Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Americans Are Devouring Organic Chickens as Sales Rise

  • Sales of organic broilers jumped 78% last year, USDA reports
  • Organic market grows to $7.6 billion, with acreage on the rise

Americans have a seemingly insatiable hunger for organic chickens. That’s helping to drive growth in the booming specialty industry for farm products.

U.S. producers sold $750 million of organic chickens last year, surging 78 percent from 2015, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That makes chicken meat the third-largest agricultural commodity, trailing milk at $1.4 billion and eggs at $816 million.

Total organic farm sales were up 23 percent to $7.6 billion. More than a third of the value comes from just one state: California. Acres dedicated to the organic food increased by 15 percent, the report showed.

Chickens were one of the fastest-growing organic commodities last year. While the segment remains a small fraction of the $26 billion total chicken market, some major meat companies have boosted offerings of the specialty birds. Sales of organic chickens were 100 times greater than organic hogs, the data show. Earlier this month, the Washington-based Organic Trade Association sued USDA over the delayed effective date for new organic livestock standards.

Even though chicken is growing, crops still rule the organic market. Vegetable sales totaled $1.6 billion last year, and berries brought in $406 million. Some of the top-sellers in the produce aisle include apples, lettuce, strawberries, grapes and tomatoes.

Organic milk held onto its spot as the No. 1 single organic farm product, with sales up 18 percent in 2016. Just a few years after grocery stores were reporting dairy shortages, the industry has expanded so much that producers are now grappling with a surplus. “Some industry officials project oversupply may be a problem through 2018,” the USDA said in a Sept. 8 report.

U.S. organic corn production climbed 38 percent last year to 25.6 million bushels and organic soy jumped 45 percent to 4.6 million. That’s less than 1 percent of total domestic production of the crops. To meet feed needs, organic dairy and livestock producers have grown reliant on foreign supplies in recent years. In an audit posted this week, the USDA’s inspector general highlighted concerns with imports of the specialty crops -- including a lax verification system at ports to ensure the cargoes are actually from certified farms.

Separately, the USDA was sued earlier this month by the Washington-based Organic Trade Association over the delayed effective date for new organic livestock standards.

(Corrects corn production figure in seventh paragraph of story published Sept. 21.)
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