The greatest challenge to organic farming is the high cost of inputs, a survey of Washington organic farmers shows. Also of concern are high labor costs, labor shortages, and variable or low yields.

Economic sustainability was one of the main reasons producers decided to farm organically, according to the survey, which was conducted by Dr. Jessica Goldberger, sociologist at Washington State University. However, only 48 percent said they thought organic production was more economically sustainable than conventional.

Goldberger mailed her survey to all 684 organic farmers in Washington who were certified by the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Oregon Tilth. About 56 percent responded, and of those, 45 percent grew organic tree fruits. They ranged in age from 23 to 82, with the average age being 52. They had been farming for 21 years, on average, and farming organically for seven.

The most common reasons for farming organically, in addition to economic sustainability, were the premiums for organic products and high consumer demand.

Fifty-two percent of the farmers said they were able to sell all their organic product at a premium. More than 20 percent offered agritourism activities at their farms, and 26 percent sold value-added products.

On average, the farmers had five year-round employees and 28 seasonal employees. Thirty percent had total farm receipts (from organic and conventional crops) of less than $25,000, while 37 percent had farm receipts of more than $250,000. Almost a third of the farmers had jobs off the farm, and 55 percent said their spouses had off-farm jobs.

Seventy-four percent of the respondents thought that organic farming was more environmentally sustainable than conventional farming. They felt that their farms were making significant contributions towards promoting soil conservation, establishing a relationship of trust with consumers, and reducing toxins released.

Only 22 percent felt that organic certification should include social standards and require farmers to pay a living wage. Just 5 percent thought farmers should be required to provide health insurance for workers.

Respondents said the most important ways they learned about organic production practices, management, and marketing was through their own experimentation or innovation, from other farmers, and from conferences and workshops. The least important ways were through commodity or grower associations and marketing cooperatives.

The report "Certified Organic Production: The Experiences and Perspectives of Washington Farmers," can be found at the Web site berger/organicsurvey/index.html.