By Tod Goldberg
In 1977, when Doug Adair purchased his small plot of farmland in Thermal, California--a farming community 30 miles from the resort destination of Palm Springs--organic foods and organic farming were seen as a fringe element of everyday consumption, best left to people in Birkenstocks and beads. It would be three years before the first Whole Foods Market would open, several more before Trader Joe’s would become a nationwide chain, and more than a decade before what could reasonably be called widespread demand. In 1977, people were more interested in their white disco suits than in what they put in their stomachs, but that didn’t bother Adair.
“I’d worked for years on union farms,” Adair says, “and when you’re working in the fields, you’re very aware of the sprays, pesticides and chemicals that are being used. Our union contract was one of the first to point out that some of these chemicals were just deadly to work around. So when I got my own land, I was already inclined to go organic.”
It doesn’t hurt, Adair says, that dates, his particular crop, were grown organically for thousands of years in Middle Eastern deserts. “Dates have been grown this way since the earliest records,” says Adair, who uses no artificial chemicals, poisons, pesticides, fumigants or sulfur on his crop. The result? Award-winning, plump, rich and excessively popular organic dates that Adair sells both worldwide and at local farmers’ markets.
Adair is just one of countless growers, both large and small, who’ve turned to organic farming in recent years. As people have become more aware of the benefits of organic fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products, the major chain stores have taken notice as well: Two percent of all food and beverage products sold in the United States are organic, and that number looks only to expand.
The causes for this growth are numerous. Some people choose organic produce for its taste and freshness. Food scares such as mad cow disease and E. coli contaminations have driven others to choose organics. And despite a culture rich in super-size-me consumption and poor in overall health and fitness, people are increasingly worried about the dangers inherent in pesticides and what, if any, quantifiable benefits there are in the organic approach.
Behind the organic label
What constitutes an organic product? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dictates that organic foods must be produced by farmers who “emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance the environmental quality for future generations.”
But what this really means varies depending upon the product. Meat, poultry, egg and dairy products must be from animals that are never given synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics. The animals must also be fed an organic diet and be allowed to roam freely. Organic fruits and vegetables may not be grown using any conventional pesticides, nor may the land be treated with synthetic fertilizers or sewer sludge. Farmers can’t use bioengineered crops or treat their crops with ionizing radiation. And the companies that handle and process the products on the way to market must also adhere to strict guidelines. Unlike when Adair began farming in 1977, the USDA now mandates that farms adhere to these policies for three years to even become eligible for organic certification.
“It requires a tremendous amount of paperwork,” Adair says, “but this is a philosophical choice I’ve made.” Philosophy aside, it’s important to understand just what the organic industry is combating: The public still ignores the alarming amounts of chemicals routinely ingested in the name of inexpensive food.
Join us on a tour of your grocery store so we can introduce you to a few of the people and the practices behind organics.
The produce section
Unlike Doug Adair, Drew and Myra Goodman never intended to be farmers. But when they managed to negotiate free rent in exchange for tending to a small 2 1/2-acre raspberry farm in Carmel, California, the appeal of dirt beneath their fingers became apparent. The choice to go organic was rather simple. “We didn’t want to breathe or eat a bunch of chemicals,” Myra Goodman says. And, in short order, their small farm was producing--in addition to raspberries--a bountiful crop of baby lettuce that local chefs and shoppers at their roadside stand came to adore. But when one of their largest purchasers, a local chef, quit his job, the Goodmans were stuck with a field of produce and no buyer. So they did what anyone might do: They put their crop of baby lettuce already washed and dried into Ziploc bags. They began selling their bagged salads at Real Foods, a small chain of regional markets in San Francisco.
Twenty years later, that tiny field of dilapidated raspberry bushes, dubbed Earthbound Farm, is now the largest grower and shipper of organic produce in North America. The produce is grown on over 24,000 acres of land in California, Arizona, Mexico, Colorado, Washington and as far away as New Zealand. Their packaged, prewashed organic salads--first found in the Ziploc bags of a couple of desperate farmers--are now sold in 74 percent of all supermarkets nationwide. And in between changing the way Americans eat organic foods, the Goodmans have found the time to sit on Oprah’s couch and appear in publications as disparate as The New York Times and People.
“It was never our aspiration to run a business of this size, but it has become our way to help make the world a better place,” Myra Goodman says of their business, which now earns over $350 million each year feeding people nutritious produce. “For Drew and me, it’s knowing that organic farming is just the healthiest way to produce food for people and a sustainable way to take care of the environment. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
Hidden behind Earthbound’s dramatic growth are two stunning statistics: Each year, Earthbound Farm avoids the use of over 225,000 pounds of pesticides and more than 7 million pounds of synthetic fertilizers. The second statistic? Of all the salad products--organic and otherwise--sold in the United States, Earthbound represents 5.2 percent of total sales, far behind Fresh Express at 35.5 percent and Dole at 32.9 percent. Which begs the question: If you’re not eating organic fruits and vegetables, then what exactly are you eating? The answer? Many things you can’t pronounce: The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program reported that over 80 percent of conventional fresh fruits and 75 percent of conventional fresh vegetables tested between 1994 and 1999 contained residues from one or more pesticides.
The effects of these pesticides are not yet fully known, though a 2003 study in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institutes of Health, stated the issue rather clearly. It found “that children with primarily organic diets had significantly lower organophosphorus pesticide exposure than did children with primarily conventional diets... Consumption of organic produce represents a relatively simple means for parents to reduce their children’s exposure to pesticides.”
The Organic Trade Association (OTA)—the membership-based business association for North America’s organic industry—is more adamant. “The effects of GMOs [genetically modified organisms] on the environment aren’t clear yet,” Holly Givens, OTA’s communications director says, “and we’ve found that organic foods can grow just as easily without them.”
The dairy aisle
When one thinks of the American farmer, the first vision may border on the romantic: a lone farmer bedecked in overalls astride a rickety yellow tractor, a sprig of wheat clamped between strong jaws, an endless plain of amber grain and plump, happy animals grazing nearby. The truth, of course, is far different. Most farms today, especially large meat and dairy farms, are corporate behemoths with tractors the size (and price) of luxury yachts, and with their soil and animals enhanced by genetics and bioengineering. The farmer is usually more of a project manager, overseeing the operations of a vast machine.
But there are exceptions. Take Francis Thicke, owner of Radiance Dairy Farm in rural Fairfield, Iowa. This farmer has a doctorate in agronomy/soil fertility and a master’s in soil science and is one of the nation’s leading advocates of sustainable agriculture.
Raised on a farm in Minnesota, Thicke and his wife, Susan, took over Radiance Dairy in 1992, which then had two dozen cows. They started with the idea that they would be positive stewards of the land and of their animals. So while most conventional dairies resemble a Rube Goldberg concoction of pulleys, levers and treated feed where the animals serve as little more than milk spouts, Thicke has opted for a more humane and, he believes, healthier approach.
“The first difference is in our cows,” Thicke says, noting that conventional dairy farms use Holsteins (1,500-pound cows), which are notable for their substantial milk production; Radiance uses the smaller Jersey cows (800–1,000 pounds). “Milk from Jersey cows has a higher content of butterfat, minerals and protein. And,” Thicke says, “I think it tastes better, but I’m biased.”
The unbiased seem to agree--Radiance’s milk sells briskly at local markets, and the Thickes frequently turn down requests to take their brand regional or national. “We’ve never been interested in that, and it wouldn’t be possible for us to stay in this scale of farming,” Thicke says. “We decided long ago that we wanted to remain in control of our whole operation to ensure the quality that we’re known for and to keep up our practices.”
Those practices include understanding what cows eat, how they eat and how that affects the dairy products the cows produce. Unlike conventional farms, which feed primarily corn (and often bioengineered corn), Thicke says Radiance cows are fed organic grasses, clovers, chicory, alfalfa, barley and soybeans and are never given chemicals--such as bovine growth hormone (rBGH)--to increase their milk production. The grazing occurs in what Thicke calls a paddock system, where each day the cows are rotated to fresh fields within the 236-acre farm; their movements are free, and their manure is left to enrich the soil. And the physical milking, often done by machines in conventional farms, is handled by a real person. The results are astonishing. “The average cow at a conventional farm produces milk for two years,” Thicke says. At Radiance? Often more than a decade longer.
So why aren’t more farms operating this way? “Because it is contrary to the whole sum of their previous experiences,” Thicke says. “Organic has not been part of what they know or part of their mind-set. You have to be motivated to make that shift and stick with it. Ten years ago, when organic foods, meat and dairy products became very high-priced, a number of conventional farmers in my area tried it. Every one of them quit because it was too much of a hassle or the marketing was cumbersome. They really wanted to farm the way they had been farming and have organic be a ‘specialty crop.’ You just can’t do it. You have to make all the pieces fit together. Also, the conversion process can be costly, and most farmers aren’t willing to take that risk. You have to have that philosophical commitment.”
The meat aisle
In terms of organic meat, poultry and pork production, the USDA is quite clear about what that philosophy entails: a mammal- and poultry-free organic feed diet; regular access to the outdoors and to the pasture for animals that graze; and absolutely no synthetic hormones or antibiotics (though vaccines are allowed to ensure the health of the animals). The regulations extend to meat handlers and slaughterhouses as well; each step of the process is certified by the USDA. By comparison, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still allows nonorganic livestock to be fed horse and pig proteins, gelatin, fat, grease, oil and tallow from several species.
The recent mad cow scares and concerns about tainted meat have increased awareness of just how important organic meat products are. The banning of cattle nervous system tissue as feed was enacted as recently as 1997. Nevertheless, the first reported case of mad cow disease in the United States occurred in 2003. And the uproar over genetically modified feed for cows and chickens has brought not only controversy but public outcry (to the point that some consumers are hesitant to eat beef or chicken exposed to genetically altered foods). “Organic is the only option,” Thicke says, “for people who want to be assured that what they are eating is pure.”
Doug Adair’s upcoming harvest looks promising. His towering palms are rich with several varieties of dates—Halawis, Deglet Noors, Medjools and others. He’s already thinking about what to enter in the annual Date Festival in nearby Indio, California.
Up the coast, Myra Goodman at Earthbound Farm says she’s looking forward to people enjoying the new easy-to-travel-with snack packs of fruits and vegetables and Earthbound’s new organic mâche line.
And in Iowa, Francis and Susan Thicke’s Radiance Dairy farm continues to produce milk that causes people to stop Francis on the street to hand out compliments for its rich, creamy taste.
The movement toward organic foods, Holly Givens says, has been centered primarily in urban areas on both coasts. But it’s spreading. “Organic is not just about the food,” says Givens. “It’s about what happens to farming, to animals and to the environment.”
By taking this virtual tour, you have taken a key step in understanding the value of organic foods, how agriculture has changed (for better and worse) and some ways in which chemicals, pesticides and growth agents affect the environment in general and our health in particular. “Doesn’t it make sense,” Myra Goodman says, “to know what’s going into your body?”