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EARTHWATCH

Coffee, Naturally : Clean Foods Inc. of Ojai markets coffee grown organically free of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to satisfy picky tastes.

April 01, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ojai is the organic coffee capitol of America.

What? Is this an April Fool's joke? Maybe it's something to do with drinking habits in our local bit of Bohemia?

No. Rather, for a decade Ojai has been the home base of Clean Foods Inc., the nation's premier supplier of organically grown coffee, the main product being Cafe Altura Certified Organic Coffee. The company has plantations in Mexico, roasting and warehouse operations in Los Angeles and sales activity in all 50 states.

The Clean Foods business philosophy is, "If you let the coffee trees grow the way they want to grow you can save the Earth." At least that's how Chris Shepherd, founder and president, explained it to me.

It is an intriguing thought, saving the planet by sipping 1.7 cups of coffee a day, the U. S. per-person average.

It's easy--just switch from your usual brand to one of the 20 new ones on the market that are grown without pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Regular coffee (and even decaf) is the second-most petrochemical-intensive crop in the world after cotton.

Shepherd made it clear that the main reason anybody would want to change the best-part-of-waking-up isn't that the more common coffee brands have chemical residues. Neither he nor anyone else I talked to in the organic coffee business suggested that regular store brands are any less "safe" than the organic product.

The problem is with the production methods.

Chemicals that are harmful to workers, soil, air and coffee trees themselves, are used on the four million acres of coffee plantations in and around the rain forest zone of Latin America. Fortunately for us, these chemicals are washed off during processing.

But Shepherd said that if an American family switches to organic coffee permanently, growers in the coffee-producing countries, in turn, will stop using chemicals on many of those acres. Sure, growers will charge a premium, and we will pay slightly extra too.

According to Shepherd's sales manager, Lisa Blatz, Clean Foods invented the organic coffee category in this country and has spawned much competition. I won't fool anybody today or any other day by trying to prove that this "product category" is booming because coffee drinkers want to save the planet. It's the taste, folks.

Organic coffee sales have risen because they are a part of another food industry--gourmet coffee. For years we have sneakily been going around the rows of canned coffee in the supermarket and picking out more and more of those really tasty and exotically named grind-your-own beans. Not all gourmet coffee is organically grown, mind you, but just wait.

Gourmet coffee sales have risen from nothing, to more than one out of every 10 cups consumed, according to industry experts. That may rise to one in three in a few years.

And according to one of Shephard's competitors, Paul Katzoff of Thanksgiving Coffee Co. up in Ft. Bragg, demand for these beans to be organic will continue to grow because they are connected to the environmental cause. "Businesses will be successful if they are cause-driven," he said.

Katzoff predicted that in six years half the gourmet coffee on the American market will be traceable to Latin American plantations that use organic growing methods.

Shepherd, having started it all and now facing a score of competitors, is surprisingly cheerful about all of this. For years he served the cause alone. "My wife and I sat up many nights wondering if it would be successful," he said.

Though the entrance of some big food processors into the organic bean category has crowded his decade-long position as the biggest in the business, Shepherd still loves his work.

He said he enjoys his visits to Chiapas, Mexico, where he personally inspects the plantations he buys from. They are a model to the surrounding growers and, indeed, are being emulated throughout Latin America. Also, organically grown beans fetch the farmer almost double the price of the ordinary stuff.

Shepherd's primary source is the oldest organic coffee farm in the world, Finca Irlanda. Shepherd said the farm is monitored by international certifying agencies to ensure that they don't cheat and use chemicals while no one is looking. Shepherd hired The Demeter Assn. of Burbank to do the ongoing checkup.

This use of third-party verification is how he, as well as his competitors, deal with the quality control issue on their far-flung plantations. They want to avoid headaches that come from bogus labeling. Such things hurt business and hurt the cause.

So, if you're interested in trying some organic coffee, whether you buy from Shepherd's Ojai-based company or somebody else, study the label or query the seller--make the effort to satisfy yourself that it's the genuine article. Then drink a cup to save the planet.

FYI

The following are stores carrying Cafe Altura and other organic coffees:

* Agoura Meadows Health Foods, Agoura

* Earth Made Health Foods, Thousand Oaks

* Kaisers, Ventura

* Lassens, Oxnard and Ventura

* Westlake Health Foods, Westlake

* Classic Carrot, Ventura

* Ojai Coffee Emporium

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