Got Organic Milk? Thats the question more and more consumers are asking in supermarkets across the nation. | Sales of organic food have grown dramatically over the last decade soaring from $3 billion in 1997 to more than $10 billion in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sales of organic food have grown by 20 percent annually, and experts predict that the industrys share of the U.S. food market is expected to grow from about 2 percent to roughly 3.5 percent by the end of the decade.

In fact, demand for organic food is growing so fast that consumer demand is outstripping some domestic supplies.

Once a net exporter of organic products, the United States now spends more than $1 billion a year to import organic food, according to the USDA, and the ratio of imported to exported products is now about 8-to-1.

Many of these organic imports are grown in the European Union, where more than 140,000 farmers are meeting Europes weaker organic standards on 12.6 million acres of farmland.

In contrast, about 10,000 American farmers have made the transition to organic food production on about 2.3 million acres of land, according to the USDAs Economic Resources Service.

Its a system, and it takes a while to convert to organic farming, said Greg Bowman of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. But, farmers are watching their neighbors convert, going to field days, and they1re seeing that it can be done.

So, why have fewer U.S. farmers made the changes in farming methods that allow them to market their goods under the USDAs organic label?

Bowman says that there has been a long-standing interest in organic farming in the Bay states, and that the number of Bay farmers practicing organic agriculture was accelerated by the passage in 1990 of a federal law directing the USDA to create the now familiar organic label.

But, to meet the organic standard, farmers must abandon the use of synthetic pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics and take other steps to improve soil quality, such as crop rotation.

Although some farmers see no impact on production from these changes, there often is a production decrease associated with the transition to organic methods of farming, said Peter Miller of Organic Valley, a cooperative of farmers.

For some farmers, the costs of a three-year transition period when yields and, consequently, farm sales fall outweigh the benefits of the premium they will ultimately earn. But most farmers see their yields rebound by the time they have completed the transition to organic farming, Bowman said, and many can keep yields high during transitionbut only through careful soil management and crop selection.

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