ON THE FARM: GOING ORGANIC

Decades after the Monterey Bay area established itself at the vanguard of the organic movement, consumer demand is spreading organic growing practices throughout the region


John Jeavons of Grow Biointensive, from the new film, Evolution of Organic, which tracks the history of the movement. Photo from the film Evolution of Organic courtesy of the filmmaker.

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA

The exhibit halls at the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel were full to bursting—so packed that it was hard to move, so noisy that you had to shout to be heard. And what lured these excited crowds from every part of the country? Organic produce! Room after room rolled out colorful displays featuring lettuce, zucchini, potatoes and mushrooms, herbs and tree fruit, ready-made salads and shredded veggies, as people swirled around the tables grabbing samples.

Everything being shown at the Organic Produce Summit last July was, of course, organic—and what people were talking about most was how to meet the overwhelming hunger by consumers for fresh, certified- organic produce, which posted sales of $15.6 billion last year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Not only were there representatives from Safeway and Albertsons, but also from grocery stores across the United States as well as online purveyors including Amazon Fresh, FreshDirect and Blue Apron.

Such an event seems only natural for Monterey, located in the heart of organic produce country. “Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito counties— we are the cradle of organic produce for North America,” says Matt Seeley, founder of the OPS and co-founder, with Tonya Antle, of the Organic Produce Network. “This is the area that people turn to.” And obviously the tricounty area has heard the call and responded, with organic acreage increasing more than fivefold, from 14,000 to 78,000 acres in crop and pasture lands over the past five years, and gross sales nearly doubling, from $328 million to $574 million.

Overall, organic acreage in the tricounty area is up to about 7% of total crop and pastureland—seven times the national average of 1%. Driving the growth, says Monterey County deputy agricultural commissioner Graham Hunting, is the steady movement of large- and medium-sized growers to convert acreage to organic. “Larger operations have the bandwidth of logistical staff to handle the increased paperwork and documentation from organic management,” he says, also noting that certified organic produce is more valuable as a commodity, reaching higher price points and maintaining value through low price seasons, and that consistency has motivated larger growers to pursue organics. The Organic Produce Summit, now in its second year, is an undeniable success. “There was this massive multi-billion-dollar industry that did not have a go-to event,” says Seeley. “I saw an opening.”

Seeley is now busy planning a new event, the Organic Grower Summit, a collaboration between OPN and CCOF, which will also be at the Hyatt in Monterey, Dec. 13–14, and will be aimed at bringing together growers with experts in seed, soil, food safety, technology and packaging. And hot on its heels, Jan. 24–27 at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, will be the 2018 EcoFarm Conference, which has been gathering organic farmers for sustainable farming education, networking and advocacy for nearly 40 years.

A GROWING HUNGER FOR ORGANICS

“Consumers are concerned about what’s going on inside their bodies,” Frances Dillard, director of marketing for Watsonville-based Driscoll’s, the huge grower of organic as well as conventional berries, told a tour group during the OPS last summer, noting that more than 80% of U.S. households are now buying at least some organic produce. “Young, affluent families are the primary source of the demand.” Millennial moms from households making $90,000 per year are the typical customers.

The No. 1 reason why people buy organic, marketing surveys have found, is a desire to eat healthy food. It’s all about “young families having children, wanting to do something better for their kids,” says Antle, a pioneer in the organic world, pointing out that baby food is a huge organic category. Not only do organics provide federally regulated certification that foods are not grown with pesticides or chemical fertilizers prohibited by the label, they also provide more bang for the nutrition buck: a 2008 review of 97 published studies found organic foods are more nutrient dense on average.

Millennials also consider pesticides’ impact on the environment, although surveys say it’s fourth on the list of motivations for buying organic. No. 2 is avoiding genetically modified produce (GMOs are prohibited under the organic label); No. 3 is taste.

But the benefits of organics are multidimensional: It’s safer for farmers and farmworkers, and better for land and water, Antle notes. Creating a living soil that can function as it’s supposed to also helps store carbon in the soil, reducing its impact on the atmosphere and curbing global warming.

Still, there has not been enough of an increase in organic acreage in production locally to make a large difference. The Pesticide Action Network of North America, which tracks such trends, says the total pounds of pesticide used per acre in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties have fluctuated but haven’t really gone down significantly— yet.

THE LOCAL ROOTS OF A MOVEMENT

The Monterey Bay area has been at the forefront from the beginning. The organic movement bloomed here in the 1960s, fueled by the counter-culture’s back-to-the-land vision and new concerns about the environment and pesticide use. A new documentary by Mark Kitchell (see sidebar p. 41) traces the movement from its early days at UC Santa Cruz under Alan Chadwick, its nurturing by groups like EcoFarm, to when Drew and Myra Goodman’s Earthbound Farm pulled together growers and shook up the organic marketplace, and when Antle introduced organic produce to conventional supermarkets.

These days, with big growers ramping up their own organic production, consumers across the U.S. can buy an array of fresh organic produce just about anywhere—independent markets and nationally known chains, and even giants like Walmart and Costco stock organic produce as staple products.

And that’s very good news for Monterey Bay area farms, which grow much of the lettuce, spring mix, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichokes and other specialty crops that go out to the rest of the country. While Salinas Valley powerhouse growers are increasing their organic acreage, other changes are happening up and down the supply chain—organic seed purveyors are breeding for specific traits to attract shoppers; growers are looking into innovative ways to get more out of their organic acreage; and processors are dreaming up new products starring organics.

And it’s just the start, in Seeley’s enthusiastic view. The future is “stunningly bright,” he says, especially when food service goes organic in a big way—something that he feels is just around the corner. If most restaurants, fast food places, caterers and cafeterias choose organic, demand will increase even more; production will catch up; and ultimately the cost of production will go down, he says: “It’s the ultimate game changer.” California, as you might expect, leads the way in U.S. organics, producing 38% of all organic produce in the nation, and more than 2,700 California farms are certified organic.

Locally, each of the region’s counties has long fostered the proliferation of the kind of small-scale family organic farms that have traditionally fed the local and sustainable food movement. What’s more recent is the growth of large new organic farms or organic sub-labels of large conventional farms and packers, joining Earthbound, which started in Carmel Valley more than 30 years ago and eventually moved to San Juan Bautista, in the “big organic” sector. In the Salinas Valley, for example, Braga Fresh Family Farms, Mann Packing, The Nunes Company, Tanimura & Antle and Taylor Farms all have introduced organic labels, Nunes under Foxy Organic, Braga under Josie’s Organics and the others under their own names. In Santa Cruz County, Lakeside Organic Gardens and Driscoll’s are among the major organic growers.

Berries are a particularly big seller in organics—possibly due in part to the fact that conventionally grown versions wind up on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list, testing positive for pesticide residue, with strawberries at the top. Driscoll’s has seen double- digit growth in its organic products.

To keep up with demand, the company’s research and development team is exploring options such as elevated berry beds: They are easier on workers’ backs, offer better control of soil and water usage, and are simple, although not cheap, to set up and maintain. Such out-of-the-ground methods, though, have been controversial and hotly debated among growers, with diehard organic farmers believing that only crops grown in soil underfoot should qualify for the coveted “Certified Organic” label.

Part of the problem with the appetite for organics is that it’s tough to convert farmland fast enough to keep up with demand. It takes three years to transition acreage from conventional to organic production; certification takes time, paperwork and expense.

The Nunes Company, headquartered in Salinas, is one of the large local growers that have followed consumers’ lead to add organics to their previously conventional-only product line. Executives there began looking at the idea of organic produce in the early 2000s, after receiving inquiries from their customers about it. In 2005, the company started transitioning some of its best conventional acreage to organic, and by fall 2008, was shipping two organic produce items—romaine hearts and celery.

Now, the company (owners of the Foxy and Foxy Organic brand names) ships 35 different organic items from its growing regions in California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. To meet the demand, The Nunes Company expanded production areas and opened a state-of-the-art cooling and distribution center in Yerington, Nev., earlier this year.

“The organic market continues to grow, although it’s growing at a much slower rate than it was three to five years ago,” says Mark Crossgrove, senior vice president of sales and marketing at The Nunes Company. “Organic growers have many more challenges. Their costs are extremely high, and there is a need for greater returns for the growers to ensure the growth of organic production.”

It’s more complicated to grow produce organically—soil is built by adding compost or growing cover crops, rather than adding synthetic fertilizers; pests are controlled via beneficial insect release or covering rows with fabric; and weeds are plowed or smothered in mulch. All of this takes more time, energy and attention than conventional methods.

To ensure a reliable supply of organic produce, Salinas’ Taylor Farms provides advice and support to its grower partners, both locally and across the country, says the company’s director of agricultural operations, Josh Roberts. Roberts’ job is to maintain relationships with growers and to get them what they need to succeed, which can span early-stage planning through harvest.

“We prefer to be as involved as the grower wants us to be,” says Roberts, who estimates that about 20% of Taylor Farms’ output of packaged vegetables and salads is organic. And more is on the way: about 5% of the company’s total acreage is presently being converted to organic, year over year.

“Our core focus is giving the customers what they want, and that means a consistent supply. That’s our primary challenge,” says Roberts. Taylor Farms is committed to sustainability companywide, with all its growers having pledged to use sustainability measures whenever feasible, such as integrated pest management and drip irrigation on particular crops. The company also uses a combination of natural gas-powered cogeneration, solar and wind, to run its facilities, supplying its Gonzales plant with more than 90% of its power needs, says Nicole Flewell, the company’s director of sustainability. Taylor Farms is also making great strides toward curbing water consumption and landfill waste, and donates more than 3 million pounds of produce to food banks and charitable organizations each year.

“At Taylor Farms, sustainability is part of our DNA. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of the environment, and leave the world a better place than we found it,” says Flewell.


Their fields are organic: clockwise from upper right, OPN’s Tonya Antle, The Nunes Company’s Mark Crossgrove, Taylor Farms’ Nicole Flewell and Josh Roberts, OPN’s Matt Seeley, and EcoFarm founder Amigo Bob Cantisano with ALBA’s Nathan Harkleroad.

HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE SMALL GROWERS?

It seems as though those long-ago organic aspirations of the 1960s are finally being internalized by big business. And yet, what does all of this mean for the small farmers? If customers can stroll into Safeway and easily buy an organic peach, will it eliminate the need to shop at the farmers’ market or to buy from a CSA? After all, most organic farmers operate on fewer than 100 acres. How do they compete with the major players in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys?

Surprisingly, local farmers’ market organizers aren’t worried about it, and view the big organic trend as a tide that lifts all boats. Catherine Barr, who heads Monterey Bay Certified Farmers’ Markets, says it really is a good thing: “Because of farmers’ markets, some of our local organic farms are now appearing in traditional grocery stores. I feel that farmers’ markets have influenced grocery stores to ‘buy local.’ Why would you want an apple from Washington when we have them in our own backyard?”

She believes that farmers’ markets are not likely to lose their customers any time soon, since people who are in the habit of frequenting them aren’t suddenly going to stop. Farmers’ markets also offer unique and shorter-shelf-life items, such as heirloom varieties that aren’t going to be carried in grocery stores. Most importantly, she says, those customers “have built up a great trust with that farmer growing their food … The social aspect between the consumer and farmer is very important.”

That connection to the customer is what keeps small farmer Ronald Donkervoort going. The Netherlands native, who has been farming on the Central Coast for 30 years, sells the products of his Moss Landing Windmill Farm only at farmers’ markets and to a few select restaurants. But it’s becoming tougher to make a living at it.

“It’s a mixed bag. There’s a greater demand for organic foods, and I can never be against that,” Donkervoort says. “But it’s getting tighter for the smaller grower.” His costs have doubled during the last three decades, and now it is more difficult to raise his prices with all the increased competition. Still, “I manage to survive … I choose to do this,” he says.

Small farmers are also adjusting to the current marketplace by coming together and forming cooperative ventures, or turning to companies such as Watsonville’s A&A Organic Farms, which sells and markets produce for its small growers, and assists them with crop plans, package design and marketing strategies.

ALBA, the Salinas Valley nonprofit that helps small farmers get a foothold in the business, also views the organic boom as good for everyone. Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA’s education program manager, says he is encouraged by the increasing prevalence of organics everywhere, and that ALBA seeks to help farmers sell their organic produce to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, partnering with Aggrigator, which connects small farmers with big distributors.

As far as Matt Seeley is concerned, farmers of every size should be included in the organic gold rush. “It’s a very diverse community and we have a large tent,” he says. As for the newer, larger growers, “They are responding to the marketplace … We are blessed here with some of the most progressive growers in the entire world. It makes sense for a lot of these guys to respond to the demand.”


EVOLUTION OF ORGANIC


Photo from the film Evolution of Organic, courtesy of the filmmaker

Long-haired, shirtless young people plant rows of vegetables, music from the Grateful Dead fills the air and garden guru Alan Chadwick intones a dire warning in the opening scenes of the brand-new documentary, Evolution of Organic.

The uplifting and entertaining film, narrated by actress Frances McDormand, traces the organic sector from its counter-culture roots in the 1960s to the present day, telling the story of its unexpected growth and some of the missteps along the way—with songs by Country Joe, Bruce Springsteen and even the Banana Slug String Band all getting airtime before the closing credits roll.

Evolution of Organic is an independent production made over the past two years by Mark Kitchell, a San Francisco-based filmmaker known for documenting social change movements. His previous work includes the Academy Award-nominated film Berkeley in the Sixties and A Fierce Green Fire, which documents the environmental movement.

“I was envious of people who were already making films about food and ag, like Food, Inc. and Symphony of the Soil. I saw that this was a story that really had legs and the most mojo of any social movement right now,” Kitchell said about his inspiration for the film. “People love organic and are passionate about where their food comes from and how it’s grown.”

Filming took Kitchell throughout Northern California. His first stop was the EcoFarm conference in Pacific Grove in January 2015. It doesn’t take long to begin spotting local folks in the film, such as Steve Pedersen of High Ground Organics, Joe Morris of Morris Grassfed Beef, Tonya Antle of the Organic Produce Network, Jim Nelson of Camp J oy Gardens and Amigo Bob Cantisano, the heart and soul of EcoFarm.

Kitchell is a skilled archivist who fills the screen with historic clips and amusing photos of the barefoot, bare-breasted hippie origins of the organic movement.

He describes how the efforts grew from an act of rebellion to the beginnings of “foodie-ism” with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse-style chefs looking for ingredients that tasted better, then on to government regulation, mainstream supermarkets and the conversion of big conventional farms to organic.

“We can’t have all just little hippie farms. If we are going to really have major change, we need these large-scale conventional farmers to see the light, to succeed and to push the envelope,” Cantisano says in the film.

The film maintains there are now two strains of organics: the industrial organic sector which provides food—much of it from our region—for supermarkets across the country, and the organic movement, which is still alive on small family farms that sell through CSAs and farmers’ markets.

Looking towards the future, Kitchell sees great hope in carbon farming through organic agriculture and regenerative grazing: Plants grown using these regenerative methods capture the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air and process it through photosynthesis into little stores of carbon, which travel down through the roots and into the soil to feed the micro-organisms, rather than polluting the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

“All the film is leading up to our big breaking story of carbon farming, which is potentially the biggest solution to climate change,” he says.

“It is all tied into soil and microbes and putting carbon back into the ground where it belongs. is gives organic a new sense of purpose.”

Evolution of Organic was screened at the Carmel International Film Festival in October and a screening in Santa Cruz is in the works. It will be av ailable for str eaming on Amaz on, Netflix and iTunes in 2018.

The festival has made a multi-year commitment to spotlight films about agriculture and has already announced that in 2018 it will screen the upcoming Redford Center documentary Kiss the Ground, all about carbon farming.

– Deborah Luhrman

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