April 20, 2005 | By: Terri McLean
LEXINGTON, Ky.

Despite scientific evidence that suggests organic, natural and homegrown foods are no more healthy or safe than other foods, demand for these products continues to dramatically increase. And that can mean an increase in dollars for farmers and others who strive to satisfy that demand.

“There are a lot of people who are willing to pay a premium for those products,” said Benjy Mikel, an Extension meat scientist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

Typically, those people reside in the more affluent urban areas of the country. But the consumer attraction to organic, natural and homegrown foods has found its way into other areas as well, including in Kentucky.

“To me what’s so exciting is that if we’ve been able to have growth here in the state in the last two to three years with the economic situation so bleak, it’s only going to improve. It’s going to continue to improve as the economy improves,” Mikel said.

“Even in Kentucky there’s positive growth,” added Joe O’Leary, a UK Extension food scientist.

Growth in any segment of the Kentucky agriculture industry is positive in light of the move away from being primarily a tobacco-producing state, Mikel said. 

“I think Kentucky producers are like producers all over the country. They enjoy what they do and they’d rather do that than do something new,” Mikel said. “The College (of Agriculture) is certainly trying to make a concerted effort to help producers look at how we move away from tobacco. And not just to another commodity, but how we take these products that we produce in lieu of tobacco and continue to add value to them.”

Although the market for organics and even natural and homegrown foods is a “small fraction of the overall food market,” O’Leary said there are people who are willing to pay extra because of the perception that the food is better.

“There are some consumers who think any processing is bad,” he said.

Plus, Mikel added, there are several psychological factors involved in choosing organic, natural and homegrown products.

“Part of it is from 9-11. Part of it is, ‘Where does my food come from?’” he said. “I think there’s certainly a great deal of being a good citizen, having that community involvement that goes into this, where people identify with their neighbors who produce these products. They’re certainly interested in wanting to support their local farmers.”

Organic foods are produced naturally without the use of herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics. They are highly regulated by the federal government. Natural foods are less regulated but still have some requirements, including that they can contain no artificial ingredients. Homegrown foods basically are just that, grown at home or on a local farm.

“If you look at organic versus natural or any of the other terms that are out there, a lot of times I refer to them as marketing terms,” Mikel said. “From a safety standpoint, there’s really no scientific data that show a difference between any of these three. All three are really based along the same guidelines.”

The primary difference between the three is the amount of record-keeping required of the producers. Organic foods are the most highly regulated, “which is a good thing because it protects the integrity of the products,” Mikel explained. Organics also cost more to produce because of all the regulations.

“We do conduct a lot of workshops (for producers),” Mikel added. “We try to be very up front with them about the increased requirements and time commitment.”

Just as the demand is increasing, though, so is the participation among Kentucky producers - even with the regulations and time commitment required, especially in organic production.

“It can be lucrative,” Mikel said. “I think what we’ve begun to see now is the more innovative producers out there start to say this is something that I think I have the ability to do and I’m going to make this step toward a more stable economic situation for myself.”
 


Contact: 

Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Benjy Mikel, 859-257-7550
Joe O’Leary 859-257-5882