BURBANK, Wash. — At Great Columbia Berry Farm in Burbank, farmer Brandon Lott is getting more from his 225 acres of organic blueberries.
Although Lott isn't increasing the number of organic acres at his farm, he said he's getting more blueberries, as some of his young blueberry plants begin to mature.
The additional fruit from Lott's land may be one of the reasons why the value of sales from organic acres in Washington has increased, even though the amount of organic farmland has fallen in the last two years.
The value of certified organic crops to the state's farmers rose 16 percent in 2010, to $244.6 million, according to a recent study by the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.
But the total of organic acres has dropped from 104,962 in 2009, to 89,186 in 2011, according to the study.
Grant County remained the state's leading producer of organic crops, with $64 million in sales and more than 25 percent of the state's organic farmland.
In Benton County, 28 farms had 13,033 acres in 2009, while 27 farms had 8,699 acres in 2011, a drop of 4,334 acres, or 33 percent.
Franklin County had 31 farms with 3,749 organic acres in 2009, which dropped by 429 acres to 3,320 in 2011, a decline of 11 percent.
Benton County saw organic sales increase by 0.5 percent to about $22 million in 2010, while Franklin County's sales went up by 22 percent to $13.2 million.
Walla Walla County bucked the state trend, and saw organic farmland grow in the past two years. Nine farms with 1,649 acres in 2009 grew to 12 farms with 2,328 organic acres in 2011, an acreage growth of 41 percent.
Walla Walla County saw organic sales almost double between 2009 and 2010, the most recent year where sales data is available. Sales went from about $10.5 million to more than $20 million.
This year, Walla Walla County's organic acres included almost 856 acres of apples grown by Prescott's Broetje Orchards, as well as Lott's blueberries, according to data from the state Department of Agriculture.
Statewide, tree fruit represents about 20 percent of all organic acres, according to the study.
Organic apples, pears and cherries grow well in Washington for the same reason conventional apples, pears and cherries do well -- the climate, said David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at WSU's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. He completed the recent study with Elizabeth Kirby, a WSU sustainable agriculture research associate.
Farmers also tend to have less pest and disease problems, he said.
"It is just a great place to grow organic fruit," he said.
Not all fruit that is grown organically is sold as organic, Granatstein said. About 20 to 25 percent is diverted to other markets, depending on the price. Those acres show up when surveying the number of organic acres in the state, but aren't reflected in the sales data, he said.
Lott said there has been a growing demand for organic, which he is trying to keep up with using his current acres.
Lott said he started organic farming with apples at Applegate Orchards in Burbank about 15 years ago, and now has 45 organic acres.
About a decade ago, he started growing organic blueberries. The price for them has stayed relatively stable, but the desired quantity is up, Lott said.
Marketers sell his blueberries across the nation. He said all but about 10 percent are sold fresh.
Although prices for organic fruit have increased, they still aren't as high as they were in 2007, Granatstein said.
But farmers have a disincentive to pull out of organic farming quickly because it takes three years for acres to become certified organic, he said.
The state Department of Agriculture certifies organic farms using U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.
The three-years process also makes it more difficult for farmers to respond quickly to changes in the market and to demand, Granatstein said.
Franklin County farmer Alan Schreiber is expanding his organic acres at Schreiber & Sons.
He plans to increase his organic asparagus and melons, which along with eggplant, are his three largest organic crops. About one-third of his 115 acres are either certified organic or in transition.
He said he has been transitioning some of his acres into organic since he started organic farming about seven years ago.
There is a demand for organic produce, Schreiber said. About 40 percent of what his farm grows is sold locally to restaurants, at farmers markets and to families through Community Supported Agriculture, where families can buy a share and receive boxes of fresh-picked produce during the season.
The rest is sold in Western Oregon, Western Washington and British Columbia, he said.
Schreiber said he grows about 250 different varieties of crops organically, but he just doesn't have the ground to grow everything that way.
Schreiber said he thinks the decrease in organic acres will be temporary. Like conventional agriculture, the organic market will see some ups and downs, and market correction, he said.
Schreiber said he feels some organic crops, such as apples, were overplanted, so demand did not keep up with supply.
Granatstein said he was surprised to see the number of organic acres continue to drop in 2011. He thought it would level out or go up.
But he said he has heard that there has been a scramble among growers this year to find organic ground for processed vegetables.
Nationwide, organic food sales have grown to about 4 percent of all food sales in 2010.
The difference in price of organic and conventional food for the consumer has dropped, helping to increase sales, Granatstein said.
"The recession did not undercut this whole trend around people being more interested in their food," he said.