The organic grower segment of the agricultural industry has surged in recent years, and it experienced a 13 percent increase in business this past year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Organic sales totaled $47 billion in 2016, a near $4 billion increase compared with the previous year, and sales are only expected to increase over the next few years, the Organic Trade Association reports.
“Organic food was treated as a fad a few years ago,” says Mel Limon, executive director of sales at Flame Engineering. “Now, it’s no longer just a fad. It’s a movement.”
Limon discussed the increase in organic food sales and organic grower operations during an educational session on the agricultural market at the 2017 Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo. According to his presentation, the number of organic grower operations reached about 20,000 locations in 2015. In addition, about 82 percent of American households use organic products.
“[The sector] has been in the double digits for years now,” says George Gogos, founder of Agricultural Flaming Innovations (AFI) and a professor of mechanical and materials engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “There is increasing demand for organic food in the U.S., which is driving everything.”
Yet the rising consumer demand for organic food has outpaced supply, according to a study performed by SMR&P and Millennium Research. Although hundreds of thousands of acres are being added annually to organic fruit and vegetable farms, production of organic row crops such as corn or soybeans is lagging behind. Many food manufacturers have to import grain and soybeans to meet the demand.
“Traditional growers express a lot of hesitancy of going organic,” says Jan Johnson, president of Millennium Research. “If the food industry wants to encourage domestic production of these crops, there are growers willing to make the switch, but the incentives have to be in place for them to do so.”
The growth of organic grower operations serves as an opportunity for the propane industry, which can offer solutions to operations through the sale of propane-powered agricultural equipment. Many organic growers are concerned about growing products naturally, and carbon emissions are top-of-mind, Limon says. Because propane is considered a clean fuel, it makes this market a good fit.
“These growers want a fuel that keeps their organic farm clean, and propane can do that,” says Cinch Munson, director of agriculture business development at the Propane Education & Research Council.
Demand continues to increase for organic grower operations, and this, in turn, increases demand for propane among these operations.
AFI sells propane flame weeders, which serve as an organically safe way to eliminate weeds at organic grower operations.
“Organic farms are becoming larger and larger,” Gogos says. “There is a tremendous need for flamers for crops like corn, soybean and sunflower, as well as the need for flamers for other foods and crops.”
Many organic growers opt to use propane flamers because they cannot use pesticides or herbicides in their fields. Additionally, propane features low greenhouse gas emissions when compared with diesel or gasoline, making it a good alternative to these fuels. Growers also turn to propane because it doesn’t spill like diesel or gasoline.
“[Organic farmers] need a contamination plan with diesel or gasoline, but propane is non-toxic to the soil,” Munson adds. “From spills to burns and to how [growers] use it, propane is a better choice.”
In addition, organic growers turn to propane for more traditional farming applications such as propane irrigation, heating for livestock facilities and propane frost protection in orchards or vineyards, Gogos says. For propane to work well among organic growers, Gogos suggests retailers help by offering a wider range of on-farm refilling options and infrastructure.
“If the propane industry wants to expand in this, they need to provide incentives,” he adds. “It’s those incentives that make a big difference.”