YAKIMA -- Organic farming around here has hit a little lull.
Though demand for organic food is up throughout the nation, a Washington State University report this past month shows that the state and Yakima County saw fewer organic farms planting less ground than the year before.
It's probably just a matter of supply and demand reaching a balance, which is a good thing, said David Granatstein, author of the report and a researcher at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources in Wenatchee.
"I think it's all pretty encouraging," Granatstein said.
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His statistics showed that Washington had 735 certified organic farms spread out across 100,553 acres in 2010. That's lower than 2009, which saw 753 farms across 104,962 acres.
However, the previous four years' organic acreage more than doubled. Growers might be pulling back to let demand catch up, he said.
Meanwhile, organic still comprises a small share of the overall market, making it susceptible to big swings. One grower switching a large block can dramatically skew the percentages.
Yakima County, though still a leader in organic production, showed similar declines. Organic farming here peaked in 2008 and 2009 with 108 and 109 farms, respectively, before dipping to 103 last year. Acreage took a 22 percent dive, dropping from 8,012 acres in 2009 to 6,263 last year.
Stores won't pay
Local growers suspect lower prices at the farm gate and new pests were behind the dip.
Shoppers may still be willing to pay more for organic food, but stores won't, said Dennis Jones, who has 114 acres of fruit trees between Zillah and Granger.
"There's been less of a premium to grow organic produce," said Jones, who has not cut his organic acreage.
Research supports his theory.
After netting $246.7 million in 2008, organic farm-gate sales in the state fell to $210.7 million in 2009, the most recent year with sales statistics. Sales figures lag a year behind acreage planted.
Sales in Yakima County told a similar story. After shooting up to $28.7 million in 2007, 2008 saw $24.5 million, followed by $21.1 million in 2009.
Even with the rising cost of fertilizers and chemicals for conventional farming, growers said organic produce still costs a lot more to grow, mostly because it takes more labor.
Mike Adams, orchard manager for Harrah-based Green Acre Farms, estimated it costs $50 per ton more for organic fruit destined for processors than for conventional. Organics require more trips through the orchard to thin buds and pull weeds because they aren't sprayed.
Adams is nevertheless holding on to his organic acreage -- about 200 acres of apples, peaches and nectarines.
Pesky fruit fly
Meanwhile, a new pest might have growers concerned enough to switch, fruit growers said. The spotted wing drosophila fruit fly has proven tough to control with organic methods.
The fly, native to Southeast Asia, has caused problems in California but has been showing up as far north as British Columbia.
"It's a bad bug," Jones said.
In spite of the ups and downs, Yakima County and Washington remain national leaders in the organic trend. In 2008, Washington accounted for 75 percent of U.S. organic apple acreage, the researchers said.
Yakima County still had the most organic farms statewide in 2010, though Grant County had far and away the most acreage with 24,000, accounting for nearly 24 percent of the state's organic land.
And demand for organic products continues to grow, just more slowly, Granatstein said. Organics accounted for 11.4 percent of all produce sales in the nation in 2009, compared to 9.8 percent in 2008.
"It's still growing."