On a crisp, clear afternoon in early April, Jason Whitley pulls the white Food for People van into the gravel parking lot of DeepSeeded Community Farm. Whitley is the local food resource coordinator for the food bank, a man with a mission. Today he's a gleaner. He stops at the farm's tools shed and loads a cart with a stack of wax boxes that once held organic celery. Then he grabs a harvesting knife and wheels past rows of crops, some weeks away from harvest, some freshly planted.
Toward the back of Eddie Tanner's 10-acre farm on the edge of the Arcata Bottoms, a couple of rows of cauliflower are ready to eat. Tanner figured the cauliflower would be ready earlier, but it came on late -- too late for his customers, who sign up for regular deliveries through a prepaid Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Tanner called Food for People because he can't sell this cauliflower to grocery stores that demand certified organic produce.
Tanner seems like a model organic farmer. He doesn't use synthetic pesticides or herbicides or any non-organic products. He's known locally as an innovator, and he lectures and teaches field classes on organic methods. But he does not pay the annual fee and do the paperwork required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for anyone marketing products labeled "organic."
It's not that he's unwilling or unable to abide by established organic standards. "I think a lot of the standards are pretty good," he said. He just figures since he's mostly marketing directly to his customers through a CSA -- people who know him and his practices -- third party certification is irrelevant. He sells some produce at the North Coast Growers' Farmers' Market in Arcata, but no one there seems to mind that he's not certified either. As he puts it, "My reputation is the certification; the third party doesn't really have a role to play."
Many Humboldt area growers have little use for the federal certification program. Of the 66 farmers in the North Coast Growers Association who raise food crops, just 26 are certified under the federal program, which requires them to undergo annual inspections and spot checks. Participating costs around $1,000 a year, but farmers can get up to $750 of that back from the Humboldt County Agriculture Department, which passes on federal funds that support sustainable agriculture. About half the certified organic food producers in Humboldt have signed up for that reimbursement, according to county agricultural inspector Bruce Bryan.
Those who don't bother with certification say that it's just not worth the hassle here in Humboldt, where so many people who care about produce already know how local farms work. But it's pretty much mandatory if you want to sell to local natural food grocers such as the Co-op, Wildberries and Eureka Natural Foods.
Dairy and cattle operations have fewer opportunities to sell directly to the end consumer, and dozens of them in Humboldt County -- covering more than 70,000 acres -- are registered with the state as organic. That includes 39 dairies, nine cattle ranches and 14 organic hay operations.
From the federal point of view, organic food isn't any better, worse or more nutritious than other food. The label "organic" is essentially a marketing tool. And people have been marketing like crazy. Safeway has an in-house product line labeled "O" for organic, including everything from baby food, milk and eggs to potato chips. Wal-Mart announced a major initiative in 2006, promising to "democratize" organics by keeping prices down to make them available to the budget-minded masses.
The federal National Organic Program spells out just what it takes for food crops to be certified organic, with a set of rules finalized in 2002 after years of study and debate. The rules prohibit use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. They forbid using genetically modified organisms, irradiation and sewage sludge. The rules also require farmers to manage their land, using cover crops and crop rotation to maintain fertility and avoid erosion or soil depletion.
In meat and dairy production, certain antibiotics and all growth hormones are forbidden in products certified organic. And animals must be given organic feed.
While the USDA may hesitate when it comes to associating organic food with food safety and better nutrition, Wal-Mart is not as shy. The company declares on its website, "In addition to being free of unwanted chemicals, organic food is generally higher in nutritional value. For instance, research has found that organic strawberries and corn contain higher levels of vitamin C." And, "Perhaps the biggest reason for the popularity of organic vegetables is the absence of pesticides, which may be especially harmful to children and pregnant women."
This super-sizing of organic production worries people like food guru Michael Pollan, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he feared that the food giant's clout could harm the delicate world of organic food.
"We have already seen what happens when the logic of industry is applied to organic food production," Pollan wrote. "Synthetic pesticides are simply replaced by approved organic pesticides; synthetic fertilizer is simply replaced by compost and manures and mined forms of nitrogen imported from South America. The result is a greener factory farm, to be sure, but a factory nevertheless."
Equally disturbing, Pollan wrote, is that "the legal meaning of the word organic is now in the hands of the government, which means it is subject to all the usual political and economic forces at play in Washington."
The federal rules for organic crops are enforced by site visits and random inspections, conducted by private inspectors. Among them are Global Culture out of Crescent City, Organic Certifiers out of Ventura, and the biggest, San Francisco-based California Certified Organic Farmers, which recently announced plans to get even larger through a merger with Eugene-based Oregon Tilth. Smaller growers face different rules and different enforcement requirements.
In Humboldt County, ag inspector Bryan is the de facto enforcer and watchdog of branding at the farmers' markets. He says all rules and labels can get tricky. Small scale organic farms that do less than $5,000 a year in sales, for example, can register with the state of California if they want to call their products organic. Bryan handles the applications and checks out the operations of Humboldt's 27 small, uncertified growers. "If they're only registered, they can call their produce ‘organic,' but not ‘USDA organic' and not ‘certified organic,'" he says.
Pollan isn't the only one concerned that these marketing guidelines on how to grow organic could be perverting or sidestepping some of the better ways to run a healthy, wholesome farm.
Janet Czarnecki of Redwood Roots Farm, one of the grande dames of the local sustainability movement, says the rules dilute the best organic practices, and she doesn't want to be certified. "They'll tell you you can use all these kinds of pesticides that are ‘organic,' but I don't use any," she said one recent weekend morning at the Arcata farmers market, standing behind a table with a basket of fresh cut herbs and a sparse collection of early season vegetables. The federal rules allow for huge organic farms that can have some of the same problems as non-organic operations, she said. "A monoculture crop of tomatoes that's grown commercially is certainly a lot different from the ones I grow."
It's still early in the local growing season, and most farms only have a few crops to sell, but on a sunny Saturday in June, the Arcata Farmers' Market is bustling.
Jacques Neukom of Neukom Family Farm holds down the corner by the Arcata Post Office throughout the market season. Right now he's selling strawberries and sugar peas; later in the season it will be decadently tasty peaches, heirloom tomatoes and exotic squashes. A woman who has just bought some of his strawberries warns that early arrival at his stand is mandatory in peach season."The line stretches down the block. The peaches are that good."
Neukom briefly stopped paying for organic certification a few years ago. The cost and the paperwork were major factors. "It's an intrusion into your world," he said. "We all get into farming because we want to spend our time out in nature, but you end up spending all this time documenting what you're doing."
He didn't change his farming methods; he just stopped having an inspector check up on him. But after one season of telling one customer after another that everything was the same, it was just that he was not technically "organic," he changed his mind and recertified. "Even with what I thought was an excellent explanation, I still had people that wouldn't shop with me the next week."
Now he's a firm believer in certification. "It does mean something. I am third party certified. A lot of people say they're organic, but you drive by their fields and you don't see cover crops growing, you don't see them rotating crops as required under third party certification."
He considers certification as a form of insurance for the consumer.
"When it's just up to you as a farmer, and nobody's looking over your shoulder, you might use certain seeds that aren't organic if nothing else is available, or because it costs three times as much. Or maybe you'll use seed treated with fungicide because it's a variety you really like." He figures monitoring works.
Yet some customers do not care. Just about any Saturday you'll find Paul Fitzgerald, chef and owner of Larrupin' Café, at the farmers' market loading up a wooden wagon with boxes of produce and flowers, often with help from with his daughter Harlan.
Fitzgerald said, "Pretty much everything we get for the restaurant is organic -- and we get it here at the market." He buys from certified and non-certified farms and doesn't really differentiate between the two. "It doesn't matter to me at all. I've been to all their farms; I've seen what they do. They're honest people."
Even if it doesn't affect sales, some farmers go organic for other reasons. Retired teachers Dave and Sharon Winnett are Neukom's neighbors -- at the market, they have the booth next door, and at home their certified organic vineyard in Willow Creek is down the road from Neukom's farm. Although their grapes are organic, their winery, Winnett Vineyards does not make organic wine. They found controlling the intricacies of fermentation without using banned sulfites was just too difficult; there's too much potential for failure.
For the Winnetts, organic certification of the vineyard doesn't affect marketability; they process their own grapes and don't sell any to other wineries. Dave Winnett said they simply prefer to be certified because "It makes a statement."
Why jump through extra hoops and pay the yearly fee just to make a statement? Sharon Winnett recalls their pre-Humboldt days as schoolteachers in Illinois, deep in farm country. The Midwestern corn farmers all used the latest chemicals, including an herbicide from Monsanto called Lasso that included yellow dye so you could see where it went. "When farmers sprayed their fields, their tractors would be yellow. The roads would be yellow. The farmers would be yellow. We just knew that can't be good," she said.
Walk into the produce section of the Arcata Safeway and the first thing you see is a large banner sign emblazoned with the USDA organic logo showing farmers harvesting carrots, kale, tomatoes and grapes. Bold letters declare, "Go organic! Prices are now lower." It hangs over a display of faux old-fashioned wooden crates. Nestled into shredded paper that sort of looks like hay are organic apples, plums, nectarines, lemons and oranges.
Safeway's certified fruits and vegetables still costs more than conventional, but the price gap is shrinking. Conventional onions and oranges are $1.69 a pound; organic, they're just 20 cents a pound more. Likewise with Roma tomatoes imported from Mexico: 20 cents per pound more for organic.
Struck by the success of Whole Foods and other natural food stores, Safeway has jumped on a bandwagon long occupied by stories like Eureka Natural Foods. There, a large permanent sign on the wall saying "fresh organic produce" shows that this store is different. Everything in the produce section is certified organic, with the exception of commercial mushrooms and a recent special order of coconuts -- neither of which are available organic.
Eureka Natural Foods produce manager Juan Gagne says he'll occasionally buy uncertified local produce, but not often. "If I buy somebody's backyard produce, I can't sell it as organic, not unless they're certified or registered as an organic producer with the Humboldt County Ag Department. ... I don't have much sympathy for someone who doesn't want to go through the process of getting certified, but they still want to get that organic price."
And he'll only buy uncertified produce if he knows it was produced without pesticides. He labels it "local unsprayed," he said, adding, "In a lot of cases local unsprayed would be cleaner than say something from a 10,000-acre farm that's certified organic."
When Gagne started in the produce field in the 1960s, and even when he moved into natural foods in the early 1970s, "There were very few organic items available. There were no standards, no controls," he said, taking a break from arranging shiny globes of organic purple cabbage.
There's "a lot more integrity in the market now," he said, and that's insured by organic certification.
By late summer Gagne will get as much as 80 percent of his produce from local suppliers, but right now area farmers are just getting going, so he relies on suppliers like Earl's Organic Produce, which brings in produce from all around California, and the larger, wider ranging Veritable Vegetable.
Some of his produce is imported, including limes and watermelons from Mexico and apples from Argentina and Chile. "They follow the same standards as here," said Gagne, noting that many of the south-of-the-border organic produce companies were started by Americans who established farms there. Federal rules allow certified organic labeling if foreign growers are certified by their own government or by USDA-accredited certifying agents.
Just inside the front gate of Organic Matters Ranch, on Myrtle Avenue tucked between Arcata and Eureka, a recently purchased feed silo rests on its side. Pieces of farm equipment in various states of disrepair line a driveway that runs past a metal barn. Farmer Johnny Gary is in the hoop greenhouse fiddling with an irrigation system for vegetable starts in vacuum seeded trays designed for use with a mechanical planter. "What will end up being 40 acres of produce starts in this 4,000-square-foot greenhouse," he said.
Gary grows USDA certified organic produce, a lot of it, on his 100-acre ranch. He sells at three or four farmers' markets a week, at a farm stand on his ranch and to Veritable Vegetable, which backhauls Humboldt produce after it delivers organic products to local natural food stores. Gary is also one of nine farmers paid to grow produce through the food bank's "Locally Delicious Farm Fund."
He has ambitious plans to do more. In addition to the pigs and chickens, Gary is raising sheep and goats, all for meat. He has an organic hay field and leases some land to an organic beef rancher; he'd like to get cattle of his own eventually. That's where the silo comes in; it will allow him to store his own organic feed corn.
It's all a work in progress, as is his take on how organic everything needs to be. While talking about it, he seemed to decide that it would not be too hard to certify his egg production, but he's still on the fence when it comes to organic meat. He has a lot of unanswered questions, but he knows one thing for sure: the answers matter.