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GOING ORGANIC : Produce: Agribusiness hits pay dirt growing what comes naturally.

June 07, 1990|JANE HULSE

Six months ago, vegetable grower Dean Walsh added a full-time "bug man"--an entomologist, in scientific parlance--to his commercial farming operation in Oxnard. And to learn more about farming without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, he shuttled one of his employees off to the Midwest for a seminar on composting.

Walsh, 30, is a new kind of organic farmer. He's no long-haired back-yard visionary from the hippie generation. He's an agribusinessman with the nature of economics on his mind every bit as much as nature itself.

He's a Republican, for Pete's sake.

Throughout California, more big growers like Walsh have turned to chemical- free growing methods. Organic farming, formerly the province of small, environmentally sensitive farmers, is going mainstream.

"I do it because it's the future," said Walsh, as he walked through rows of broccoli, occasionally stopping for a taste.

Walsh, the son of a farmer, got into organic farming because he saw a growing market for it. In the last few years, consumers seemed more concerned about the health effects of produce grown with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Then the concern reached panic levels a year ago when the Alar apple scare broke.

"It was a business decision," he said, "with a strong environmental backbone. There's not one farmer anywhere who wants to poison anyone."

His 860 acres of vegetables--23 varieties in all--were certified last October by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the state's largest organic-farming trade group. The largest organic grower in Ventura County, his PurePak Inc. ships to 80 outlets worldwide, including some of the grocery chains.

At least three other large conventional growers in Ventura County--Coastal Valley Ranch, Reiter Brothers, and Nakamura Berry Growers--are experimenting with organic growing methods on small acreages.

"Alar was the gasoline on one smoldering fire," said Robert Scowcroft, executive director of CCOF in San Jose. "This is not a fad--it's here to stay."

In the last 2 1/2 years, organic-farming acreage in California has more than doubled, he said. About 630 farms are certified. Another 80 to 90 applications are in the works--many of them from large conventional growers who are trying it out on a few acres.

In Ventura County, 13 growers are certified by the group's Ventura-Santa Barbara County chapter. That's about double what it was before the Alar scare. Another half-dozen grow organically, but without certification from the group.

Despite the rise in interest, the organic movement faces considerable challenges. Most consumers who deluged organic growers after the Alar panic have gone back to their old buying habits. The chain stores, dealing with fickle customers, aren't anxious to fill their shelves with organic produce.

On top of that, growing fruits and vegetables without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers is hard work, costly, and, many farmers are discovering, kind of a learn-as-you-go process. In addition, some of the old-time organic growers question the motives of the new converts.

"Now, it's the economic incentive--period," said Michael Ableman, owner of Fairview Gardens Farms in Santa Barbara County and a pioneer in the organic movement.

Ableman, 36, got involved in organic farming when he was a member of the Sunburst commune in Santa Barbara during the 1970s. For him, farming is more than a business, it is a calling. And he feels that farmers should have an intimate connection to the earth.

He farms 70 acres and now wishes there were fewer. He sells at his own produce stand and at farmers markets, like many smaller organic growers. He shuns selling to wholesalers for wider distribution.

"I want to take it from the field," he said, "and sell it directly."

At PurePak, Walsh talks marketing strategy with more zeal than a baseball fan talking scores. But then he has a major in business, having graduated from USC's entrepreneurial program in 1985.

"We feed the ground--we don't feed the plant," said Walsh, explaining the basic philosophy of natural farming: Healthy soil yields healthy produce.

It's a self-taught occupation. He has $2,000 worth of books on the subject. He has developed his own compost operation. He sings the praises of ladybugs to ward off bad insects. He douses his plants with soap to fight pests. He plants cover crops to force back weeds.

Coastal Valley Organics in Oxnard is experimenting on 300 acres of the 2,600-acre Coastal Valley Ranch. The decision to go organic was an attempt to carve out a niche in a highly competitive business, according to manager Paul Carpenter.

"The big buzzword going around in organic agriculture is 'agronomic responsibility,' " Carpenter said. "We have to take care of the land because the next generation will need it as badly as we do."

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