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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

“Organic” Strawberries from Conventional Stock?

Instead of dwelling on today's discouraging report by the National Academy of Sciences, which touts GE crops as a road to profit for farmers, while simultaneously acknowledging that the road is rapidly being overgrown by a plague of herbicide resistant weeds, I'd like to share this article by Stephen Pedersen and Jeanne Byrne from Two Small Farms. It appeared recently in their CSA Newsletter.

Watsonville, CA--Like all California strawberry growers, we grow out our berry plants each year from strawberry crowns that we plant in the fall. These crowns are runners trimmed from mother plants grown at high-elevation nurseries. We place our orders for the varieties we want early in the year and the plants typically arrive the first week in November—dry root and neatly packed, 1000 per box. Until recently, the most frustrating part of being an organic strawberry grower was that, no matter how sustainable my fertility and pest control practices were, I still had no other option than to use crowns from conventionally produced plants, along with everyone else.

Virtually all of the plants produced for the main coastal strawberry production areas in California come from nurseries in the far Northern interior of the state. And virtually all of those nurseries fumigate with methyl bromide prior to planting. Despite a planned phase out of this of this ozone depleting chemical by 2005 under the Montreal Protocol, the Strawberry Commission lobbied for, and received, a critical use exemption and it continues to be used widely to this day.

So, I was excited when I got word that the Prather Ranch—a family-run organic beef cattle operation located North of Mount Shasta, was beginning to produce organic plants.

Excited, but cautious none the less. Like most growers, I am resistant to making wholesale changes in my production scheme without feeling fairly confident of my chances for success. I had heard the stories about growers who lost their entire crop due to diseased nursery stock. And with so much invested in the labor, drip-tape, mulch and tractor work to prepare the field for planting, it would be foolish to risk everything on an unknown entity. So that first season, three years ago, I only ordered a few boxes to trial alongside my conventional plants. My first pleasant surprise came upon opening up the boxes before planting in fall. The crowns were large and uniform, with thick healthy root systems. I was further surprised by how they performed throughout the season. They kept pace with the conventional plants in every way.

For the last two seasons I have used Prather plants almost exclusively and without a doubt they have been the two best berry crops I have planted. The plants have been vigorous, productive and disease free. So it came as quite a blow this year when I heard that Prather—the only organic nursery in the country—was bringing their strawberry plant production to a halt. I gave James Rickert, the nursery manager, a call to find out why.

What he said pretty much confirmed my suspicions—production wasn’t the problem. Because the Prather Ranch produces organic hay in addition to pastured beef, they manage a large land base. James told me that to minimize the risk of soil-borne diseases infecting the plants, he had established a ten year rotation, meaning ten years would pass before the nursery plants would be planted in the same place and that the ground would be grazed or used to grow hay in the intervening years. Knowing what I do about disease management, this is about as ideal a growing strategy as you could ask for.

No, the problem was that growers weren’t buying the plants. Even though organic production of strawberries in California tripled between 2005 and 2009, James told me that large quantities of his beautiful plants sat unsold in the cooler this winter. This didn’t surprise me either. I had a conversation with a large-scale organic grower several months ago who regards organically grown nursery stock with great suspicion. He was afraid that because the ground they were planted into wasn’t fumigated, that they will harbor diseases that would infect his fields. Because the certifying agencies are not making the use of organic plants mandatory, the prevailing attitude among growers seems to be “why should I stick my neck out?”

James told me that of all the “public,” or non-patented varieties, planted for organic production in 2009, less than 6% were from his organic plants. Less than 2.5% of the Albion variety, which at 383 acres makes it by far the most widely planted public variety for organic production in the state, came from organic stock.

And then there is Driscoll’s. The company that claims to grow “The World’s Finest Berries” (a claim that I would respectfully disagree with) is notoriously tight-lipped about its production practices. What is known, however, is that they are far and away the largest single marketer of organic strawberries, they grow almost entirely their own proprietary varieties in their own nurseries, and that few of their nursery plants are organically grown.

Clearly, the responsibility lies with the certifying agencies. Using organic plants needs to be part of the very definition of what an organic berry is. The growers will only take the leap and use organic planting stock if they are all required to at the same time, perhaps with a schedule to convert an increasing percentage of their nursery crowns to organic over a period of several years.

The good news is that James told me that if the use of organic plants were to become mandatory for a farm to call their strawberries organic, then he would be able to resume production. He estimates he could produce at least 50% of the demand for organic strawberry crowns in California. Once the market is there, no doubt other organic nursery stock strawberry growers would also begin production.

Prather has proven that it’s possible to grow high quality disease-free plants organically. It’ll be a huge step backwards if the small strawberry growers now have to return to using conventional plants because the large growers were not held to a high enough standard. Hopefully, the organic certifying agencies will understand their role in pushing organic strawberry growers to be completely organic.

CCOF is already aware of our newsletter article; it would be good for them to hear from consumers and farmers that they are fired up about it. QAI is another organic certifier that certifies some of the large organic operations in California. There are about 60 organic certifiers in the country, but these are the first 2 that seem most appropriate. It can't hurt to put pressure on the National Organic Program as well, to make sure they are aware that the issue is important to consumers.

To take action, please contact:

CCOF Certification Services
Contact: Claudia Reid
2155 Delaware Ave., Ste. 150
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Phone: 831/423-2263
E-mail: ccof@ccof.org

Quality Assurance International – QAI
Contact: Kathleen Downey
9191 Towne Center Dr., Ste.510
San Diego, CA 92122
Phone: 858-792-3531
Fax: 858/792-8665
E-mail: maria@qai-inc.com

National Organic Program (USDA)
NOP Compliance
Agricultural Marketing Service
United States Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Mail Stop 0268
Washington, D.C. 20250
Phone: (202) 720-8311
Fax: (202) 205-7808
E-Mail: NOPcompliance@usda.gov

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 8:07 PM

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