Pluses and minuses of organic farming

By Carolyn Barbre

The demand for organic food is growing. California has the strongest, most diverse, most innovative, best organics in this hemisphere. We've got one-sixth of the action and are probably headed toward one-third of the action.

So said Sean Sweezey, who spoke on "Development of Organics in California" at a seminar at the 2004 World Ag Expo. To a standing room only crowd, he and four other experts explained the "Ins & Outs of Organic Farming" as the seminar was titled.

Although coastal counties are leading in organic production according to Karen Klonsky with UC Davis, who spoke on "Economic Changes in Organic Production," a number of counties in the Central Valley, including Tulare, are doing a good amount of catch-up. Also, 42 percent of organic growers sell under $5,000 worth of commodities annually, which means they don't have to be certified. In the Valley she said 14 percent of the growers command 35 percent of the acreage that is certified organic, and 3 percent of growers are responsible for 55 percent of sales. She had all of this information graphed and charted which can be seen at http//

Getting certified organic

For growers who plan to sell more than $5,000 worth of organics, Ray Green, Organic Program Manager with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) was there to explain how to get certified. The week before, California became the first state in the nation to have a federally approved organic program. Green said many growers are converting at least part of their acreage to organic production.

"It is worthwhile," he said, going on to explain the "overall big picture."

The USDA has written regulations to govern production and marketing of organics in the U.S., but all products from around the globe must meet federal standards to be sold here as organically grown. The USDA certifies growers through independent contractors. Green said there are 90 certifying entities listed on the USDA website. To become certified a grower must apply to an independent certifier. But he warned to shop around, because, as independent contractors, they have different fee structures. He said some are non-profit, some are mom and pop operations and some are large forprofit businesses.

"You must be proactive, with an organic systems plan," he told the room. "You must state what you are going to farm, and how, and any problems you foresee and how you will handle them."

Green said the certifier makes sure the farmer will nurture his soil in an environmentally friendly way that is in compliance with federal regulations. "They send out an inspector with your farm plan, and submit an inspection report," he said. If the farmer passes inspection, he is issued a document stating that his product is certified organic. This amounts to a federal license that cannot be revoked without due process.

Green said the annual licensing fee can run from $500 per year for "a small farm with just one crop and excellent records," to several thousand dollars per year for more complex situations. "Some charge a flat fee and others have a sliding fee like one-half of one percent of total sales," he said.

But Green stressed that the federal regulations are law and there is a $10,000 penalty if a grower knowingly does not meet the standard. "We do have convicted felons who violated the act," he said. "My office does spot inspections where we pull product from the packing house and from the store and test it in the laboratory." Green said any complaints his office receives must be followed up on and resolved. "We have very extensive enforcement. Also the organic community is relative small, so you can't cheat very long or very much before getting caught." Green said cheaters must be exposed or they will erode consumer confidence.

What do you need to know about growing organically?

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