have as sensational conventional markets and were more poised to build niches,” Clarkson said.

In other words, old habits die hard.

Psychological and structural barriers prevent organic farms from flourishing. The average age of farmers in Illinois is upwards of 50 years old, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Many tend to their farms in the conventional way and organic farming is considered risky, because it means learning a whole new set of skills.

A dwindling livestock population has created a manure deficit, a critical substitute for fertilizers in organic farming. A lack of local processors for organic corn, soybean and wheat signals the lack of a market for these products.

“We would need a lot of inertia to change,” Clarkson said. “They have a lot of questions: What do I do? How can I do this? How do I market this? There’s no futures market? I have to find a buyer?”

In an e-mail response, Sam Jones-Ellard, spokesman for the Agricultural Marketing Service at the USDA said this survey is a critical component in building out the National Organic Program and developing policies.

“The NOP has been equipped with more human and capital resources, foundations that will help advance further improvements in carrying out the program in 2010 and beyond,” Jones-Ellard said.

The 229 organic farms that do exist in Illinois are committed to growing in the next five years, according to the survey. These organic farmers sell 29 percent of their product within a 100-mile area, mostly through grower’s cooperatives and farmer’s markets.

“My company buys from 10 states to get critical mass because it is so hard to find enough organic in one place to meet our needs,” Clarkson said.

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