CHICAGO — Organic food and beverage sales in the United States soared in 2020, jumping 12.8% to a new high of $56.4 billion, according to the 2021 Organic Industry Survey from the Organic Trade Association (OTA), Washington. This total represented almost 6% of all food and beverages sold in the United States. In that unprecedented year, organic’s reputation of being better for you and the planet attracted new users, with many planning to continue purchasing organic items.
“The only thing that constrained growth in the organic food sector was supply,” said Angela Jagiello, director of education and insights for the OTA. “Across all the organic categories, growth was limited by supply, causing producers, distributors, retailers and brands to wonder where numbers would have peaked if supply could have been met.”
But will organic designation be enough to satisfy consumers going forward? Organic is a regulated certification and one that may be challenging for farmers to obtain, especially when supply chains are strained. While organic certification assures the land on which the food was grown was managed without the use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, the label itself cannot tell you whether the health of the land is improving. This information gap has prompted marketers to provide another form of differentiation in the marketplace, and that is focusing on sustainability through regenerative agriculture and closed-loop operations. A growing number of non-organic certified products are focusing on this space, putting pressure on organic processors to follow suit.
Land to Market, Boulder, Colo., for example, has introduced a verified sourcing solution for regenerative agriculture. Together with Keller Crafted Meats, Fairfield, Calif., the companies are rolling out a regeneratively sourced beef hot dog. The sausage is infused with bone broth and organic seasoning. Keller Crafted is trying to create a farm-direct food chain and support progressive farmers, regenerate farm land, treat animals humanely and create culinary quality, nourishing food, according to the company. It is not an organic producer.
“Organic has become relaxed,” said Christa Barfield, founder, LifeLeaf Organic Farms, Philadelphia, during a roundtable discussion at Natural Products Expo East on Sept. 23 in Philadelphia. “Just being organic because you aren’t using chemicals is not enough. We need to talk about how we are taking care of the earth.”
Ms. Barfield founded LifeLeaf in 2018 when she started growing herbs in a greenhouse in her urban backyard so she could sell them through her new venture: Viva Leaf Tea Co. Soon after, she expanded her organic farming operations by starting FarmerJawn, which is part of a community-supported agriculture business that allows farmers the ability to offer fresh produce bundles directly to local residents. Both operations follow regenerative farming practices that concentrate on soil health.
“COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for many consumers to understand the delicate balance of our planet, and they want to do better,” said Cali Amos, research manager, HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla. “Sustainability has morphed from a parallel of healthy nutrition to a fully integrated component of a product’s healthfulness. While premium pricing has traditionally been a challenge for sustainability claims, we see this becoming less of a barrier as sustainability becomes more of a requirement for a healthful definition.”
David Rizzo, co-leader of Land to Market, said, “People are concerned about the environment and thoughtful about how their food choices affect the planet.”
Regenerative agriculture builds soil fertility, sequesters carbon, improves watersheds and supports biodiversity. It’s not organic-certified farming, but it could be. And for some consumers, it may have greater importance.
“For years, we envisioned crafting a nutrient-dense hot dog from regionally sourced grass-finished beef raised in a way proven to regenerate the planet and promote biodiversity,” said Mark Keller, founder and chief executive officer of Keller Crafted. “We wanted to utilize the whole animal and nourish people’s bodies. We know hot dogs hold a special place in Americans’ lives. People eat them but are never quite sure what mystery meat they’re consuming. With the new Keller Crafted regenerative beef hot dog, we’re turning the tables on that dynamic and exposing all the goodness that goes into every link.”
Heidi Diestel, fourth-generation turkey farmer, Diestel Family Ranch, Sonora, Calif., said, “Modern agriculture has gotten a bad rap, and with how few (producers) go out of their way to do things right, we’re not surprised. From filtering and reusing our greywater to working with local farms to replace artificial fertilizers and chemicals with compost we produce right here on our farm, we’re always looking for new ways to shrink the boot that makes our environmental footprint.”
Diestel Family Ranch has been raising turkeys since 1949. The flock includes organic-certified birds, as well as non-GMO and no-antibiotics fowl. All get processed into everything from deli meats to patties to roasters. For Thanksgiving, the company is introducing organic turkey gravy. The heat-and-eat product features organic turkey bone broth blended with a roux made with organic butter and savory herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme.
Egg producers also are embracing efforts to improve the ecosystem. Blue Sky Family Farms, Warsaw, Ind., recently launched Helpful Hens, a line of free-range, pasture-raised eggs sustainably farmed with regenerative practices. The farm has been raising organic and non-GMO certified hens since its inception in 2013.
“Our primary focus has always been the health of our hens and environment in which they live, perch and roam,” said John Brunnquell, president and CEO of Egg Innovations, Blue Sky Family Farms’ parent company. “With ongoing research surrounding the environmental impact of agriculture and farming, it’s imperative that as an industry, we transition to more transparent and regenerative farming practices.”
Techniques being implemented across Blue Sky Family Farms’ growing roster of regenerative farms include creating an environment for plants, pollinators and hens to thrive. This program involves the planting of nutrient-rich cover crops and trees to help absorb carbon; implementing a three-tier vegetation program in pasture, including grasses, shrubs and trees, allowing for carbon sequestration to occur at multiple elevations in the pasture; growing 20 species of diverse vegetation to allow healthy interactions between plants and animals, and shade for hens; and frequent testing of soil and bird behavior as a form of measurement to determine benchmarks for its regenerative practices and performance metrics for future farms.
Belcampo Farms, Gazelle, Calif., a producer of sustainable, organic, grass-fed and -finished, and certified-humane meats, communicates to consumers its beef burgers now have a net negative impact on carbon emissions, with 28 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent being sequestered for each 8-oz Belcampo Burger. Belcampo was founded with a purpose: to create meat that’s good for people, planet and animals. Founded in 2012, Belcampo’s animals are raised on 27,000 acres of organic, regeneratively farmed pastures.
“Data suggest that the conventional meat and dairy industry may be responsible for nearly one-fifth of all global greenhouse gas emissions, but Belcampo’s climate-positive burgers show that meat produced with regenerative techniques, including short-duration, high-density grazing for the full life cycle of the animal, can make a climate positive impact on the environment,” said Anya Fernald, co-founder of Belcampo Farms.
In 2020, Belcampo Farms removed a net 23,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The number reflects the total carbon sequestration from its regenerative grazing minus the emissions from all the company’s commercial activities, which include enteric methane, transportation, last-mile fulfillment, restaurant operations, and all other farming practices and processes.
“Meat that is actually good for the environment sounds like a radical idea, but it’s actually a more traditional way to farm and the science proves it captures carbon from the air and stores it in the soil,” Ms. Fernald said. “We hear a lot about how bad meat is for the environment, but the reality is that the way in which meat is farmed by our community of farmers is drastically different in terms of environmental impact.
“Regenerative farming harnesses the relationships between plants and soil microbes to pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in plants, their root systems and the soil. With regards to livestock production, regenerative refers to an array of management practices, such as no-till grassland and grazing management, which improve soil and land health, including sequestering carbon in agricultural soils and ensuring that it remains there.”
This process is not required for organics. Belcampo, however, recognizes the value, and includes regenerative agriculture in its organic farming operation.
“Belcampo has always strived to operate in an environmentally responsible manner,” Ms. Fernald said. “We look forward to leveraging the data in this, our first of many, greenhouse gas inventories, to identify additional ways Belcampo can become more climate positive including projects underway to increase the amount of carbon sequestration at our ranch, shift to using more renewable energy at our facilities and help our community of farmers apply these practices in their farms, multiplying our efforts.”
Big brands are taking note
Most organic regenerative farmers today are raising and producing their own consumer products. This model is starting to change as large-scale manufacturers explore opportunities to enter the space. Brands may take action to tackle climate change by partnering with economically vulnerable farms and supporting conversion to more sustainable practices, said Nicolas McCoy, managing director and co-founder, Whipstitch Capital, Framingham, Mass., during a presentation at Expo East. Localizing production as much as possible will help reduce logistical costs and reduce carbon footprint.
Nate Powell-Palm, owner, Cold Springs Organics, Bozeman, Mont., also spoke at Expo East. He started raising organic beef when he was 12 years old as part of a 4-H project. He used a loan from the Montana Department of Agriculture and other opportunities to develop and grow his cattle operation and in 2011 expanded into crop production. He said the industry is missing an opportunity to educate consumers about deep soil building, following animal welfare standards, and that organic is non-GMO, but non-GMO is not necessarily organic.
“It’s a different way of doing business,” Mr. Powell-Palm said. “Regenerative organic farming is a different beast than conventional. It requires a lot of investment in soil. It requires different machinery. (The transition from conventional to organic) is also pretty scary.
“If you’re a conventional farmer coming over into the organic space, you have a lot of tools taken away. Your sprays and your protection practices for your crops are gone. It’s a big leap of faith. But you will land in a marketplace that will treat you right with good contracts.”
For Cold Springs Organics, that was getting its organic yellow peas and durum wheat into Annie’s Mac and Cheese, a brand of General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis. The ingredients are more than organic, and the Annie’s brand communicates how its suppliers follow regenerative principles.
“Food is what connects us to each other and to the planet,” General Mills said. “To realize a more regenerative food system, we need to shift from a farming system that competes with nature, to one that works with nature to feed planet for generations to come.”