By Sandy K. Johnson

U.S. consumers gobbled up $43 billion worth of organic food in 2015, a 200 percent increase in the last decade, according to the Organic Trade Association. That cheers organics advocates, though it is still a small slice of overall food sales, at 5 percent.

Other bright spots:

  • Year over year, organic food sales increased 11 percent from 2014 to 2015.
  • 13 percent of all produce sales are organic, which means fruits and vegetables are the “gateway” for organic foods.
  • 170,000 acres of farmland are transitioning to organic.

There are other measures of progress for organics. One is soil health.

Steven Mirsky, a U.S. Department of Agriculture research ecologist, described a farming systems research project that has been under way since 1996 at a laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. The project compares chisel-till and no-till conventional farming practices with organic cropping that varies in crop rotation length. Consistently, when looking across the soil profile, the organic test plots have shown more organic matter, carbon and nitrogen, and demonstrated lower overall energy requirements (fuel, labor, seed, etc.), than the conventional plots.

Another measure of success is water quality.

Cynthia Cambardella, a USDA soil scientist, studies water quality in organic corn-soybean based rotations production at a test plot in Boone County, Iowa. No chemicals have been used on the 10-acre research site since 2006. Water quality samples, collected weekly, show nitrogen loss was 53 percent lower on the organic plots. The data “show great promise” to improve surface water quality through organic practices, Cambardella said.

Why aren’t more farmers converting to organic? Multi-generational farms favor conventional practices by tradition, Cambardella said. “The more we can show the benefits, the more science stands behind the adoption” of organic farming, she said.