By Chris Adams

Demand for organic food is growing in the U.S., and now comprises just over 4.4 percent of the market. But U.S. cropland dedicated to organics has only inched up to about 1 percent.

That means imports need to fill in the gaps. It also means organic producers are working to boost their yields as a way to keep up.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Kathleen Delate, a professor of organic agriculture at Iowa State University, described how an experimental organic farm produced corn yields that were similar to conventional corn crops from the same county.

“Statistically, there’s been no difference between the conventional and organic,” Delate said. Her research also found that the costs and economic returns of organics over a rotation of crops was more than for conventional crops.

Fellows also heard from Cynthia Cambardella, a soil scientist from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (her research here). Her studies into the impact of water quality from an organic corn-soybean-oats-alfalfa based rotation at a set of test plots in central Iowa found that the organic plots had lower concentrations of nitrates than conventional plots.

The difference was substantial: For the conventional plots, nitrates exceeded a key drinking water standard 76 percent of the time; for organic plots, it was 26 percent of the time.

But one of the most pressing concerns, she said, was convincing farmers of the need to address the issue when the impact of runoff from their farms might hit hundreds of miles downstream. She hopes to convince them that organic farms can bring a higher profit margin than conventional ones.

“The bottom line is always going to be dollars,” she said.