Thursday, November 26, 1998
Eric Lauritzen, Monterey County''s newly appointed agriculture commissioner, has what some may consider a radical idea. Lauritzen would like Monterey County''s ag commissioner''s office to be the first in the state to try its hand at organic certification. Considering what usually happens when you cross government action and organic farming, this could get interesting.
In 1990, the organic community celebrated the passage of the California Organic Food Act. Long at the helm of the organic farming movement nationwide, California farmers could now boast the most stringent food standards in the nation.
Under the law, growers, handlers and distributors are required to register annually their intent to produce organic with the county. This designation allows the food item to be sold as "organic," a label that alone is not highly esteemed in the organic community, and for many just begins the organic process.
"Certified organic is the next step up," says Jeanette Jones of Cornucopia, a health food market in Carmel Valley. "When I see produce that is marked certified by a respectable organization, I know I can trust it."
For an item to be labeled "certified organic" and valued as such, the grower must be affiliated with a certifying agency--presently private organizations that take state standards as a jumping-off point for more rigorous enforcement. One of these organizations is the Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the largest certifying agency in the state.
How highly the product is valued is a function of the reputation of the certifier. According to CCOF Executive Director Diane Bowen, "formal standards for growing and processing are pretty uniform among certifiers. What sets apart a really high quality system is constant peer review and inspections that result in conditions that the grower must meet to improve compliance with organic standards."
CCOF''s policy to scrutinize "every farm, every year" has apparently paid off. A CCOF certified apple commands the highest respect, as well as the highest price at market. Yet, this type of regulation, while voluntary, is expensive for farmers and prohibitive even, for some of the smaller growers.
According to Lauritzen, the expense of private certification is one of the reasons local farmers began contacting the county ag office for another certification option--an option made available to ag commissioners'' offices under the 1990 Organics Act.
"Because the county does so much work already coming out to the farm, we could cut costs by not duplicating work," says Russell Wolter of Wolter Farms in Carmel Valley.
Dick Tamagni of Tamagni Farms, a mixed conventional and organic farm, agrees. "There''s no getting around it--the county program would be less expensive." But for him that''s not the main reason to switch to a different certifier. "The county presently has all my maps and handles all my spraying permits. It would be simpler for me to have everything all in one office."
For some growers, it is the issue of time. "With other organizations it may take a month to get a particular crop certified, and you don''t always have that time," says Tom Russell of Dynasty Farms, Inc. "I''ve known the county to react to problems in just days."
These are just some of the concerns that Lauritzen and the county ag office hope to address. Although many of the details have yet to be finalized (a proposed certification manual is currently undergoing a third draft revision and must still go before the Board of Supervisors for approval), Lauritzen expects the county program to be more cost effective, in terms of fees, more localized as an agency that can interact daily, and more available as a public process.
"The bottom line," he continues, "is to maintain the integrity of the organic standards as well as benefit the agriculture community. It makes sense that we could develop such a program using our overlapping abilities and expertise."
But is the county capable of becoming this one-stopshop? Many organic growers and suppliers are skeptical, believing that when it comes to organics, government regulation often does more harm than good. And even supporters of the county certification program aren''t without some reservations.
"There is always suspicion of the government by everyone. It is up to the county to prove that they are a legitimate and professional agency-- not just a rubber stamp," says Walter. "If people perceive that the county is easily swayed by big ag interests, then their certification won''t mean anything."
The biggest challenge facing the county may be garnering respect from growers, wholesalers and retailers alike. The market for produce lacking the proper certification is limited for both conventional and organic food stores. The program''s success will in large part depend on its ability to measure up to existing certification and enforcement standards.
The second hurdle for the county program is whether the ag commissioner can remain an impartial player with his office acting as both the certifying agency and the enforcer of complaints against growers. Critics--including members of the existing organic community--privately ask "who will oversee the overseer?" And, since there is no other agency with which to register a complaint, this may prove to be an important question.
Finally, given the county''s preponderance of conventionally grown agriculture, regulators many not know much about organic farming. The CCOF, Quality Assurance International (QAI) and other California organizations specialize in organic farming and are uniquely capable to monitor and enforce California''s stringent organic code, leaving organic industry officials wondering if the county''s lack of expertise in organics enforcement will result in a dilution of standards.
Lauritzen is adamant government involvement will not reduce established levels of quality and compliance. "We can provide a program that is fair, open and meets the highest standards under the state Organic Act," he says." cw