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Economics of Switching to Organic Farming

January 25, 1990|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Halperin inspected rows of organic broccoli--actually just a few inches of green leaves popping out from the soil--and said, "Business is great."

Indeed, things are going so well for this veteran organic farmer that he decided to buy 200 acres of cropland to supplement the 68 he already works near the small Northern California town of Hollister.

Halperin's was one of several farms that were toured as part of the 10th Annual Ecological Farming Conference held in Pacific Grove.

Each was in different stages of converting from conventional agriculture to organic. The process takes about three years and involves use of only those chemical compounds approved by the California Certified Organic Farmers group, which offers a voluntary inspection and labeling program for authentic organic food.

Halperin said that his biggest problem in raising more than 30 different produce crops was weeds.

"I spent $12,000 hand-weeding my onion fields and it was an absolutely necessary expenditure," he said. "If we could solve the onion weeding problem, for one, we could get our prices more in line with commercially grown onions or, maybe, make more profit."

Halperin is being well-rewarded for his efforts, however. While commercially grown onions were selling last week at $5 for a 50-pound bag, his organic variety was fetching between $12 and $15 for a 40-pound box.

Not all the growing operations were as far along as Halperin's, though.

One stop was an experimental 20-acre plot of artichokes just beginning the three year process toward organic certification. What is unique about the effort is that it's being undertaken by Sea Mist, the state's largest artichoke cooperative.

"This plot of land is our number one yielding ranch. So, you know the depth of our commitment," said Joe Micheli Jr., a harvesting superintendent with Sea Mist. "No other major artichoke grower is experimenting with organic on this scale."

Results to date are not very encouraging, however. Micheli reports that 30% to 40% of the artichokes were found unsalable because of ploom moth infestation during the first 45 days of harvest.

"Our chemical spraying bills are pretty high and that was one reason to experiment with organic," he said. "We also might find something to lessen the cost in our conventional growing operations."

Micheli said he would normally spray every 30 days to control the ploom moth that burrows into the artichoke's heart.

"We got into this because of all the hype about pesticides. . . . And we'll try anything to make the consumer happy," he said.

And somewhere between Sea Mist and Halperin Organic Farms is the Escalon Berry Farm, a strawberry producer in Salinas.

Two years ago the farm's owners decided to stop spraying chemicals and control infestation instead with a machine called the Bug-Vac. The tractor-mounted device inhales all insects that might be on the plants through a vacuum attachment. The pests are ground up and then sprayed back onto the field.

Although the Bug-Vac costs $250,000, the berry farm has been able to stop spraying pesticides about 25 times during the three- or four-month growing season.

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