Thursday, January 25, 2001
Bound for Glory: Earthbound Farm owners Myra and Drew Goodman introduced countless consumers to organic food and pioneered large-scale organic production.
Fifteen years ago, anyone wanting to talk with the enthusiastic young owners of a new organic outfit called Earthbound Farm had to drive up Carmel Valley Road to a muddy field and trudge through rows of baby spinach to do so.
In those days, Earthbound Farm resembled any other small organic operation, with just a few varied acres under cultivation and a crew of fresh-faced kids with nothing to lose calling the shots. A lot has happened since Drew Goodman and Myra Rubin, tired from working in the field but determined to enhance a haphazard diet based on pizza, washed and spun-dried a week''s worth of salad greens to store in a bag, then decided to take the idea to market.
Today, Earthbound Farm is the nation''s biggest organic farm, on track to do $200 million in revenue this year. Its enormously successful salad-in-a-bag concept has spawned numerous imitations and served as an ambassador of organics to the eating public, making eco-friendliness convenient and available in every major grocery chain across the country.
Consequently, one wishing to chat up the Goodmans these days pulls into a business park at the mouth of Carmel Valley, climbs the stairs to the company''s marketing office and enters a zone of expensive Aeron chairs and Zen-like arrangements of art. There, Myra Goodman talks about the company''s 1999 decision to partner up with Tanimura & Antle, the country''s largest lettuce producer.
"We were growing so, so, so quickly, about 30 to 50 percent a year, and T&A was very interested," she recalls. An alliance meant that Earthbound Farm would gain land and equipment, but Goodman insists that eco concerns still played into the decision. "They''ve been really good farmers--they''ve had a composting program forever and they keep their soil really healthy. So they bought into a third of our company. They''re supplying a third of our organic land. They''re transitioning prime acres where we need them, when we need them."
Earthbound now has 7,000 California and Arizona acres in organic cultivation and another 2,500 undergoing the three-year transition process to organic. And as grows Earthbound Farm, so grows the organic industry. According to the Monterey County agricultural commissioner''s office, the county''s organic acreage jumped 42 percent in 2000 to 9,350.
Big growers like Dole, Fresh Express and Pacific International Marketing--which are all a long way from the type of commitment that led Earthbound Farm to its success--are now either running or partnering with local organic operations, in some cases having bought out organic growers with certified, ready-to-plant acreage. Next year will see even more conversion as area growers who started transitioning a year or two ago complete the process.
Right in the middle of this ratcheting up of the industry, the US Department of Agriculture released a national organic standard on Dec. 21, assuring consumers that New York-grown lettuce labeled "organic" meets the same requirements as that raised in California. The standard, a subject of some controversy within the organic farming community, puts the stamp of mainstream legitimacy on organic farming and makes it friendlier to large-scale producers.
It''s a beautiful thing to think about all those acres now being farmed without harsh pesticides, farm laborers working in chemical-free fields, and waterways running clean. It feels good to know that folks who shop at Safeway in Akron can now eat naturally grown vegetables. But organic farming''s newfound popularity among big-time growers spells trouble for those who pioneered organic farming.
"The future for small farmers doesn''t necessarily look bright," says Route One Farm''s Jonathan Steinberg, who has been farming organically for over 20 years. "Guys our size and smaller will need to consolidate the sales end of their business with other small growers to present a unified face to compete, or do very specialized niche marketing. These aren''t negative things, but they are changes. There was a time when we could grow anything, and if the quality was good we could sell anything. Those days are over."
Of course, there is a certain sweetness to it all. "Twenty years ago these guys called us hippies," Steinberg jokes. "Now they call us for advice."
Earthbound Farm''s spring mix in 1986, just after Myra stopped drawing the labels herself.
Crash Course and System Strain
"Organic farming today is at a crossroads," writes retired University of Missouri agricultural economist Dr. John Ikerd in a summary of a speech he will give at this weekend''s Eco-Farm conference at Asilomar. "Will organic farming continue to be a philosophy of farming that nurtures the land and cares about people, or will it fall prey to the economics of short-run self-interests and greed? Industrialized organics is no more sustainable than is any other form of industrialized agriculture."
Speaking from his home in Missouri, Ikerd delivers a crash course in agricultural economics, addressing the difference between various models of food production. In its quest for efficiency, he explains, industrial agriculture specializes tasks and standardizes products, puts decision-making in the hands of a few, and essentially "farms by recipe, so you can predict what the performance is going to be."
Organic agriculture historically has employed principles that run counter to those of the industrial model: planting a diversity of crops rather than mono- cropping, using individualized farming methods according to climate and soil, and leaving decision-making in the hands of many small growers.
In the early days of the movement, organic farming was as much about politics as it was about health or the environment. It rejected massive-scale food production because of its dehumanizing effect on people and the way it rendered local economies as sterile as the faraway soil it saturated with herbicides. Raising organic produce and selling it to members of the community was a declaration of liberty, a way to create a healthy local culture and a thriving economy with good nutrition at its base. That system, says Ikerd, is under strain.
"I think organic production is at a point where there''s a strong pull toward industrialization," Ikerd says. "The national standard is a move in that direction. If you take something and define it as organic in terms of inputs and practices, then you standardize the concept of organic, and rather than have each producer do what makes sense for their particular location, now you''ve standardized what was individual."
Ikerd believes it''s only a matter of time before an international organic standard emerges. The inevitable consolidation of large operations, as organic farmers in Salinas compete with rivals in Chile, he says, will squeeze small organic growers as relentlessly as conventional mega-producers once crushed Midwestern family farmers--unless organic growers carve out niches for themselves.
Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, agrees.
"Entrepreneurial and creative marketing is the only way the so-called small farmer can succeed," Scowcroft says. "If you grow organic apples, you might want to sell apple pie. If you grow strawberries, you might want to team up with a baker. The true entrepreneurs are saying, ''Hey, retailers, I''m going to drive a truck to your door,'' or ''I''m going to do sun-drieds.'' "
Jeanne Byrne and Stephen Pedersen of High Ground Organic Farm in Watsonville run a classic small farm operation. New owners of a 40-acre parcel, 15 acres of which is farmable, they sell at the Monterey and Mountain View farmers'' markets, peddle flowers to Bay Area health food stores, and participate in Community Supported Agriculture, a program that delivers one box per week of fresh produce to customers who pay farmers a lump sum at the season''s start.
"The way we''re counting on this working is having these three areas where if one isn''t doing well, we still have the others," Byrne says. For High Ground, marketing to health food stores is just not an option, hence the marketing mosaic. "New Leaf Markets buys from smaller farmers occasionally, but they can often get it cheaper from Lakeside"--a 600-acre Pajaro Valley farm--"because of economies of scale."
Although Byrne, like every other farmer the Weekly interviewed, believes it''s a good thing that more farms are growing organically, she thinks there are degrees of environmental soundness within organic agriculture.
"It''s difficult for a large farmer to be as environmentally aware of what''s happening on each piece of land as a small farmer," she says, "so if the consumer is looking for an environmentally sound product, it''s easier to get that with a small farmer. And around here, where most land is leased, the economic incentive is not there for [the big farms] to look out for the long-term health of the soil."
Cutthroat Practices and Conventional Wisdom
To hear Amigo Cantisano tell it, the move toward a national standard is contributing to a crisis in the organics industry. "Everybody thinks organics is bright and rosy," he says, "but the reality check is it''s very hard to make money as an organic farmer right now."
Cantisano, who has farmed organically for 25 years and advises growers of all scales in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, attributes the high number of bankruptcies and sell-offs he''s seen to overproduction coupled with cutthroat pricing practices.
The past several years have seen a ramping up of production, not just by big growers but by smaller growers who are expanding. They flooded the market, Cantisano says, and prices plummeted. It happened with broccoli and it''s happened with other vegetables.
"It''s not one person or one company," Cantisano says. "Most people had too much product and some people were ridiculous--they thought they could sell it in Wal-Mart-sized quantities or something. That didn''t used to happen in organic. And there are people who came out of the conventional world where they lose a bazillion dollars in a week and they think, ''Oh great, we only lost half a bazillion dollars this week.'' "
But, Cantisano adds, the large growers are not to blame. He saves his spleen for the buyers of a handful of national grocery chains who have no compunction about playing hardball in the bidding arena. "They''ll hammer the price down," he says. "I''ve watched the price of celery fall from $16 a box to $5 a box. Five dollars a box! That''s lower than conventional.
"It''s happened numerous times in the last couple of years that prices for organic are below conventional. You don''t see it in grocery stores. The price charged by retailers has not gone down significantly. The retailers are sticking it to the grower and the consumer at the same time."
The result, says Cantisano, has been an unthinkably injurious thing--the farming equivalent of self mutilation. "I have stood in perfectly beautiful organic fields where growers were packaging conventional," he says, "because they could get a better price than they could for organic."
Flooded Markets and Mature Palates
The term "organic" itself is in crisis. A common complaint about the national standard is that the feds have hijacked the term. You can only use the word "organic" on produce certified by the USDA, and if you farm by a more stringent standard than the federal one, you can''t advertise it.
Take California Certified Organic Farmers, for example. Under the new rule, the CCOF would not be able to add its label to fruit bearing the USDA organic label--even if CCOF''s standards exceeded the federal government''s.
"Where else in any agency do they set a ceiling and say you cannot be any better?" asks an angry Anne Mendenhall, director of the Demeter Asso- ciation for the Certification of Biodynamic Agriculture. Biodynamics is a balance-oriented farming philosophy that, among other things, prohibits fertilizing with manure from animals that have been fed meat, bone or blood.
"We have many additional standards," Mendenhall says. "We also have an organics program that would go down the drain."
The labeling question bears directly on the assertion by Ikerd and others that niche marketing is the secret to survival for small growers in the coming mass market scenario. If what they are doing exceeds standards set by the national government--for ecological, agricultural and political reasons--small farmers need to find a way to let their customers know it. That could allow them to continue to command premium prices in a flooded market.
"If a group of farmers in Central California can maintain their market distinction," Ikerd says, "then they''re not competing directly with whoever can put organic produce into the world market at the cheapest price. They''ll have a group of customers that prefer their particular kind of produce."
Another problem is that the national standard creates a cost to organic farmers that has yet to be determined: the cost of certification. Certifiers like CCOF presently charge, but they set fees on a sliding scale to assist small farmers. Estimates are that USDA is going to charge farmers $2,000-15,000 to certify them. Some of them won''t be able to afford it.
The national label also could make things harder for growers who aren''t organic but otherwise employ environmentally sound practices. For small farmers, competing with industrial-farmed organics that bear the USDA organic label might be less attractive than touting other qualities, like a regional presence or eco-friendly techniques.
Reggie Knox of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers sees a way for these farmers to continue to let consumers know that they still abide by the basic economic, political and environmental principles underlying organics --without the cost or competition associated with a national organic market.
"We can look at the opportunity to develop other kinds of market approaches," Knox says. "''Different shades of green'' is a term I like. Maybe some people will give up on organic, say ''It''s too expensive, but I want to go with this community group that''s sensitive about spraying near schools,'' or erosion control or something like that."
Michael Dimock, a consultant with the Ag Innovations Network, explains one such farming method, the Biologically Integrated Farming System. Essentially it''s a holistic farming approach like organic farming, Dimock says, which focuses on developing healthy soil and crops that are naturally immune to pests and disease. But a BIFS label, unlike organics, allows the use of synthetic agents as a last resort.
"The reason these systems are developing," Dimock explains, "is because only 2 percent of farmers are willing to farm organically. BIFS has a very high adoption rate."
In the Central Valley last year, 1.5 million pounds of almonds were produced organically. Forty million pounds were produced by BIFS.
"We''re developing a BIFS label on the Central Coast," Dimock says. "It will be called Fields to Ocean. The whole idea is farmers along the coast will be farming in a way that protects water. If you have clean water, you''re farming in a biologically integrated manner, because eventually, everything shows up in the water."
The Fields to Ocean label effort is in its infancy, but Dimock clearly thinks eco-labeling is the wave of the future. "The long-term thought is this," he says, "in 10 or 15 years, organic and biologically integrated systems will become one. People won''t be able to distinguish products by environmental sensitivity anymore. The difference will be who grew it and where it grew.
"Wine growers have always known this," Dimock adds. "That''s the idea behind appellations. Cabernet from California tastes different from cabernet from France. Nature, soil and culture impact food. Cheese makers in Europe do this, too. It''s just that we''ve never developed a lexicon for other crops like we have for wine.
"Our palate has to become more and more mature," Dimock says. "In areas where you have a sophisticated food culture, they''ve been doing this forever. I think Americans are moving in the same direction."
The 21st annual Eco-Farm Conference takes place Jan. 24-28 at Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove. Tickets are $88 the day of registration. For more info, call 763-2111.