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Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin: 2007 Status Report

Posted February 2008

grazing cow

Wisconsin is well positioned to reap the benefits sown by our organic farmers, processors and other businesses. With continued support for and investment in organics, Wisconsin will remain a leader in organic agriculture.

With a focus on organic dairy, this report describes production, processing and economic issues in organic agriculture. It also includes farm profiles, an update on the Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council, organic research projects at UW-Madison, and a list of resources and organizations for the organic industry.

Growth of the national organic industry is booming. Sales have grown 20 percent per year for the past 15 years. Wisconsin farmers have contributed to this growth and are in a strong position to profit from this trend.

Wisconsin is a top-ranked state in organic agriculture. In 2005, the most recent year for which national data is available, only California had more certified organic farms than Wisconsin. For six years (2000-2005), Wisconsin has consistently ranked near the top of the nation for total number of certified organic farms. In 2007, a survey of organic certification organizations found that there were approximately 900 certified organic farms in the state.

Our state leads the nation in organic dairy production. More than a quarter of the nation’s 87,000 organic dairy cows live in Wisconsin. Total organic milk production for the state is about 45 million gallons, or 391 million pounds, per year.

Wisconsin is also the top-ranked state in organic livestock production, and organic herb and greenhouse acreage. We are among the top three states in acres planted to organic corn, hay and sileage, and number of organic beef cows.

The number of certified organic processors in Wisconsin increased 30 percent from 2005 to 2006. Add to that the seed, input and equipment businesses that support the organic industry and you have 201 companies operating in the state.

Wisconsin’s organic farms and farmers are diverse. Some have hundreds of acres or animals. Others are small operations, selling at local farmers’ markets or roadside stands. But they have several things in common: they share a strong desire to maintain high organic standards and, for those efforts, receive a price premium in the marketplace. In a survey by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), 70 percent of organic dairy farmers said that protecting integrity of the organic standards is the most important issue facing organic agriculture.

In addition to being the top organic dairy state, Wisconsin is also a leading grazing dairy state. Nearly a quarter of Wisconsin’s dairy farms use managed grazing-they rely on pasture as the main source of forage for their cows. Our climate and grasses give Wisconsin a competitive edge for grazing. Using grazing on organic dairy farms can enhance profitability when efficiently managed.

Although USDA organic dairy standards have minimal grazing requirements, some organic milk buyers, including Wisconsin’s own Organic Valley, have stricter standards requiring grazing of dairy cows. Organic Valley requires that farmers use managed grazing because of its perceived benefits for the environment, animal welfare and human health.

On average, Wisconsin’s experienced organic and grazing dairy farmers are making money. A study by the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability found that, on average, organic dairy farms retained 21 percent of their business earnings, once the bills had been paid. Grazing farms retained even more, at 26 percent. Confinement farms retained 14 percent of the farm’s total income, but on average they retained more total dollars per farm because they had more cows.

On average, Wisconsin’s organic dairies appear to be financially competitive with those in other states. Net returns on organic dairy farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota are similar. And-largely due to higher feed costs in New England-organic farms in the northeastern United States are, on average, not competitive with any type of Wisconsin dairy farm, despite higher organic milk prices in the northeast.

Wisconsin’s public sector actively supports organic agriculture. In the winter of 2006, Governor Doyle appointed members of the Wisconsin Organic Advisory Council, which is developing recommendations for strengthening Wisconsin’s organic industry. This council includes organic farmers and business representatives, as well as representatives from state and federal agencies and the University of Wisconsin. Earlier in 2006, DATCP hired an organic agriculture specialist (Laura Paine) to lead its Organic Agriculture Program. At the same time, UW-Madison hired a scientist
(Erin Silva) to coordinate organic agriculture research and education.

Read this report (pdf file)