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Rooted in the Old Ways : Organic Farmers are enjoying their season in the sun now that concerns over presence of pesticides in produce are high.

May 04, 1989|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

COURTLAND, Calif. — From a veranda overlooking the Sacramento River, Doug Hemly leans back into a wicker chair and explains why some of the neighboring farms have gone bankrupt in recent years.

"It used to be that if you kept your nose clean, worked hard, produced a good crop and marketed it well then you'd be OK. Now, it's a lot different. And maybe the growers that didn't make it just couldn't adjust," he said.

Since the 1850s, Hemly's family has farmed the delta's rich soil and grown some of the state's finest apples and pears. He represents the fifth generation to enjoy the broad vista of sculptured orchards and distant foothills from a stately, white colonnaded home here.

And this year, Hemly will share something else with his agrarian ancestors other than this Georgian-style farm house.

On 12 acres just across the river, he has begun organically growing apples. In a curious twist, many of his methods will recall those used by his great, great-grandfather over a century ago.

The nation's produce industry is re-evaluating pesticide practices now that public fears--whether or not misplaced--have heightened over the chemicals' presence in food. Changes in the American farm system are inevitable, as a result.

Hemly's experimental orchard is only a fraction of the farm's 400 acres. But it is a significant move--both technologically and psychologically--considering that he has routinely applied pesticides and other related compounds as necessary over the years.

"I felt that pesticide use was going to become an issue; well, that it was an issue. And I wanted answers. Can you commercially grow pears and apples organically in the Sacramento Delta? The jury is still out," he said.

This change of heart seems somewhat out of character: Hemley also serves as a vice chairman of the California Table Grape and Tree Fruit League. The group, one of the state's conservative grower organizations, represents the status quo in agriculture. Its members have been stung--personally, if not financially--by the growing clamor over chemical residues on food.

"I've been told that not all the other growers thought this was a rational thing to do. Some even think it's silly," he said. "But the grower community is, in general, pretty open to thoughts about the organic movement. They just don't think it's necessary."

Hemly cares deeply about the strong farm and family traditions that are embedded in this area, 35 miles south of Sacramento. And, as such, he is not celebrating the change. Instead, he says, it may simply offer a way out of the controversy surrounding pesticides and other agricultural chemicals.

"I've wanted to be left alone all of my life," he said. "And if we can grow apples in a manner where (consumer groups and others) won't criticize me, then maybe I will be left in peace."

In California, there are an estimated 36,700 acres being farmed organically or, as in the case with Hemly, in a transition to that stage. However, this block represents a mere 1/10 of 1% of the state's 33 million acres of farm land.

Up until recently, there have been few government incentives for conventional farmers to experiment with organic farming. One exception has been a federal grants program, available since 1988, that encourages growers to reduce chemical usage. In fiscal 1989, for instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Low-Input/Sustainable-Agriculture plan will provide $4.45 million to fund as many as 200 farms making the transition.

"Let's find out as rapidly as we can how to produce crops with minimal to no pesticide usage," said J. Patrick Madden, an agricultural economist who administers the USDA program. "The vast majority of farm chemicals are harmless, but we don't know which one will be the next surprise (health risk)."

For Hemly, and others just embarking on alternative agriculture, it will be three years before his crop can be labeled as "organic." The wait is necessary because several seasons must pass before the chemicals applied from previous years fully dissipate from soils and root systems.

Although California was among the first to enact regulations defining organically grown food, there is little state enforcement of the laws. A growers group, however, offers a self-regulatory program.

The Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers Assn. audits growers' methods and harvests before approving a "certified organic" label. As part of the certification process, independent inspectors review farm practices and related records to ensure that organic guidelines have been followed.

The designation does not, however, mean that no chemicals have been applied to the food. A number of compounds are permitted, including nitrites, acids and dried seaweeds. But each of these must be approved and composed of only natural, rather than synthetic, components. In other words, a product that is mined, such as sulfur, would be acceptable, but a similar laboratory concoction would not be permitted.

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