Organic-produce buyers who think they are striking a blow against a chemical-heavy industrial food system may be surprised when it comes to one of California’s signature fruits: those “organic” strawberries that overflow from baskets at local farmers’ markets are not nearly as organic as they may think.
In a letter sent to the United States Department of Agriculture last month, an advocacy group in San Francisco and a triad of local growers demanded an end to what they say are vague federal regulations that allow millions of pounds of toxic chemicals to be used to grow plants that eventually produce strawberries labeled as organic.
“Seeds and plant stock widely used in organic agriculture are grown with prohibited materials that violate existing regulations and that jeopardize the credibility of the organic label,” the letter reads. Signed by three growers and the Pesticide Action Network, it added that officials with the National Organic Program at the department “must act with some urgency” to support production of a berry that is sustainable from start to finish.
Berries — including blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries — present a unique challenge to growers of organic crops. They all go through at least one rotation as non-fruiting nursery plants, and during that stage are fumigated with chemicals including methyl bromide, a soil sterilizer and pesticide known to be depleting the ozone layer.
The letter singles out strawberries, a particularly pest-prone crop and the jewel of California’s fruit basket. The state pumps out crates of the berries by the millions, shipping them across the country and internationally. It also produces the majority of the world’s strawberry nursery plants.
What it lacks is a single organic nursery.
In 1984, California produced the nation’s first commercially farmed organic strawberry, sold out of the back of a truck in Santa Cruz. The owner of that truck, Jim Cochran, who now manages a 20-acre organic berry farm, Swanton Berry Farm, in Davenport on the coast north of Santa Cruz, is one of the letter’s signers.
National regulations require that organic produce be grown for three years without synthetic pesticides. Strawberries in California are grown over a five-year cycle, often starting as nursery plants in the fields of Southern California before being transplanted to the sandy soils of Northern California.
Before they begin bearing fruit, virtually all plants — whether they will go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones — are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides.
The National Organic Program is in the process of reviewing its standards for seeds and planting stock. The standards have not been updated since they were created in 2002, and they allow conventional stock to be used wherever organic stock is not “commercially available.”
Officials in the program say an updated version of the standards will clarify that using organic planting stock is mandatory. Yet clearer language will not solve the problem, said James Rickert, another farmer who signed the letter, because organic certifiers will be hard-pressed to define “commercially available.”
Therefore, the farmers say, most fruit growers will still interpret the rule as an excuse not to seek out organic stock, which they consider to be at higher risk for pests and disease.
The loophole has been a personal source of bitterness for Rickert. From 2005 to 2009, he was the state’s first and only commercial grower of organic nursery plants, before being driven out of the business in 2010 because too few fruit growers were willing to buy from him.
Rickert, 31, said that he was “extremely frustrated” by the experience — and that consumers should be, too.
“The reality is that a lot of the organic growers want nothing to do with organic plants” because it scares them, said Rickert, who has since gone back to herding organically fed cattle at his ranch in Butte Valley.
Indeed, for many organic strawberry growers, using organic stock amounts to taking a big financial risk with little chance of reward.