Organic agriculture in Maryland more than doubled in five years and appears to be growing faster than in Virginia, said government and trade association officials.
Though still small, the amount of Maryland farmland dedicated to certified organic farming rose to 3,590 acres in 2001, compared with 1,645 acres in 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2002 Census, which was released last month, and other USDA data cited by an organic trade association.
In Virginia, farmers placed 7,428 acres into certified organic production in 2001, a 68 percent increase, compared with 4,416 acres in 1997. Delaware had only 167 acres in organic production in 1997; more recent data were not available. Pennsylvania has seen its organic agriculture more than triple, from 6,511 acres in 1997 to 20,984 in 2001.
Organic agriculture is well suited to Maryland because the farmland is not far from urban centers, Baltimore and Washington, where demand for organic food is stronger, said Sue duPont, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Agriculture Department.
Still, nearly two years after the federal government set standards for organic farming, the number of farms raising crops without any man-made fertilizers or pesticides remains tiny compared with the number of conventional farms.
Of the nation's approximately 2.13 million farms, only 11,998 are certified organic, according to the USDA. Although that number has more than doubled from 5,021 in 1997, it represents about a half-percent of the total, the census shows. This is the first year, in fact, that the Agriculture Census included data on organic acreage.
The organic industry received renewed interest last year after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy -- better known as mad cow disease -- in U.S. livestock. Many consumers looked for alternatives.
"I think they're interested in health reasons. I also think they're interested in environmental issues," said Rick Hood, 45, owner of Summer Creek Farm in Thurmont.
Hood, who raises free-range hens and about 20 types of vegetables on his 27-acre farm and other property nearby, said he learned to grow food organically from his grandmother. She had learned to farm before the chemical revolution in agriculture after World War II.
"It always appealed to me," said Hood, who is also president of the Maryland Certified Organic Growers Cooperative, a community-supported bulk food subscription program.
Agriculture experts have promoted organic farming, like other forms of niche agriculture, as a strategy to slow the decline in the number of family farms. In general, the practice involves raising crops and livestock without herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and hormones. The farms also are prohibited from using genetically modified seeds.
Instead, practitioners use age-old techniques to enrich soil and ward away pests. They rely heavily on composting and recycling. They may rotate their crops not only to restore nutrients to the soil but to inhibit certain insects.
Although labor intensive, organic farming also is generally more profitable than conventional agriculture, state and industry officials said. Consumers are generally willing to pay as much as a 10 percent premium for produce that has been raised without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, whether because of health or environmental concerns.
"They're willing to pay a premium, knowing their food is produced in a quality and environmentally friendly way," said Luke Howard, whose 77-acre farm on the Eastern Shore is in the third year of transition to organic farming. He said the returns can be also be larger because the distribution chain between farmer and consumer is also generally more direct. Organic growers typically distribute their produce through farmers markets, bulk subscriptions or local restaurants.
Some farmers turn to organic methods simply because they like the idea of using fewer chemicals that might affect their health. Howard, who grew up on a conventional dairy farm in central Pennsylvania, said organic farming is also more environmentally sound. Composting and reducing reliance on fertilizers helps the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
Organic agriculture also tends toward a bigger picture and planning over a longer term. Conventional farmers who spot pests on their crop may be tempted to spray them with chemicals. Organic farmers might have to live with the pests on this year's crop and think about planting a different crop that might be more resistant to that type of pest.
"It's all about prevention, not about cure," Howard said.
Under the USDA's National Organic Program, which took effect Oct. 21, 2002, producers must be certified by USDA-accredited organizations to sell their goods as organic. Although Maryland performs inspections and audits, the program relies mostly on an honor code among growers.
Maryland, which regulates the industry in line with U.S. standards, has encouraged organic farming by carrying out its own certification program since May 1991, said Valerie Frances, director of the program. She said Maryland's organic agriculture may be growing faster because Virginia discontinued a state-sponsored certification program in 2002 after the federal regulations went into effect.
But Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for Virginia's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said she doubted that it matters who carries out certification. She said she suspected that Maryland has perhaps promoted organic agriculture more aggressively. She said Virginia's industry was growing in line with national increases.
"We're probably one of the more diverse states organically," she said.