Jan 8, 2021
Move over, tomatoes. Lettuce is the new top organic vegetable: USDA
USDA Economic Research Service

The National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA released its latest survey of national organic food production in October. The first organic survey was initiated in 2008 and was conducted as part of the Census of Agriculture as a special study.

The 2008 and 2014 surveys collected data from certified and exempt organic operations, while all other surveys (including the 2011 and 2019 surveys) collected data only from certified organic operations.

Fall Line Farms; cooperative, co-op; Richmond, VA
Amy’s Organic Garden owner Amy Hicks can be found this May 5, 2011 morning, harvesting the greens at her farm in Charles City, Virginia. Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung.

Certified vegetable farms sell through wholesale markets, direct to consumers (Community Supported Agriculture arrangements, farm stands, farmers markets, internet, mail), and via retail markets, local restaurants, and institutions. Farm sales of organic vegetables nearly doubled between 2011 and 2019 to $2.1 billion. In 2019, five States accounted for 83% of all certified organic vegetable sales, led by California with $1.4 billion (66%). Arizona (6%), Oregon (6%), Washington (4%), and Florida (2%), round out the top five States. Arizona is the second leading purveyor of organic vegetables by sales with both area and sales concentrated in 3 crops: lettuce, spinach, and broccoli.

The 2019 survey revealed that area devoted to fresh and processing vegetables certified as organic increased 90% since 2011 (table 25). California (60% of organic area), Washington (7%), Arizona (4%), Oregon (4%) and Wisconsin (3%), were the top 5 states in terms of organic vegetable area. Lettuce, tomatoes, and spinach were the top 3 certified vegetables in terms of acres harvested. The number of farms producing certified organic vegetables increased 65% between 2011 and 2019 with farm numbers rising in most states. Texas was the only State with at least 1,000 acres in certified organic vegetables to register a reduction in farms.

organic vegetable prices
A table of organic vegetable prices. Click to enlarge.

Lettuce (of all types) replaced tomatoes as the top certified organic vegetable in 2019 in terms of both volume and value of sales. Lettuce has been the sales leader among organic vegetables for several years, but tomatoes had long been the volume leader. This largely reflects the enduring popularity of bagged salad mixes which has driven growth in romaine and leaf lettuces in general. About one-tenth of U.S. lettuce area is now sold as certified organic.

Organic culture has become an important factor in the spinach industry. About 70,000 acres of spinach is harvested in the United States under all forms of crop culture. Based on the 2019 organic survey, about one-third of this acreage is now certified as organic. This compares with about 15% of cauliflower, 11-12% of carrots and celery, 5% of sweet potatoes, and 3% of tomato area.

Among reported organically grown field crops, dry edible beans were valued at nearly $30 million in 2019. Production has risen 50% since 2011 to 428 thousand cwt with black beans (44% of dry beans) and pinto beans (36%) accounting for the majority of dry beans grown organically. Reflecting both rising demand for organics in general and new products featuring pulse crops, organically produced dry pea and lentil output has jumped 269% since 2011. About 2% of dry pea and lentil area is now produced under organic culture.

Driven by rising interest in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Indian foods, consumption and production of chickpeas (garbanzo beans) has been trending higher. As a result, over 6,000 acres were reported to be certified organic in 2019. Certified organic garbanzo beans (chickpeas), which were grouped with dry beans in 2011 but are now reported separately, had sales of $7 million in 2019.

Organic Retail Prices Mixed in 2020

Advertised retail prices for most organic vegetables posted limited increases over the first 3 quarters of 2020 (figure 18). Following the unsettled nature of the market during the early days of the pandemic, market volume for both organic and conventionally grown vegetables settled into a steady pattern with retail sales moving to a higher level. Average advertised retail prices for flat baby spinach (up 4%), romaine hearts (up 3%), and heirloom round tomatoes (up 2%) registered modest gains while prices for broccoli (down 8%) and cauliflower (down 4%) declined from the weather-induced highs of a year earlier. Despite weathering a period of supply shortages in late spring and early summer, retail prices for white button mushrooms remained steady.

organic vegetable prices
A table of organic vegetable prices.

The advertised retail price premium for many organic vegetables was generally running between 40% and 70% in November. For example, the advertised retail price for a 1-pound bag of baby peeled organic carrots was selling 58% above conventionally produced carrots in November 2020 and were 53% higher in November 2019. These higher prices have not been an impediment to sales over the last few years. In general, as per capita disposable income has risen, consumers have been willing to spend more to acquire premium vegetables (e.g., greenhouse, heirloom varieties) and various organics.

Above, Amy’s Organic Garden owner Amy Hicks harvests greens at her farm in Charles City, Virginia. Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung

This is an excerpt from the Vegetable and Pulses Outlook published by the USDA Economic Research Service on December 17, 2020.

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