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EARTHWATCH : Well-Grounded : The county's organic farmers started by cleaning up 70 acres of soil and in 10 years have enlarged that area a hundredfold.

January 17, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is the story of Ventura County people saving the earth. Literally. The very dirt in the fields. They are organic farmers.

They grow food without using substances known to cause environmental damage to neighborhood soil, air and water or harm to human health. Ten years ago, they started by cleaning up 70 acres of ground (as they call their fields).

By last week, they had cleaned up 7,000 (yes, a hundredfold increase). They have also seen their standard of ground cleanup pass into federal law. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) pushed through the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 just before Thanksgiving. It is modeled on the standards and practices of the California Certified Organic Farmers, now the most widely copied organic growers in the nation. This new law mandates inspections and accreditation, even penalties.

According to a March Harris poll, four out of five Americans want organic fruits and vegetables, and over half are willing to pay more for them, but, Leahy said, in some places outside California, people have not always been given what they paid for.

My "poster boy" for today is Dean Walsh of Purepak in Oxnard, the most productive organic farmer in the state, with almost 1,000 acres of ground. He garnered international attention after a Boston-based PBS television crew "spent a lot of time here," as he put it, "and that got us a lot of out-of-state customers."

In the context of a show entitled "Saving the Planet," which ran last year, Walsh was seen doing well by doing good. His sensible, self-taught methods emerge dramatically. "I couldn't turn to government farm advisers or colleges." I asked him how, besides network TV, such techniques are spread to other farmers. "You get a lot of lunches bought for you," he said laughing.

California Certified Organic Farmers is represented locally by Marshall Chrostowski. He is a trained landscape architect and works as what you might call a toxics cop for the organization. He said Walsh, Coastal Organics cooperative and a score of other pioneer organic farmers in Ventura County "were willing to take a licking for the first few years." But as the "safe food" trend marches on, they'll be rewarded for their prescience.

One doesn't just "go organic" overnight, like a car company retooling in the summer. It's a three-year commitment to replacing petrochemicals with compost and friendly bugs on the fields in question. There are surprise soil inspections and monitoring of records. That's Chrostowski's job. You are not given the "certified organic" label during the transition period. Your labor costs go up (bad news), your chemical bills and insurance go down (good news), and you're using unfamiliar techniques of composting and biological insect control. But you must wait for certification before you can charge more money.

According to Chrostowski, this delay is bearable--because it is probably unavoidable. "We're moving away from wide-based petrochemical applications. . . . Agriculture as we know it will be kaput by 2005. . . . Costs for artificial operations like the Imperial Valley--which is really hydroponics--will be prohibitive."

This change will also be market-driven, quite literally. Lucky, Ralphs and Vons have noticed the proliferation of certified organics in competing specialty stores. As Walsh put it: "They decided to get some organics on the shelves to get these customers." Beechwood Baby Foods announced last week that it will begin bottling certified organics for national distribution. "When I get that contract, I'll add ground," Walsh said. That is to say, he'll save more of the earth.

FYI

If you are interested in organic foods, ask your produce vendor whether they were grown in organic soil or just washed off with water to remove surface impurities.

Genuine organic produce will bear wording to that effect, either on a sticker or on the bin. There are also designations such as clean, which means that only the chemical residue on the produce skin has been removed. This guarantees that there will be no surface toxins over U. S. Department of Agriculture standards.

Because of the new federal law, by the end of next year, produce will be clearly and uniformly marked if it qualifies as certified organic.

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