Know Thy Grower: California Farmers Take a Deeper Look at Organic
Many people who are trying to find their way through the corn maze of au courant food terms—sustainably grown, ethically produced, locally sourced, naturally ripened, certified organic—feel lost in a confusing landscape of labels. When navigating such terrain, consumers can get help by listening to those who are out standing in the growing fields every day.
California farmers keep a “GPS” for just this sort of navigation problem under their hats. “All those words, they don’t really mean a lot to me,” says Andy Mariani, of Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, a man who, for four decades, has been producing award-winning cherries, peaches, apricots, nectarines and plums in the Santa Clara Valley. “There is no objective metric that will measure most of these popular phrases. You can buy a peach across the street from where you live and it is garbage. And, you can get one shipped into a store that tastes great. So, you’re not guaranteed quality or food safety by just relying even on something as seemingly simple as the word ‘organic.’ You have to be aware.”
That message resounded at a recent round table of California farmers, ranchers and growers sponsored by the San Francisco Professional Food Society. Entitled “Let’s Get Smarter: A Conversation with Growers about Farming and the Food We Eat,” the panel discussion drew a large and lively crowd of foodies from all over Silicon Valley.
Take just the single word “organic.” Growers pointed out it is a common misconception to believe food labeled organic has never been touched by chemicals. Used correctly, the word organic means the food comes from a farm in which the products used, along with the field, the crop and the grower have all been certified by agencies such as the Organic Materials Review Institute, the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, or the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s State Organic Program. All of these have specific requirements along with their own certificates, seals and listings. Organic growers may still use chemical sprays to keep invasive pests from devastating their own and their neighbors’ crops, but they are allowed to use only the chemicals approved by their certification program.
And honey? That is a product that cannot be certified as organic. Bees go whither they will. No process exists—at least not yet—to track or control the pollen-harvesting and honey-producing behavior of a hive of busy bees.
To put it simply: The term organic is complicated.
California has 75,000 farms and ranches. Only about 4,000 have organic certification. Yet California, with its enormous size and scale, produces $9 billion worth of organic commodities each year—about 40% of all the organic products sold in the US today.
Growers such as Cannon Michael of Los Banos, believe organic food is trending. Michael, born in San Francisco, received his degree in English from UC Berkeley before becoming the sixth generation of his family to go into the agriculture business. With 11,000 acres under cultivation, his Bowles Farming Company has just 300 acres in organic production. He is aiming for 1,000 acres or more, as long as the upward swing in demand continues.
“Organic right now is not feeding the world. It may eventually, but it is not yet consistent enough. And here in this state—we’re not just feeding Californians, we are also providing healthy food for a lot of other people as well.” And though he says he struggles with the complex rules imposed on him by Sacramento—one of the toughest regulatory environments in the world for agriculture— he acknowledges it has an upside. “If you buy something that’s California grown—organic or conventional—you’re going to get food that was produced with a much higher level of standards.”
“I prefer to choose from both organic and conventional,” says Deborah Olson, who has managed her family’s famous orchard and the C.J. Olson produce stand in Sunnyvale since she was a teenager. “I base it on taste, solid farming practices and having trust in the company or the growers I am purchasing from. As California growers we have a shared goal: producing and selling safe and nutritious food. And we can do that in more than one way.”
Shannon Douglass, who ranches in Glenn County agrees. “You can be doing a lot of organic practices and have a good and fair product and still not be certified.” She and her family work to raise high-quality, small-quantity beef at the Douglass Ranch near Orland. “Sometimes it is a struggle, especially for small farmers. Organic involves a whole new set of paperwork.”
Experts like Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association believe there will one day be an application on your smart phone to scan food—anything from a steak to a cucumber—that will tell you everything about it, from its place of origin to its nutritional value. In the meantime, one farmer believes we already have the tools we need to go beyond labeling and make great food choices.
“You know primitive man, when they were running around scrounging for wild berries and stuff? They always ate the better ones,” says Andy Mariani with the hint of a smile. “So human beings have been genetically programmed to discern different levels of quality just by taste and smell. And it turns out there is a correlation between nutritive value and taste and aroma. Trust your senses.” He stops for a beat, savoring his conclusion as if inhaling the fine flavor of one of his Moorpark apricots.
These are clearly complex issues—from organics to GMOs—which cannot be definitively deciphered in one meeting. California is fortunate to have some of the world’s best agricultural experts prepared to share their knowledge with the public. And keeps Silicon Valley growers, with their rich history of agriculture and innovation, digging for better ways to deliver healthy and delicious produce every day.
To learn more about upcoming Silicon Valley events sponsored by the Professional Food Society go to SFPFS.com or friend them on Facebook.
The Case for Certified Organic
There is a distinction between “organic” and “certified organic” foods. And the farmers who are certified by CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) are strong advocates for taking a more sustainable and holistic approach to healthy food production.
“Being a certified organic farmer means you are farming in a way that is healthy for the Earth, for the farmworker and for the consumer,” said Christine Coke of Coke Farm, a farm and certified organic farm aggregation company that has been certified organic since 1981. Coke Farms collaborates with over 60 small and medium-sized farms from Gilroy to the Central Coast to grow and distribute CCOF-certified organic produce.
Certified organic foods meet the strict standards set by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) regarding soil quality, pest and weed control and use of fertilizers.
For example, water can’t contain chemicals that will harm fish. Soil must not have been farmed conventionally for three years before harvest, and crops are rotated. Fertilizers can’t contain sewage sludge, ionizing radiation or synthetic products, with a few exceptions. Pests are controlled using mechanical or sticky traps. And the use of any genetically modified (GMO) seed is strictly prohibited.
Farms and produce that meet these standards are authorized to display an official badge of certification alongside their produce and goods—another important way to help you better know your source.
Coke Farm certified organic produce can be found at the Palo Alto and Menlo Park farmers markets.