RUSHFORD, Minn. ― For Ben Bisbach, an organic farmer who grows heirloom dry beans in the Root River Valley of southeast Minnesota, the pandemic made him feel like he was living in a parallel world.
"(Organic farmers) were selling everything we could grow and producing more than anyone could remember, with how good the weather was, and it really seemed like everything was going great," said Bisbach, farmer and owner of Ben's Beans. "Everywhere else in the world, everything was going wrong and everything was falling apart. People were losing their jobs, businesses were struggling and we just felt like we're in this alternate reality."
According to the 2020 Organic Produce Performance Report by the Organic Produce Network, organic produce sales in 2020 finished with a 14.2% increase over the previous year. Organic product sales last year increased by over $1 billion from 2019, according to the report.
Bisbach's full-time job is working at Featherstone Farm in Rushford, the site in which he also produces the dry beans that he sells. After graduating from college in 2010, Bisbach worked on several organic farms. At the first farm he worked at, the owner gave each apprentice a plot of land where they could grow anything they wanted.
"The farm didn't grow any dry beans, and so I thought I would do that mainly because I thought that they looked really cool," said Bisbach. "So I grew those and then kept doing it year after year, and people would give me different varieties that I would collect and started to accumulate."
He noticed at farmers markets there were never any dry beans for sale, so in 2016 he planted the most he ever had before and took them to markets, selling them for $6 a pound.
"And people just bought the hell out of them," he said. "People were so excited, and I got really good feedback that confirmed what I had suspected, which was that people wanted this and not a lot of people were providing it."
Three years ago he landed at Featherstone Farm, a 250-acre certified organic farm in Rushford. According to its website, the farm produces about 70 varieties of fresh market fruits and vegetables for distribution to local co-ops, restaurants and grocers, as well as wholesalers and Community Supported Agriculture members.
At Featherstone, Bisbach introduced the idea of renting a half an acre of land to grow dry beans. He's been doing that for three years, and selling his product at the Rochester, Minn., Farmers Market as well as through the farm's CSA.
2020 was an excellent growing season for dry beans, he said, with a really dry July and August.
"I got about 650 pounds of marketable beans off of that half an acre this year, which is pretty good," Bisbach said.
Like most organic producers, 2020 was a record sales year for Bisbach. At first he wasn't sure what to expect, especially at the farmers market where people would have to turn out in person.
"It did seem like maybe it wasn't quite as busy as I have seen it in the past, but the demand from customers was still really high," Bisbach said. "I had record markets pretty much every week. And then, with my leftovers that I sell to the CSA, they all sold out basically in the first week."
He said he thinks the increase in sales comes from the public's renewed interest in eating healthier and buying more locally produced foods.
"People are thinking a lot more about their health, and so I think that a lot of people switched to eating organic versus conventional," he said. "Or they think about cooking a home cooked dinner instead of throwing a frozen pizza in the oven."
Organic Valley, the nation's largest organic farmers co-op headquartered in LaFarge, Wis., saw 11 consecutive profitable months in 2020, according to Elizabeth McMullen, public relations specialist for the cooperative. December numbers were still being calculated at the time of this report.
Much of that success is due to the increased demand for organic milk, which according to data from SPINS MULO, a multi-outlet tracking service, went up by 11.3% in the past 52 weeks. Out of the around 1,900 Organic Valley farms, about two-thirds of them are dairy farms.
Organic Valley had its first money-losing year in decades in 2017 and ended both 2018 and 2019 in the red as well.
Travis Forgues, executive vice president of membership for Organic Valley, said 2020 brought the cooperative to a more steady position financially.
"All you have to do is look at what we lost in 2019, and where we are today, and we're gonna come through 11 months of being profitable in 2020," Forgues said. "We're going to hit and exceed the profit goals that we've set for the cooperative in 2020. So yes, we're in a much more stable situation."
But the future of the organic industry is still up in the air, he said.
"The real key is going to be how do we continue to sustain this moving forward, because we're obviously in a time of economic turbulence," he said. "COVID can be good or bad for sales, in a lot of ways. It's changing everything we do."
Bisbach agrees with that.
"This past year made (organic farmers) feel very lucky and very guilty at the same time," he said. "And I don't know what this next year is gonna hold."
Catch AgweekTV anytime on agweek.com!