The production of organic foods helps lower poverty and increase household incomes in rural America, according to a Penn State University study released Wednesday.
The study by agricultural economist Ted Jaenicke found that organic hot spots — counties with high levels of organic agricultural activity whose neighboring counties also have high organic activity — increased median household incomes by an average of $2,000 and reduced poverty levels by an average of 1.3 percentage points.
In Iowa, there were six counties highlighted as organic hot spots: Allamakee, Clayton, Dubuque, Howard, Johnson and Fayette. Nationwide, 225 counties were identified as hot spots, or about 7 percent of all U.S. counties.
“I’m pretty optimistic that it might provide a new way of thinking about organic agriculture,” Jaenicke said.
He started researching organic because he was curious about the effect it had on local economies. The “strong and robust” impact of organic was much larger than he thought, Jaenicke said.
Jaenicke tabulated the results by identifying the quantity of organic farms and economic activity in the area. He then removed other factors influencing the local economy to gauge organic’s impact. He did not receive funding from the industry for his research.
While his study did not assess why organic benefited area economies, he speculated the reasons it does include the need for more labor and use of locally sourced inputs. Organic crops also typically command a significant premium compared to traditional crops, often paying the producer several times as much.
Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said the group was hopeful the data would spur policymakers, including state officials and lawmakers in Washington working on the next farm bill, to invest more in organic agriculture. She acknowledged organic isn’t the only solution to helping area economies.