Organic agriculture is a rapidly growing sector in agriculture; sales of organic produce increased by 20% or more every year from 1990 through 2002 (Dimitri and Greene, 2002; Nelson et al., 2004). Vegetable and fruit sales represent the greatest percentage of overall organic production, followed by organic dairy products [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2006]. Consumers choose organic food partly because it is assumed to be healthier due to lower pesticide residuals (Jolly, 1991). However, consumers who purchase organic food also consider organic production methods to have a less negative impact on the environment than conventional production techniques (Durham, 2007).
Research on the production and marketing of organic products has focused primarily on organic food. However, because consumers consider organic production to be environmentally safer than conventional production, they may be interested in purchasing nonedible crops such as bedding plants and cut flowers. This may represent a new market niche for growers and an opportunity to attract younger consumers who are typically more interested in organic food than are older consumers (Thompson, 1998).
For this reason, the production of organic ornamentals in the United States has been increasing. In 2005, organic nursery and greenhouse production covered 3331 acres (1348.0 ha) in the United States. It is unknown how much of this acreage was dedicated to ornamental plant production, but conventional greenhouse and nursery production consists largely of ornamental plants. While this is a relatively small production area, acreage of organic nurseries and greenhouses has increased 83% since 2004 (USDA, 2006). Thirty-three percent of growers responding to a survey from the Organic Farming Research Foundation grow herbs, floriculture, ornamental, or greenhouse products, mushrooms, or honey (Walz, 2004). Thus far, organic herbs and flowers have been sold primarily through the internet, community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs), and local farmers markets (Dimitri and Greene, 2002; Walz, 2004). Supermarket sales of organic ornamental plants have been thus far been limited.
Maine has 288 certified organic farms, the 10th highest number of organic farms in the United States (USDA, 2006). This indicates that Maine has a thriving organic market. Nearly all of these farms are food producers, but it is likely that consumers in Maine and throughout the United States would be interested in organic bedding plants as well because organic production is perceived to be better for the environment. And, on a national level, some large ornamental greenhouse growers are beginning to integrate organic production into their facilities in anticipation of increased consumer interest in organically grown ornamental plants or flowers.
Despite indications that consumer interest in organically grown ornamental plants is increasing, most, if not all, research projects involving organic growing methods focus on food crops. Organic ornamental bedding plants may be a new niche for bedding plant growers, but little to no research has addressed production issues involved in organic ornamental plant production. Therefore, the objective of this project was to survey growers to determine the perceived research needs of this emerging industry. Responses to the survey will be used to develop research projects that will support this new, potential area of production.
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