Not all apples are created equally. Neither are oranges, kumquats or avocados. The supermarket can be a daunting place: Not only do consumers have to pick an avocado variety, like Hass, Zutano or Pinkerton, they need to decipher sometimes misleading food labels like “organic,” “local” or “all-natural.”
Much of the debate over what to buy in the produce section comes from uncertainty of food safety: More than four million tons of pesticides are used in the United States each year. Large-scale farms in particular rely on quick-fix products to rid fields of pests and yield more crops. But growing concern over the danger of chemicals, including pesticides and chemical fertilizers, has consumers reaching for “organic."
TakePart met one farmer who is in the process of becoming a Certified Organic farmer. Although his farming practices have been sustainable and “nearly organic” for years, he says his reasons for wanting to get certified have a lot to do with public perception.
The Fuss Over Organic
Despite a turbulent economy, organic food sales increased by 5.1 percent in 2009, while total U.S. food sales grew by just 1.6 percent. Americans spent $9.5 billion on organic fruits and vegetables, representing 11.4 percent growth, the most of any organic food or product.
Seeing numbers like this encouraged Frank Wells, a farmer from Camarillo, California, to become a certified organic farmer. Wells hopes the organic label will boost sales by attracting pesticide-fearing consumers.
“There are people that walk by our stand and they might be looking for [an organic] sign. If they don’t see it, they’re not buying,” he says. “I don’t know how much [becoming certified organic] is going to affect our product until we actually have the certification.”
For farmers, becoming certified organic is no easy task.
“The biggest problem for me has been the paperwork,” Wells said.
Wells says he has been working on the paperwork from Organic Certifiers in Ventura, California, for months. The paperwork follows regulations listed by the National Organic Program, which formed in 2000 and requires farmers to provide a complete history of produce proving no synthetic products have been used on the property for at least three years. Farmers must also comply with the rules listed in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, which lists three main requirements:
1.) The methods and materials used in production must meet organic standards.
2.) There must be clear and ongoing documentation of these methods and materials.
3.) There must be a paper trail to trace a product back to its production site, in order to verify the methods and materials used in its production.
Wells is making the effort even though he is unsure that a “certified organic” stamp on his food will make any economic difference. He'll be able to charge a little more for his product, but that doesn't guarantee a profit increase.
In the Name of Quality
Wells works for Westfield Farms, a corporation owned by his wife, Keiko. She handles the office side of the farm while Wells works up to 13 hours a day at least six days a week to make ends meet.
“I can’t afford to hire a bunch of people,” Wells admits. “It’s been a bit of a struggle for us with the taxes what they are and the water bills what they are, but the key is going to be marketing; so we are working on that.”
Marketing. A concept Wells has learned by selling his products, mostly avocados with a few different citrus varieties on the side, at the Farmers Market in Beverly Hills, California.
“People think that certified is much better for them,” Wells says, “although I could not be certified and still be doing the same thing.”
For Wells, that same thing has to do with the process of farming and the extra effort he puts in—like diversifying his crops to attract different bees and other species that he claims help keep his farm self-sustaining—all to make his product stand out.
“I am doing it the way we want to do it, and people are satisfied with the quality and have told me that they can discern the difference in the taste and the quality of the fruit,” he says.
Westfield Farms Inc. was established in 1992. Wells started working on the farm in 1996. Originally a vegetable farm, the hillside property was transformed into an avocado orchard, where Wells both works and lives.
California is the biggest agricultural producer in the US, and it is the nation’s largest producer of avocados. Wells manages most of the 14-acre land by himself, with the help of a worker who comes once or twice a week.
He personally plucks avocados from his trees and brings them to the Farmers Market each Sunday. He says he makes an average of $650 and up to $950 on a given Sunday at the market. That’s not enough to support him; so he relies on money he makes from selling his goods to packing facilities.
“Ninety-five percent of our avocados go to a packing facility,” Wells exlains. “They select the fruit, they package it and then it goes all over the place: California, back East, maybe even overseas.”
“Grow what you want and kill everything else”
According to Wells, many farmers run farms based on this statement. But recent reports about pesticide resistance buildup have caused concern.
Wells previously used pesticides, but realized, “I disrupted the balance and now I’ve got another problem I didn’t have before.”
For instance, he applied a chemical product to kill mites. The mites would die off, he says, but then his farm would experience a “spider population explosion.”
A recent New York Times article addresses the issue of resistant species. According to the article, since 2000, ten resistant species have infested millions of agricultural acres nationwide. Farmers who have relied on pesticides may have to revert to older methods like plowing and pulling weeds by hand. Experts fear this could increase production costs, forcing up consumer prices.
Wells says many farmers in his area use pesticides, but insists, “I am getting as good of a production, or better, than my neighbors who are using some of these chemicals.”
The debate about how harmful pesticides are for the environment and for humans is only part of the issue for Wells.
“I don’t know how dangerous that stuff [pesticides] is,” he admits. “But I just see the error in trying to target some pest: you target that pest, what else are you killing?”
A Farmer, with a Goal
Wells hopes to achieve organic independence on Independence Day, July 4th, of this year.
“It looks like that is going to be our date,” he says. “The last time we used a product that was synthetic was July 3rd of 2007.”
But Wells' end goal goes beyond the organic label.
“Our farm is open pollinated,” he says. “So you can save your seed and plant it again the next year. A lot of the stuff that people are using today is genetically engineered and you can’t save that seed and reproduce the crop.”
Safe and sustainable, but Wells says the difference is in how he feels, and how his customers say they feel when eating his products.
“I feel better and people say they can taste the difference. Everything on our farm is now in balance, and I’m not spending for the pesticides, and I’m not killing a bunch of bugs and doing other things that I have no idea what I’m really doing.”
Avocado photo: J Silla/Creative Commons via Flickr