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Organic Production Grows Healthy Profits

LOS RANCHOS - Monte Skarsgard, owner of Los Poblanos Organics in Albuquerque's North Valley, said sales from his 12-acre vegetable and herb farm grew from $33,000 to $310,000 in just three years.

From left, Joan Quinn, Greg Ripley, Brett Bakker, Ron Walser, Del Jimenez, and Monte Skarsgard examine organic lavender at Los Poblanos Organics farm in Los Ranchos.

"Since I started the business in 2003, gross sales have grown by 300 percent a year," Skarsgard said. "I expect sales to double again this year to $600,000."

With supplies of organic goods lagging behind demand, dozens of producers are setting up organic operations statewide. And, like Skarsgard, many report phenomenal growth in sales.

"There's steep growth here because the local organic market is just beginning," Skarsgard said. "It's not like the West Coast where the market is already well developed. I see a bright future for organics in this state."

Del Jimenez, agricultural specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, said organic growers are earning high returns because they focus on quality rather than quantity.

"They're producing specialty crops for a niche market, and that allows them to maximize income from limited acreage," Jimenez said. "Organic production provides a profitable alternative for small-scale growers like Skarsgard."

Joan Quinn, marketing and education coordinator with the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission, or NMOCC, said the number of certified organic producers in New Mexico grew three-fold over the past 10 years.

"A decade ago we had only about 50 certified growers in the state," Quinn said. "Now we have about 150. The applications just keep rolling in."

To be certified, growers must demonstrate that they grow crops using only natural methods without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Organic operations must be inspected and approved by a U.S. Department of Agriculture-accredited agency, such as the NMOCC, Quinn said.

Since the NMOCC began operating in 1991, sales by New Mexico's organic certified producers have grown from just $5,000 to more than $20 million, Quinn said.

That mirrors growth rates nationally. Sales of organic goods grew by about 20 percent per year since the early 1990s, reaching about $13 billion in 2004, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic crops and livestock can fetch a price premium of anywhere from 25 percent to 200 percent or more over conventionally grown products, according to the USDA's Economic Research Service.

Apart from certified organic producers, Jimenez said hundreds more have switched from conventional to natural production methods.

"We have about 400 non-certified growers in the state who sell at farmers markets and roadside stands," Jimenez said. "They can't carry the USDA's 'certified organic' label, but they market their products as 'natural' or 'pesticide-free.'"

Given the sharp growth in organic production, about 500 producers are expected to attend the 2006 New Mexico Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque on Feb. 24-25. This year, the NMOCC partnered with NMSU, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and Farm to Table to organize the annual conference because it's gotten too big to do it alone, Jimenez said.

As more producers convert to organic, the variety of goods available is expanding. Crops account for nearly 95 percent of production, but organic livestock is also growing, including such specialized products as organic goat cheese from a producer near Pie Town and organic yak meat from a ranch north of Taos, Quinn said.

The NMOCC is now reviewing certification for the state's first dairy operation. Lawrence Skelley of Causey, south of Portales, will produce about 6,000 gallons of organic milk per day with 1,000 cows.

"We'll have milk for sale in about 90 days," Skelley said. "We already have a Texas-based distributor to sell to stores nationwide."

Kim Ridgeway of Meyer Country Farms in Scottsdale, Ariz., is selling organic treats for dogs and cats, including organic catnip and pet shampoo made with organic ingredients. Ridgeway, who is certified with the NMOCC because there are no USDA-accredited agencies in Arizona, said sales are growing at 40 percent a year.

Sally Harper, who started growing organic pecans in 1994 near Las Cruces, said nine more organic producers now operate in southern New Mexico. She buys from the other growers for re-sale to national retailers, and since 2000 sales have doubled from 138,000 pounds of pecans to 276,000. "There aren't enough pecans to meet demand."

Extension fruit specialist Ron Walser, who is researching organic production at NMSU's agricultural science center at Alcalde, said fruit is New Mexico's fastest-growing organic crop.

"Strawberries and raspberries are particularly popular because they're high-value crops that yield a lot of fruit with little acreage," Walser said.

Corrales-based grower Doug Findley is a prime example. He grew about 400 pounds of raspberries in 2002 for the first time to test organic methods and to provide fruit for his sister, Heidi, to develop a new organic raspberry jam.

Last year, the brother and sister team of Heidi's Raspberry Farm LLC produced nearly 20,000 pounds of raspberries. They sold $94,000 in fresh fruit and jam at farmers markets and supermarkets.

"We were the first ones to sell organic raspberries here," Findley said. "We charge twice as much as conventional growers, but people buy our goods because nobody else offers organic jam. It's a real niche."


2006 New Mexico Organic Farming Conference (Sidebar)

Following a one-year hiatus, the annual Organic Farming Conference will be held this year at the Albuquerque Hilton, 1901 University Blvd. NE, on Feb. 24-25.

The conference offers about three dozen workshops on six broad themes: soils and soil management, controlling insects and disease, marketing and funding sources, water and health issues, organic crops and organic livestock.

The event includes a trade show with nearly 40 exhibits and live demonstrations on drying flowers, honeybee production, cheese making and wine making.

"It's an opportunity for growers to learn about the latest techniques in organic production," said Del Jimenez, an agricultural specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "It's also a great chance for producers and marketers from New Mexico and other states to network and share ideas."

The conference costs $100, or $65 per day. For more information, call Jimenez at (505) 852-2668 or Joan Quinn at (505) 841-9067.