Archive for January, 2012

Organic Crop Insurance Cost Spoils Growth of $27 Billion Market

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Jan. 18, 2012 — (Bloomberg) — Consumer demand for organic foods has helped Uncle Matt’s Organic Inc. grow from 5 acres of oranges in 1999 to become Florida’s biggest organic-citrus producer. Further expansion is being hampered by the federal crop insurance program designed to help farmers, says the company’s founder, Matt McLean.

Organic producers pay a surcharge on many of those policies, and payouts often don’t reflect their higher costs, which may inhibit farm development and contribute to shortages of some naturally grown products, producers and industry analysts say.

That reduced subsidy diminishes the incentive to meet surging market demands, said McLean, 40, who sells tangerines, grapefruit and other citrus crops grown on 1,110 acres owned by his family and 25 fellow farmers to retailers including Whole Foods Market Inc. and Kroger Co.

“We just want the same tools as conventional farmers to protect our assets,” said McLean, a fourth-generation grower who returned to the business in Clermont, Florida, 25 miles west of Orlando, years after a 1983 frost wiped out his grandfather’s trees. “It costs us more to grow.”

Nationally, organic sales of food and beverages jumped to $26.7 billion in 2010, from $6.1 billion in 2000, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic farming now accounts for 11 percent of U.S. fruit and vegetable sales and 4 percent of total food and beverage revenue, up from 1.2 percent a decade ago.

Tight Supplies

Surging consumer demand is leading to tight supplies of popular items. Organic milk may face shortages this year because there isn’t enough grain meeting the standard to feed dairy cows, according to the Cornucopia Institute, a natural-foods advocacy group.

The government spent $2.6 billion on more than 2 million farmer policies in 2010, sharing profits, absorbing losses and covering overhead costs for companies, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy organization that tracks farm subsidies.

Growth in organic-farm acreage is being held back by government programs that haven’t kept up with the shift in agriculture, including crop-insurance policies that aren’t tailored to organic producers the way they are for large Iowa corn farmers, said Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat who serves on the House Agriculture Committee.

‘Fundamental Issue’

“It’s just a huge, fundamental issue,” said Pingree, an organic farmer in the 1970s who’s hoping the next farm bill, which sets government farm policy for a five-year period, will include a measure she introduced last year to encourage alternative agriculture. “You need to encourage the supply, and to get bigger you have to be able to manage your risk.”

The farm bill Congress will debate this year will need to help keep production costs for organic food down while encouraging increased acreage, said Pingree. Additional funds to cover surcharges or sweeten payouts may be doable because of the popularity of environmentally friendly crops, said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University in Ames.

Still, with Congress under pressure to reduce the federal deficit, all programs are vulnerable to budget reductions. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week said he expects the legislation to include at least $23 billion in reductions to U.S. Department of Agriculture spending over 10 years, with most of the savings coming from farm subsidies, which last year came to about $10.6 billion.

Higher Subsidies ‘Indefensible’

Any new funds will face tough opposition, said Josh Sewell, a policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington- based organization.

“I don’t see anyone getting increased subsidies,” Sewell said in a telephone interview. “It’s indefensible, including for crop insurance.”

Some insurers started offering payouts based on organic- price calculations last year on corn, soybeans, cotton and some tomatoes, said Tom Zacharias, the president of National Crop Insurance Services, the Overland Park, Kansas-based industry lobbying group. Farmers pay a higher premium in return for greater loss coverage.

“Of course, producers are getting much more income protection for the higher premium they now pay,” Zacharias said. Bigger government reimbursements may also raise subsidies, though the ultimate expense to the taxpayer is hard to estimate as better data will result in increased costs for some crops and lower expenses for others, he said.

Organic Certification

Organic foods are certified to national standards that usually require that they be raised or processed without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, genetically modified organisms or chemical food additives.

Meeting standards can be costly. Farmers must remove weeds by hand or with labor-intensive machines, instead of simply spraying plants, said McLean of Uncle Matt’s Organic. Natural fertilizers include more-costly components than synthetic varieties. Total production costs for his oranges are probably 50 percent more than if he raised them conventionally, he said.

Farmers manage their weather risk by purchasing crop insurance, a coverage subsidized by the government and administered by companies including Wells Fargo and Co. and Ace Ltd. Policies in 2010 insured 256 million acres of cropland, about 63 percent of all land under cultivation, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Insurance Surcharge

Only about 21 percent of the nation’s 2.66 million acres of organic cropland was insured in 2010, according to USDA data. Payouts on claims for those acres were bigger than those for conventional products grown nearby: $1.05 for every dollar of organic, versus 59 cents for conventional, according to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, based on data from 2004 to 2010.

Policies for many organic crops also carry a 5 percent surcharge because there’s not enough actuarial data to determine risk, a fee the government is gradually lifting as better information becomes available.

Three years of weather-related losses in the Flint Hills of Kansas drove Donn Teske away from growing organic milo, soybeans and wheat. He’s using chemicals now to grow them.

“There’s a tremendous price for organic, but I can’t take the risk,” Teske said.

Back in Florida, McLean is seeking more farmers to help meet retailers’ needs. Easier access to insurance would help him survive the next inevitable incident of crop-destroying frost.

“If you can show them that one cold night won’t devastate them, you can help the industry grow,” he said.

–With assistance from Noah Buhayar in New York. Editors: Daniel Enoch, David Ellis.

Grove tour with Aran Goyoaga Food Writer, Stylist & Photographer

Friday, January 6th, 2012

We recently had the pleasure of a visit from Aran Goyoaga, Food Writer, Stylist & Photographer, and her family. They came to take a grove tour and learn more about our commitment to organic. It was a fun afternoon with them, and we thoroughly enjoyed their visit! Below is a copy of Aran’s blog post as well as some pictures she took. The photographs are beautiful and we love her recipes. Click on the link to get the recipes.

The winter afternoon we spent at the citrus grove

I wanted this winter break to be special for the kids. Although I knew that I would spend much of the time working (I am in the middle of copyediting the manuscript), it was important to me to schedule activities that were both fun and educational. That is when it occurred to me that I should take them to visit a citrus grove. After all, we live in Florida, the land of citrus, no?

I thought of how excited Jon and Miren would be to pick some of their favorite fruit right of the tree and learn a bit more about where we live. I knew they would.

Then, my next question was… “where do we go?”

I didn’t know where to begin my search. I asked around and searched on the internet. How hard could it be to find a citrus grove in the land of mail-order citrus gift-boxes. I called and called, but got nowhere. It seems things have really changed in the last few years in the citrus industry. After the devastating freezes they had in the mid 80s, many small growers lost most of their groves and since then, the industry has become much more industrialized.

“We don’t allow people to walk the groves for liability reasons, but you can visit our packing house” is the answer I heard the most. “But we really want to see the trees and pick the fruit! Why would I want to see a packing facility?” is what I kept repeating.

I got no answers. Until the day I picked up a bag of organic oranges at Whole Foods.

I saw the name Uncle Matt’s under a big sign that said “Local”. Right then and there, I googled them on my phone. I was so excited to find an organic citrus grower not far from where we live. I sent them an email as soon as I got home to see if we could come visit and shortly I received an email back saying “It would be our pleasure!”

Just like that, we planned a trip to visit Uncle Matt’s.

We decided to make a day trip out of it. Invited my friend Karen and Jon’s best friend Daisy along for the ride. C. even took the day off from work to join us.

The kids were beaming. Cool, sunny winters-day.

When we arrived, the entire McLean clan who is the family behind Uncle Matt’s greeted us. Benny McLean, the patriarch, comes from a long line of citrus-growing Floridians. Who else would have such great insight into citrus farming but him. Matt McLean, Benny’s son and CEO of Uncle Matt’s (the business was named after him) explained to us the genesis of it all and the importance of organic practices.

Annemarie and her daughters and nephew joined us as well. Daisy, Jon, and Miren were excited to find new friends and share the experience with them. The McLean children are used to being in the fields and working the land and that is very obvious. They are naturals.

Benny gave us a thorough explanation of how the citrus industry in Florida has evolved. He explained to us how they address the issues of winter freezes, insects, and disease under organic practices. He spoke about the trees’ immune systems and then, just like that, I wanted to cry out of joy. Maybe because my own autoimmune disorders, anytime a doctor, farmer, or individual addresses the importance of strengthening our bodies ability to defend from disease, it gets to me. I get it. Benny’s words resonated.

I loved learning about how wasps are used to fight disease and how wasps live on their property pollenating these tiny white flowers that in conventional farming would be considered weeds and immediately removed.

They have created a harmonious eco-system and we could sense it. There is peace at Uncle Matt’s.

The fruit was outrageously sweet – candy-like and warm from the sun.

We all picked from the trees. The sweetest red navels, Hamlins, honeybells, pink grapefruit, gigantic pommelos, and lemons. The tangelos were still ripening and so were the Valencia oranges. They also grow avocados, blueberries, and peaches. We even spotted some blossoms on the peach trees.

Our kids and the McLean kids bonded over picking fruit.

Such a beautiful sight.

As we were walking around, my mind was spinning thinking about what I was going to make with all this beautiful fruit.

The first thing was a fresh salad. Don’t we all crave citrus salads after all the holidays? I know I do.

Simple lobster and citrus salad with tarragon-oil dressing and spicy radishes.

We played at the farm until nightfall.

The kids were happy from a day in the sun — in nature.

And I was completely inspired by passion and dedication from those who see beyond a mere business and create a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for their family and community.

Back at home, we have been enjoying fresh citrus every morning. A mix of red navel and honeybell is Jon’s favorite. How could it not be right?

Just like candy.

Even though it is winter and yes, it finally got down to the 40s, I still craved sorbet. I made pommelo, hibiscus, and vanilla bean popsicles that we had outside under the sun. It felt good.

Also made vanilla and cardamom natillas with sliced of citrus and ladyfingers using all the leftovers from recipe testing.

So thank you Uncle Matt’s and the McLean family for your time and generosity. We will never forget it.

And to all of you, happy 2012!

All photos: © Aran Goyoaga