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Organic Pioneers Grew More than Organic Produce, they also grew a Market for It

A spiral dance closed EcoFarm (photo courtesy Trav Williams )
A spiral dance closed EcoFarm (photo courtesy Trav Williams – BrokenBanjo.net)

Jan 27, 2015 – The 35th Annual Ecological Farming Association Conference (January 21-24, Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, California) offered many take-away messages with its eight plenary speakers, 80 topical sessions, and many films, social events, and meaningful opportunities for mingling over wine—or orange juice.

This year the overarching message was: Regenerative agriculture can slow or reverse climate change. The idea is that farms that operate ecologically sink carbon into their soils, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. They can also restore—or mimic—natural hydrological systems, creating soils that act like a sponge. This is critical stuff.

But the conference itself has much to teach, beyond its themes and speakers. After five years of attending, what struck me most this year is how it honors its elders. Lisa Bunin, president of Eco-Farm’s Board of Directors, alludes to this. “Organic farming systems combine accumulated farm knowledge with modern innovation and scientific research to optimize food production, quality, and taste, all the while building soil fertility to ensure that future generations can feed themselves,” she says.

At Eco-Farm, seasoned eco-ag professionals download and pass on their accumulated knowledge, where it is recorded for the archives and for posterity. The knowledge is multi-disciplinary and may be scientific, technical, historical, even artistic, and definitely political.

Each year, Eco-Farm recognizes trailblazers in the movement at a formal awards ceremony. Most of these farmers started out when organic produce was nearly impossible to find at the store, even in California. And these farmer-visionaries, who were then on the margins, were branded as hippies.

Central Coast Congressman Sam Farr with his "Sustie" award. (Photo courtesy Trav Williams)
Central Coast Congressman Sam Farr with his “Sustie” award. (Photo courtesy Trav Williams)

That’s how Congressman Sam Farr thought of those early eco-farmers when they came knocking at his door at the California State Assembly back in the 1980s. They asked him to author legislation that would create a set of standards for organics. At the time, anyone could slap the word “organic” on their packaging as a marketing tool, no matter how the produce was grown. Farr rose to the challenge, authoring legislation which passed in 1990—the first in the nation. And, when he went to Washington in 1993 as a congressman representing the Central Coast region, he continued to champion organics and other progressive initiatives, such as clean oceans, farmworker safety, and support for bicycling programs. And he’s still going strong.

This year Farr, a resident of Carmel, was a winner of Eco-Farm’s Stewards of Sustainable Agriculture Award, or “Sustie.” Mark Lipson, a recent Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Policy Advisor at the USDA and a partner in the Molino Creek Farming Collective in Davenport, paid Farr tribute as he offered the award. Said Lipson: “Sam Farr has been a champion of organic and sustainable agriculture, year-in and year-out, since the 1980s. He is deeply concerned with health effects of our food system, and fairness for all participants in it. He’s always there for us, a great public servant, and a true steward of sustainable agriculture.”

(Apparently, Farr learned from his elder: He is the son of California State Senator Fred Farr, who sponsored a law requiring toilets in the fields for farm workers, as well as important environmental legislation.)

Other Sustie winners were back-to-the-landers Jerry and Jean Thomas, who drove north from suburban Los Angeles with all their belongings in their Volkswagen Bug in the 1960s and started farming on 5 acres in Corralitos in 1971, which has expanded to 46 acres of diversified crops. They are especially famous for their flowers. Jerry helped author pro-organics legislation, and helped found California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and our local farmers markets. Today their son and daughter-in-law run Thomas Farm, with a third generation coming up.

Winner Wendy Krupnick, who began her long career volunteering at UCSC’s Chadwick Garden in 1973, was also a founding member of CCOF, and she pioneered farm-restaurant connections in the Bay Area. Other award winners are Michael O’Gorman, founder of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition which mentors and offers grants to veterans who want to become farmers; and Paul Muller, a co-founder of another multigenerational farm, Full Belly, which is 350 organic acres in the Capay Valley.

These award winners, and many of their friends and colleagues who attend Eco-Farm, have seen the times change. They created the first organic farms, and helped create the markets that we now take for granted.

Today organic produce from independent farms is everywhere—and demand outstrips supply. Another take-away message from the conference is that there is much room for market expansion, specifically from farms that practice a “triple bottom line” (People, Planet and Profit).

Farm-to-institution initiatives are bringing organics to hospitals, K-12 schools, and colleges, as well as to employee cafeterias at corporations like Google and LinkedIn. And, in a session titled “Large Scale Organics with Integrity” we learned that organics have been growing like crazy at Costco from one of their elders, Senior Vice President Dennis Hoover. Across his 40-year career he has seen the demand for organics explode. Formerly a mainstream guy, now his grandkids only eat organic. Leaders from the Xerces Society, the Pesticide Research Institute, and CCOF have given seminars to Costco employees. Hoover put the word out that Costco is looking for family farms to partner with.

In the past year, a couple times I have found myself in a group of soccer moms who were talking about how great the organics are at Costco. I was a doubter. Who knew?

Costco is not a vision of utopia, but the possibility that in another 35 years organics will flat-out overtake conventional products—wherever you shop—is. Utopia, that is.

About the author

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Jillian Laurel Steinberger designs softscape landscapes with natural and upcycled materials. She loves combining edible plants with California natives to boost pollination and create sublime and wondrous beauty. She works for Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping, in business in Santa Cruz for 25 years, and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch, Edible East Bay, and other publications. Feel free to contact her at jillian at terranovalandscaping.com.