Editorial: Organic farming gains appeal in Nebraska

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Farm Forum

In a planting season in which some farmers are trying to decide which crop would lose the least money, a new agricultural opportunity is gaining luster in Nebraska, particularly for small and beginning farmers.

A story in the Journal Star earlier this month reported that Costco has even begun to help farmers buy land and equipment to grow organic food. The program has just started, but Costco wants to expand it.

“We cannot get enough organics to stay in business day in and day out,” CEO Craig Jelinek told investors at a meeting earlier this year, according to the Seattle Times.

Among the organic products that Costco sells are chickens. So connect the dots.

Costco is looking at sites near Fremont for a chicken-processing plant, and the local City Council has taken the first steps toward annexing land to create a suitable location despite some local opposition.

Costco executive Jeff Lyons said the company would work with local farmers to provide chickens. Lyons said the local availability of corn and soybean feed would cut costs.

Admittedly, the company has not revealed whether organic chicken would be raised and processed for the new plant.

But there’s no doubt that sales of organic food are growing by startling amounts.

Organic food sales were nearly 5 percent of total food sales, but organic farmland is only 1 percent of total farmland.

“Organic food is one of the fasting growing segments of American agriculture,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last month as the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced another double-digit growth in the number of certified organic operators.

The number of domestic certified organic operations increased by almost 12 percent between 2014 and 2015, representing the highest growth rate since 2008 and an increase of nearly 300 percent since the count began in 2002, the USDA said. The total U.S. retail market for organic products is now more than $39 billion.

Costco last year also contracted with owners of organic fields in Nebraska to have local ranchers raise its cattle for is organic ground beef.

One of the reasons that organic food is in tight supply is that it takes three years for farmland to qualify as organic under USDA guidelines.

That’s why Costco has begun to offer help. Whole Foods has had a loan program for organic farmers since 2006.

A decade or so ago some viewed organic food as a fad and a niche market, but there’s no sign it’s slowing. The law of supply and demand remains as strong as ever.