What’s the Future of Organic Farming? Ask the Golden State

EcoFarm, an annual conference in Monterey, CA, showcases what’s next in sustainable agriculture.

Farmers, educators, organizers and others gather for EcoFarm 2013 at the Asilomar Conference Grounds (Photo: EcoFarm)

Jan 29, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

If you’re interested in organic farming, you’ve probably heard of EcoFarm. The West Coast’s largest conference on the subject draws 1,500 people to the foggy, salty-aired city of Monterey, CA, every January.

What began as a gathering of scrappy outsiders over 30 years ago has grown to accommodate not only organic practitioners, but a range of farm and food educators, organizers, and urban farmers. Fresh-faced young ranchers wax poetic about the latest soil science while silver-haired veterans dole out hard-earned wisdom and share battle scars. Attendees taste local biodynamic wine, watch the latest ag documentaries, and swap heirloom seeds. But what happens at EcoFarm does not stay at EcoFarm. On the contrary, the three-day event often plays a role in shaping the national sustainable farming dialogue.

After all, California still leads the nation in certified organic cropland, with over 430,000 acres, and a great deal of that land—over 40 percent—is dedicated to fruit and vegetable production. And while less than one percent of the total farmland in the U.S. is home to organic crops, that number is projected to rise.

Perhaps nowhere was this relationship between the largest produce state and the rest of the farming nation clearer than on a panel called Our Allies Are Now in California Ag Government: How Can We Help Them Help Us?

One surprising ally of the organic farming community on the panel was Brian Leahy, the director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). A former organic farmer, Leahy took the job last year, just as the popular fumigant methyl bromide was being phased out of use in the state because of its link to ozone depletion, and conventional strawberry growers were demanding a replacement. Until last March, it looked like the state was going to approve the ultra-toxic fumigant methyl iodide for wide-scale use. But then—much to the relief of environmentalists and farmworkers—the pesticide was taken off the market.

In addition to sterilizing soil, fumigants also travel through the air and have been shown to have a direct impact on the health of those in surrounding farm communities. These gaseous pesticides are also seen as key to growing strawberries, one of the biggest cash crops in the state. And of course, those berries don’t stay in California; the Golden State grows 80 percent of the nation’s strawberries, making the use of fumigants a national issue.

Leahy calls fumigants his “biggest challenge.” On the panel he pointed to a half-million-dollar, three-year research project he’s commissioned to try out growing the berries in alternative mediums (think coconut fiber) as a way to control pests, and other efforts to engage scientists and universities in the challenge. But Leahy also acknowledged the fact that alternative methods still add significant costs for growers. “It’s cheaper for farmers to apply fumigants than it is for them to get their soil tested to understand what’s wrong and how to manage it,” he said.

In the debate over pesticide use, conventional farmers often overestimate their dependence on such chemicals. Panelist Richard Rominger, the current senior agriculture advisor to California Governor Jerry Brown, put it best when recalling the phasing out of another fumigant that was commonly used in vineyards during the 1980s. “Farmers said, if we took it off the market, the industry would die. But we took it off the market and the industry survived.”

Of course, the big picture of agriculture has changed since the 1980s. And the real challenge, as Leahy sees it, is keeping strawberry farming from moving out of the country. “There are 70,000 jobs in the California strawberry industry. We don’t want to see it move offshore to Mexico,” said Leahy.

Rominger is pushing to bring a wider array of less-toxic organic pesticides to the market, but he and Leahy both acknowledged that it takes time (often two to three years) to get a new product—even something as benign-seeming as garlic oil—through the state’s regulatory agencies. And it can take even longer to phase out an entrenched pesticide. As Leahy put it, “It’s easier to kill a vampire than a pesticide these days.”

On the bright side, Leahy did say that he was “seeing a change in attitudes” among conventional strawberry farmers, who face pressure not only from environmentalists but from consumers, who expect to pay around $2 for a basket of these delicate, disease-prone berries.

That’s where Sandra Schubert, undersecretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and the third panelist present that day, chimed in. While addressing the impact California agriculture has on the rest of the country, she called on all the state’s farmers—organic and conventional—to speak with “one voice” in the national agriculture debate, which is often dominated by large commodity (corn, wheat, soy, etc.) farms. Such an approach from fruit and produce farmers would help convince lawmakers to make more waves on a national level, she said.

As Schubert pointed out, Californians have very little voice on the federal agriculture committees, which shape national farm policy such as the farm bill (the giant federal legislation that shapes how and where tax dollars are spent). And she’s right: While there are a few Californians among the Midwestern and Southern representatives on the House Agriculture Committee, the Senate Agriculture Committee has not one member from California.

Of course, as Schubert sees it, it’s probably not a coincidence that officials from the state that hosts this notorious gathering of organic-food advocates would not play well with politicians representing regions dominated by chemical-intensive, industrial-scale agriculture. As she put it: “Every time you are out in D.C., you hear somebody say, ‘We can’t do that.’ Then you hear, ‘Well, they do it in California.’ ”