The Organic Yield Gap

An independent analysis
comparing the 2014 USDA Organic
Survey data with USDA-NASS
statistics for total crop production
Steven D. Savage
Savage & Associates Consulting
Applied Mythology Blog
www.drstevesavage.com

High Level Summary
The productivity of organic agriculture tends to be lower than that of
conventional. That is part of why there is a need for a price premium to
the grower. Some have argued that this yield gap can be closed, but the
data from the latest, detailed, 2014 USDA organic survey suggests that
real-world organic yields are substantially lower. This analysis is based on
371 crop/geography comparisons representing 80% of all US cropland. In
84% of the crop/geography comparisons, organic yields were lower –
mostly in the 20-50% range. The rare instances where organic yields were
higher than conventional (9% of total) were overwhelmingly for hay and
silage crops – not food crops. In order for the US crop production from 2014
to have been produced as organic would have required at least 109 million
more farmed acres – an area equivalent to the total parkland and wild
lands in the lower 48 states. Organic remains a very small fraction of the
US cropland base (~0.44%) and so it puts a limited strain on land-use.
That said, the concept of “only organic” is untenable from an
environmental perspective.

Background and
Methodology

Periodically, the USDA conducts a detailed survey of the US organic industry including data on the acreage, yield,
and price of organic crop production. Such surveys have been conducted in 2014, 2008. Organic data is
available at the state level for a large number of crops in a summary on the USDA website. Similar data is
collected each year by surveying a subset of all growers, and these numbers are available through the
Quickstats2.0 website, also from USDA-NASS. The USDA does not publish a comparison of these two categories,
so in 2009 and again this year I have undertaken to make such a comparison.

Not all crop/state combinations are available for the analysis. Sometimes the minor crops in a state are not even
tracked in the overall USDA data. For both the general and organic survey, if the number of farms reporting is too
small, the numbers are not disclosed so that information about specific entities are shielded. Some crops are only
tracked at the nationwide level (usually when one or a few states dominate the production). Even with these
limitations, it was possible to find 371 good comparisons (356 at the state level and 15 for small crops at the
national level e.g. cotton, tangerines…). These represented total cropland acres, 80% of the US total.

Many academic studies have been done comparing organic and conventional production methods, and several
meta-analyses have been published collecting these studies. While this is a valuable approach, it will not always
reflect the full range of innovation or limitation that are a part of real world commercial agriculture. This USDA
data is a window on the practical range of farming operation and the best available measure of how the different
production systems perform in a practical sense. There are potential artifacts in this data set. If there is a
difference in the proportion of irrigated land used for organic vs conventional it will skew the data as will other
intensity differences or geographic differences within a state. Some of the comparisons are unbalanced as in the
case of spinach and lettuce which are more heavily represented by “baby” types for organic in California. Even
so, the overall distribution of yield spread is sufficiently weighted to the conventional advantage to indicate the
reality of the differential.

My email is savage.sd@gmail.com

Comparison based on 370 state/crop
comparisons with at least 25 acres of
organic
>Organic
Yield

>Conv.
Yield

In 55 of 370 comparisons, yields were higher in
organic. 89% of the higher yielding examples were
with hay or silage crops, 10% with row crops and
<1.5% with fruits and vegetables

370 state/crop comparisons representing 268 million
acres of US cropland in 2014

US Level Data

Row Crops

Row Crops

Tree, Nut and Vine Crops

Tree, Nut and Vine Crops

Vegetable Crops

Vegetable Crops

State Level Data For Row
Crops

Barley
(Organic data from 532 farms, 45,710 acres, 1.9% of total, 33% yield gap,
1,286,070 more acres for organic only production)

There could
be differences
in the
proportion of
irrigated
barley in
some states

Barley

(1.19 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Corn For Grain
(organic data from 2735 farms, 168K acres, 0.2% of total, 35% yield gap,
45.1 million more acres needed for organic only production )

Corn For Grain
(45 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Corn Silage
(organic data from 960 farms, 36K acres, 0.6% of total, 20% yield gap,
1.6 million more acres needed for organic only production)

Corn Silage
(1.61 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Dry Edible Beans
(organic data from 120 farms, 13,472 acres, 0.9% of total, 23% yield
gap, 415,915 more acres needed for organic only production)

Dry Edible Beans

Dry Edible Peas
(organic data from 46 farms, 4857 acres, 0.5% of total)

Dry Edible Peas

(487K more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Alfalfa/Hay Mixtures
(States with highest organic yield, total of 28 states with available data 1607
farms, 220K acres, 1.4% of total, yield gap 2.4%, 375K acres for all organic)

Alfalfa/Hay Mixtures
(States with lowest organic yield, total of 28 states with available data 1607
farms, 220K acres, 1.4% of total, yield gap 2.4%, 375K acres for all organic)

Other Hay
(States with >800K acres, total 1983 farms, 179K acres, 0.5% of total, -21%
yield gap, 6.6million less acres needed for only organic production)

Other Hay
(States with <800K acres, total 1983 farms, 179K acres, 0.5% of total,

-21% yield gap, 6.6million less acres needed for only organic
production)

Other Haylage and Greenchop
(organic data from 962 farms, 101K acres, 7.7% of total, 19% yield gap,
282K more acres needed for organic only production)

Oats
(organic data from 969 farms, 42K acres, 4.7% of total, 18% yield gap,
187K more acres needed for organic only production)

Proso Millet
(organic data from 29 farms, 10K acres, 2.8% of total, 25% yield gap,
117K more acres needed for organic only production )

Proso Millet

(117K more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Rice
(organic data from 85 farms, 25K acres, 0.9% of total, 39% yield gap,
1.83 million more acres needed for organic only production )

Rice
(1.83 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Sorghum
(organic data from 47 farms, 5616 acres, 0.1% of total, 21% yield gap,
1.71 million more acres needed for organic only production)

Sorghum
(1.71 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Sorghum Silage
(organic data from 181 farms,14,153 acres, 4.5 % of total, 17% yield
gap, 60,489 more acres needed for organic only production)

Sorghum Silage Yield Gap
(60,489 more acres to produce all organic)

Soybeans
(organic data from 1432 farms, 99K acres, 0.1% of total, 31% yield gap, 37.7
million more acres needed for organic only production)

Soybeans
(37.7 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Sunflower Seed
(organic data from 61 farms, 6682 acres, 0.4% of total, 26% yield gap,
528K more acres needed for organic only production)

Sunflower Seed

(528K more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Durum Wheat
(organic data from 43 farms, 10.8K acres, 0.8% of total, 20% yield gap,
528K more acres needed for organic only production)

Durum Wheat

(324K more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Spring Wheat
(organic data from 295 farms, 80K acres, 0.6% of total, 34% yield gap,
6.44 million more acres needed for organic only production)

Spring Wheat
(6.4 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Winter Wheat

(States over 500K acres, total organic data from 826 farms, 173K acres, 0.5%
of total, 29% yield gap, 13.2 million more acres needed for organic only
production )

Winter Wheat
(States under 500K acres, total organic data from 826 farms, 173K acres, 0.5%
of total, 29% yield gap, 13.2 million more acres needed for organic only
production )

Winter Wheat

(states over 500K acres)

(13.2 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Winter Wheat

(states under 500K acres)

(13.2 more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Other Row Crops
(8.8 million more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Other Row Crops
Crop

Farm
s

Acres

% Total
acres

Cotton US

38

15,756

0.2

45%

7,659,051

Peanuts US

21

8,394

0.6

37%

757,587

Flaxseed US

62

15,204

5.0

43%

219,950

269

8,500

3.3

-6%

-14,879

Safflower US

10

2,547

1.5

6%

12,140

Lentils US

15

1,465

0.6

35%

139,084

Rye US

Yield
Gap

More
Acres for
all
Organic

State Level Data For Tree
Nut and Vine Crops

Apples
(organic data from 669 farms, 15K acres, 6.8% of total, 25% yield gap,
67,971 more acres for organic only production )

Apples

(60K more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Avocados
(organic data from 371 farms, 3,652 acres, 6.2% of total, 12% yield gap,
8,075 more acres needed for organic only production)

Avocado

(8,075 more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Fresh Blueberries
(organic data from 316 farms, 3,293 acres, 5.4% of total, 6% yield gap,
3,634 more acres to produce all organic)

Blueberries, Fresh
State

Farms

Acres

% Total

Arkansas

8

6

2.6

California

63

941

19.6

Florida

39

299

7.0

789

Georgia

26

263

1.6

11,688

New Jersey

10

131

1.4

3,428

New York

28

88

12.6

North Carolina

28

92

1.3

4,999

Oregon

58

218

2.4

2,790

Washington

56

1,255

13.8

-1,528

648

3,293

5.4

3,634

Above States

More Acres
320
1,655

-43

Processed Blueberries
(organic data from 51 farms, 990 acres, 1.2% of total, 107% higher
yield in organic segment )

Cranberries
(organic data from 30 farms, 283 acres, 0.7% of total, 67% yield gap,
5,883 more acres needed for all organic production)

Grapefruit
(organic data from 135 farms, 1,411 acres, 2.0% of total, 32% yield
gap, 32,062 more acres needed for all organic production)

Grapes
(organic data from 681 farms, 27,009 acres, 2.6% of total, 49% yield
gap, 982,625 more acres needed for all organic production)

The California, and
thus the US number
is skewed because
the organic grapes
tend to be grown in
the premium wine
producing areas
which have much
lower yields than
those in the central
valley for wine, table
and raisin grapes

Pears
(organic data from 242 farms, 2,675 acres, 0.5% of total, 32% yield gap,
21,641 more acres needed for organic only production)

Peaches, Fresh
(255 farms, 2,794 acres, 2.7% of total, 25% yield gap,37,740 more
acres needed for all organic production)

Raspberries
(organic data from 81 farms, 393 acres, 5.7% of total, 15% yield gap,
1,183 more acres needed for organic only production)

Strawberries
(organic data from 618 farms, 2,980 acres, 5.5% of total, 61% yield gap,
78,121 more acres needed for organic only production)

Other Tree and Vine Crops
Crop

Farm
s

Acres

% Total

Yield
Gap

Almonds US

99

6,162

0.7

43%

643,900

Blackberries US

19

60

1.0

42%

4,338

S. Cherries US

160

1,888

2.1

-6.3%

S. Cherries WA

80

1,409

4.0

15%

5,883

S. Cherries CA

38

300

0.9

19%

7,488

T. Cherries US

35

465

1.2

-6%

-2,127

Coffee US

43

224

2.9

25%

2,518

Dates US

26

708

8.6

10%

861

119

1,235

17.6

64%

1,0036

15

187

0.6

38%

18,432

Lemons CA

195

2,118

4.6

23%

13,188

Plums CA

128

2,320

12.9

37%

9,343

Plums OR

31

86

6.6

6%

Tangerines US

134

747

1.2

58%

85,186

Walnuts US

205

5,781

2.5

48%

20,7514

Figs US
Hazelnuts US

More
Acres

-114,20

0

State Level Data For
Vegetable Crops

Snap Beans
(organic data from 843 farms, 1,525 acres, 2.3% of total, 44% yield
advantage, -20K acres needed for organic only production)

Cabbage (green)
(organic data from 671 farms, 1298 acres, 2.1% of total, 38% yield
gap,37,596 more acres needed if all organic)

Cauliflower
(organic data from 316 farms, 1,745 acres, 4.6% of total, 30% yield gap,
15,429 more acres needed if all organic)

Cantaloupes and Muskmellons
(organic data from 375 farms, 1,174 acres, 1.9% of total, 9,080 more
acres need for all organic)

All but
California
less than 12
acres
organic total
per state

Carrots
(organic data from 1062 farms, 8972 acres, 12.1% of total, 49% yield
gap, 61,809 more acres needed for all organic)

Garlic
(organic data from 972 farms, 726 acres, 3.1% of total, 66% yield gap,
44,891 more acres if all organic)

Onions, Dry
(organic data from 417 farms, 1352 acres, 1.0% of total acres, 21% yield
gap, 35,633 more acres for all organic)

Only Wisconsin
and California
have more
than 10 acres
of organic
onions

Bell Peppers
(organic data from 881 farms, 1,196 acres, 2.6% of total, 40% yield gap,
30,698 acres to produce all organic)

Georgia and
Michigan
had <10
acres of
organic
peppers

Potatoes
(organic data from 953 farms, 12K acres, 1.1% of total, yield gap 30%,
450,109 more acres needed for only organic)

MT, FL, KS, MI,
IL, MD, MN all 10
or less organic
acres

Potatoes

(450K more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Squash
(organic data from 1,347 farms, 6,826 acres, 17.7% of total, 10% US
yield gap, 3,542 more acres for only organic production)

Sweet Corn
(organic data from 256 farms, 11,382 acres,13.1% of total. Sorted by organic
yield, -16% yield gap, -10,380 acres if all organic, )

Only OR, CA,
NY, PA, NC,
VT, WA, WI
>20 acres
organic so
only these
states
included in
summary
statistics
above

Sweet Potatoes
(organic data from 302 farms, 6,005 acres, 4.4% of total, -29% yield gap,
-28,917 acres for organic only production)

Fresh Tomatoes
(organic data from 821 farms, 2,566 acres, 3.0% of total, yield gap 61%,
129,672 more acres needed for organic only production)

Summary
statistics based
on states with a
least 25 acres of
organic fresh
tomatoes

Watermelons
(organic data from 341 farms, 871 acres, 0.8% of total, 76% yield gap,
33,855 more acres needed for organic only production)
IN, AK, VA, MA,
GA < 20 acres of
organic
watermelons

Other Vegetable Crop Yield Gaps
(931 more acres would have been needed to produce all organic)

Other Vegetables
Crop

Farms

Acres

% of Total
Acres

28

102

Broccoli US

716

Broccoli CA
Celery US

Artichokes CA

Hops US

Yield
Differential
(%)

More Acres
If All
Organic

1.4

-7%

-492

8,571

6.7

17%

25,317

150

7,246

5.6

8%

10,705

190

2,235

7.7

32%

12,678

31

421

1.1

39%

24,196

59.4

79%*

80,579

Leaf Lettuce
US
Lettuce All US

1063

32,122

12.3

72%*

590,605

Green Peas US

385

9,624

5.1

-12%

-19,505

Spinach US

411

18,000

47.9

71%*

47,086

Processing
Tomatoes US

88

4,545

1.5

35%

159,880

Snap Beans,
Processing US

65

4,356

2.7

23%

46,164

*Probably related to proportion of “baby” lettuce products

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