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Where to go next with stories on organic foods and businesses impacted?

Organic orchard

Photo: Flickr user WithoutWings11

The new report this week suggesting that organic foods aren’t any more nutritious than those grown using conventional methods must have sent a chill down the spine of many a grower and seller of organic edibles.

And the contentious topic, at this harvest time of year, is a great hook for business writers who want to profile the organics industry in their state or region.  Agriculture in general is a hot topic these days, between the drought and the pending Agriculture Reform, Food and and Jobs Act of 2012, commonly known as the federal farm bill.  (More on that in an upcoming post.)  And a story or package limited to the organics niche is a manageable way to start exploring your market’s food-production sector.

While organic goods account for only about 3 percent of U.S. food sales, the market is growing by double digits, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS).  The ERS Organic Agriculture portal offers a plethora of information on topics ranging from production and processing to pricing and trade.  There’s also a section on procurement; who knew that to meet national organic standards, food has to pass through “certified organic handlers.”  That’s an interesting sub-specialty to explore.

The National Organic Standards Board page on the USDA site will help you decipher the industry’s terms and conditions.  And here’s its list of certified operations(the list is more than 1,400 pages long) helpfully sorted by state.

Organic Meats, Toronto

This organic meats store is in Toronto. Photo: Flickr user Metrix X

And this chart from Michigan State University is quite enlightening, it shows industry consolidation in recent years and how jumbo food companies like ConAgra and Sara Lee have snapped up brands with organic cachet.  Readers would probably appreciate knowing the global food processing giants behind those kitschy-looking little organic labels on their local supermarket shelves; you could browse several stores, pick up some of the most popular organic items and produce a graphic showing their origin and ownership.  I noticed the other day, for example, that the giant Vlasic pickle brand is offering a Farmer’s Garden variety that comes in a canning-type jar with a label that looks one step up from hand-written.  (I don’t mean they are claiming to be organic, but clearly the marketing is aimed toward people interested in fresh and whole foods.)

The National Association of State Organic Programs website seems a bit moribund (it’s touting a 2009 conference) but offers a state-by-state listing of organics-promotion offices that might be a useful lead.

Industry groups are helpful; try the Organic Trade Association for statistics and survey results.  Note the link to the Organic PAC, as well — be interesting to look them up on OpenSecrets.org.

Think about related industries like retail — from the obvious, like farm markets and Whole Foods to little organics sections in mainstream grocery stores and even independent or regional health food chains.  You could focus on something other than fruits and vegetables, like wine, meat or dairy products, or the sale of preservation supplies like canning equipment and dehydrators.

Organic marketing seems to be quite the niche; Google that term and a regional or geographic keyword to find practitioners in your area.  Non-food organics are worth a look, too, from textiles to cosmetics.  Organic pet food abounds, from national brands like Newman’s Own to local cottage industries; I spotted an all-green pet store recently, too.  And of course, there is no shortage of organic apps.

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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