While there might be a statistical debate over the number of organically certified farmers in the state, industry officials in North Dakota maintain such operations are growing alongside national trends.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service from the Census of Agriculture and the individual Organic Production Surveys, the number of organically certified farms in North Dakota declined from 130 in 2012 to 94 in 2014.

“I’m not sure what happened to cause the number of farms to decrease as much as it did from 2012 from 2014, but this is what the data told us,” said Darin Jantzi, a state statistician for USDA NASS.

Meanwhile, a USDA Agriculture Marketing Service database of certified organic-driven operations shows a count of 128 organic producers in North Dakota as of January, 12 of which were certified in 2015. This number is up from 116 in 2014, 109 in 2013 and 108 in 2012.

Industry officials in the state tend to agree with those numbers.

“What we’ve been experiencing is an increase,” said Christina Dockter, CEO of organic certification company International Certification Services Inc., particularly in the past two years. “We haven’t dropped. If anything, we held stable.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said, over time, he has heard of more producers choosing natural production, which does not require payment for certification in certain standards.

Operations also may choose to drop or not apply for organic status because they have a strong customer base familiar with their growing practices, according to Goehring. In other instances, organic producers have died or retired and those that purchase the property return it to conventional farming. 

Fluctuating status

Crop insurance and available markets are two items farmers consider when weighing their organic options.

“It was kind of a financial thing,” said Matt Locken, a farmer near Pekin who chose to let his organic certification lapse in 2013 and returned to conventional farming.

Locken said crop insurance, which is based on yields, didn’t provide adequate coverage because organic yields are naturally lower. He also couldn’t get contracts guaranteeing buyers.

Richard Krein, who farmed near Wishek, had been organically certified since 1998 when he let his certification expire in 2015. He is retiring and was unable to rent his land to other farmers willing to work the fields organically.

Ryan Filler used to grow organic alfalfa near Goodrich. He still has the organic acreage and has not used chemicals, but he could not sell any hay marketed as organic because he let his certification lapse.

Filler said the prices for organic production were too low for the yield he got. Also, he does not know of many organic meat or dairy operations that would purchase organic hay from him.

Meanwhile, Irene Kaul, who farms organically with her husband near Harvey, said she sees opportunity. She said the Bisman Community Food Co-op grocery store being built in Bismarck has been helpful in that it provides a market for organic producers.

Mismatched comparisons

States with the most organic farm operators were California with 4,435, New York with 1,361, Pennsylvania with 1,058, Washington with 1,178 and Wisconsin with 1,619.

Delaware and West Virginia had the least. States with similar numbers to North Dakota included Arizona, Kansas and Maryland.

Goehring said comparing North Dakota to states leading the organic movement is “apples and oranges.”

“Where we see organic growing is in areas of higher population,” he said. “We have some good farm-to-market programs but we also lack the population.”

Goehring said North Dakota also grows less produce and specializes more in bulk grain production due to its shorter growing season.

“We’re just not big vegetable producers,” he said.

(Reach Jessica Holdman at 701-250-8261 or jessica.holdman@bismarcktribune.com)