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Organic : It's Not Easy Growing Green

July 08, 1993|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

When Laura Avery tried to start an all-organic Saturday farmers market in Santa Monica, she found it impossible to attract enough organic farmers to fill out the lineup. In fact, today, fewer than half of the 27 farmers at the market are organic.

"I was completely shocked," she says. "We even made more lenient requirements for our organic growers--they could pool together and have one stand for two other growers instead of one. I thought maybe we could get mini-organic co-ops starting where several could share a truck on Saturdays, but we just couldn't."

Her experience is not unusual. There are even fewer organic farmers at the huge Wednesday Santa Monica market. In fact, of 39 certified farmers markets operating on a weekly basis in Southern California, only one-third offer any organic produce whatsoever--and even then there are rarely more than one or two organic growers.

Not only is organic farming more labor-intensive and more begrudging in its yield of fruits and vegetables, there is also a cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming paperwork process--a peculiar blend of state, federal and private regulation--that farmers must follow to call themselves organic.

Before 1990, attempts to define what was organic farming and who was doing it were largely symbolic. Rodale Press, publishers of Prevention and Organic Farming magazines, began an early certification process for organic growers that in 1973 evolved into the California Certified Organic Farmers organization.

CCOF set up a stringent certification process that requires, among other things, that farmers practice at least three years of abstinence from prohibited pesticides and fertilizers. To pass the certification, a farm must go through a rigorous series of farm inspections, soil analyses and audits of chemical purchases. Even after being certified, every farmer is inspected annually to ensure continued compliance. Still, at the time there was little enforcement. If a farmer was caught cheating, he could be kicked out of the organization but there was no other punishment. And if he wanted to call himself organic without belonging to the organization, there was nothing to stop him.

In 1979, the state recognized organic farming by adopting a revision to the California Health and Safety Code that established the state's definition for organic--similar to, but somewhat more lenient than CCOF's. Again, there was little or no enforcement.

The big change came in 1990, when the state passed the California Organic Foods Act, a more stringent law requiring organic farmers to register with the state Department of Food and Agriculture, attesting that they had not used any prohibited chemical pesticides or fertilizers for one year. Still, there is no preliminary inspection or initial verification process--in essence, the state takes the farmer's word for whatever he claims (though if a complaint is brought, the state will investigate and can issue fines and even bring criminal complaints). Farmers who follow this course are called "registered organic" as opposed to the CCOF's "certified organic" designation.

Of course, all this costs money, and that angers the farmers. The CCOF assesses an annual membership fee on certified farmers of $75 to $225, depending on the size of the farm, a $125 application fee and an assessment of one-half of 1% of gross sales to cover the cost of inspection. Registration fees for the state program range from $25 to $2,000. For the average family farmer who is certified organic, costs can easily run in excess of $1,000, in addition to countless hours of paperwork.

Currently, approximately 60% of registered organic farmers are also certified, but even that is in the process of being changed. According to a federal law passed as a rider to last year's Farm Bill, as of October, all farmers registered as organic will also have to be certified by the CCOF or another certification organization. And they will have to adhere to the tougher three-year minimum abstinence. But, at least for this year, there is no money to enforce this part of the bill.

Paul Branum, organic program manager of the Department of Food and Agriculture in Sacramento, says his staff will focus on catching those who are violating the practice of organic agriculture rather than those who are failing to fulfill the paperwork requirements.

"We have enough money to investigate complaints, but we won't have enough money to go out and make sure everyone gets certified," he says. "I'm not knocking certification organizations; we need them. But I can get a driver's license and that doesn't mean I'm going to obey all the traffic laws."

In fact, the Department of Food and Agriculture is currently investigating 27 complaints of violations of the organic code. They are nearing completion of seven, with two expected to draw fines in excess of $10,000 each. Both of the big cases, Branum says, are against certified growers.

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