Organic Farming Puts Down Roots

Produce grown without chemicals gains wider consumer appeal, but gives farmers a challenge. AGRICULTURE

`WE'VE been buying organic vegetables for about 15 years now - for as long as they've been around,'' says a customer as he weighs the organic broccoli he has just selected here at Bread & Circus, one of a chain of natural-food stores in the Boston area. The price is $1.98 per pound; conventionally grown broccoli is 50 cents less per pound. ``But this is natural,'' says the retired carpenter, who prefers to remain nameless. ``It doesn't really cost that much more. At the end of the year, $15, $20, maybe $25 at the most. It isn't really that much.''

He and his wife travel an extra 25 minutes regularly from their home in Chelsea, Mass., to this store. They believe so strongly in buying food that has been grown free of chemicals that they have convinced their children and grandchildren to make the switch.

``You don't need all those chemicals,'' he says, leaning forward to whisper his next point. ``Besides, they get into our water.''

Turning to organic produce for both personal and environmental reasons is a growing trend, but one for which statistics are largely unavailable. More stores are stocking the produce, and more farmers are responding.

Though critics bristle at calling this type of produce ``organic'' - isn't all plant matter organic? - it's the only official word used to describe produce grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. (Pesticides include herbicides, which kill weeds, insecticides, and fungicides, which act as preservatives.)

There are no national guidelines for what is ``organic.'' The word is not officially recognized by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), although some efforts have been made in Congress to set a national standard, says Paul O'Connell, a deputy administrator at the USDA.

States set their own standards for the definition of ``organic,'' and these vary.

To avoid interstate conflict and ensure acceptance into more markets, many farmers choose to comply with the often-stricter standards set by private certification groups, based on guidelines suggested by the Organic Food Production Association in North America (OFPANA), the industry's trade group headquartered in Belchertown, Mass. But OFPANA doesn't want to continue in this role, and is actively campaigning for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set industry-wide standards.

``It's imperative that consumers come to expect specific attributes of organic food products,'' says Judith Gillan, secretary of OFPANA. ``It's also important for the producer. With inconsistent standards in place, those with more relaxed standards may be at an unfair advantage.''

California, for example, allows organic certification after only one year of no chemical pesticides; in the Northeast and Northwest, farmers must wait three years.

The organic food industry also suffers from insufficient central record-keeping: Figures for acres in organic production are hard to come by. OFPANA says that the number of farmers applying for organic certification has doubled in the past year, and they expect the trend to continue.

Estimates put organic foods at about 1 percent of the total food purchased for consumption at home. Natural foods - including produce, pet food, spices, baked goods, and vitamins - accounted for $3.5 billion in sales last year, according to Gil Johnson, publisher of the industry trade magazine Natural Foods Merchandiser, in Boulder, Colo. Of this, fresh organic produce sales accounted for roughly $200 million or 6 percent.

GROWING without chemicals is not new; it came into limited vogue in the 1960s, when Rachel Carson's environmental treatise ``Silent Spring'' sounded an alarm over DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). But while DDT has disappeared from use in the US, the general concern over use of agricultural chemicals was short-lived. Today, however, organically grown food is gaining ground again.

The strongest recent stimulus came when Alar, a pesticide deemed unsafe for children by the FDA, was found on apples. Now concern has moved into other areas. Cesar Chavez wants to protect farm workers from the hazards of pesticides, and numerous environmental groups object to chemical contamination of the habitats of flora and fauna.

This is why in 1976 vegetable grower Paul Harlow began to make his 60 acres of Vermont farmland chemical free. Mr. Harlow grows vegetables - carrots, cabbage, squash, kale. He and his father were troubled by the way the soil looked after farming for two decades with the commercial fertilizers and pesticides, which the state's cooperative extension agent recommended.

``It just seemed like our soil had less organic matter,'' recalls Harlow from his farm office in Winchester, Vt. ``There weren't any earthworms. We saw a lot of weeds we hadn't seen before.''

It took about 10 years, says Harlow, before the land came back ``into a natural balance.'' Harlow had to learn special cultivation techniques, including spacing and rotating crops to balance what is put back into and extracted from the soil.

To kill insect pests, Harlow relies on natural predators like ladybugs. For fertilizer, he uses ``green manure'' (from plants) and cattle manure, which he buys. Controlling weeds is the most costly aspect of organic farming, he says. ``I spend between $600 and $800 an acre just for hand-weeding,'' Harlow says. ``A chemical farmer could probably do that for $25 worth of spray and not a lot of time.''

Farmers in the Northeast also must compete with organic farmers in California, who pay less per hour for labor. Farmers in California have two other advantages that offer economies of scale: a longer, more-temperate growing season and government-subsidized irrigation.

But Harlow is satisfied. The earthworms are back and he doesn't have to be concerned that his two children are exposed to hazardous chemicals in the barn or in the fields where they sometimes eat carrots straight from the ground. Despite higher costs, says Harlow, ``I have to believe the yields are just as good as the chemical farmer's down the road.''

His produce is sold through the Deep Root Organic Truck Farmers, a member cooperative of 18 organic farms from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Quebec, Canada.

But not all vegetable farmers are convinced that organic growing is practical.

Jim Wilson of the Wilson Farm in Lexington, Mass., where produce is sold directly to customers, uses a ``systems approach'' to pest management - lessening but not eliminating chemicals.

``I don't believe that at this time, with the variety of vegetables that our customers demand, that it's possible,'' says Mr. Wilson. ``We grow 41 different items, 35 of which are never sprayed with pesticides.''

Vegetables like tomatoes, he says, spoil quickly if there's too much rain and they haven't been protected by fungicides. Composting is supplemented with chemical fertilizer. ``My family has farmed on this land for 105 years,'' he says. ``Because of our technique, I'd put the topsoil up here against anyone's.''

Wilson concludes, ``I don't think the world could be fed without chemicals.''

At a Publix supermarket in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., produce manager Ali Hassan says that although his store carries more organic produce than a year ago, the customers aren't buying as much as they were just after the Alar scare. It was a short-lived trend. ``What's turning people away is the prices,'' he explains. ``People say, `Yeah, I want organic, it's better for me.' But what consumers say isn't always what they want.... If more becomes available, and if the prices drop, we could sell more.''

If there's a way to help increase the supply, suggests Jim Pierce, a staff scientist at Environmental Action in Washington, it's to help farmers monetarily during a three-year conversion period from chemical to organic farming.

During this period, crop productivity drops. But when the conversion is complete, yields goes back up. ``We ought to restructure the [federal government's agricultural] subsidy program,'' says Mr. Pierce, whose job includes developing alternatives to pesticides, ``so that when the farmer makes this conversion ... that he not go under financially.'' ``The question is: Is there a way to structure subsidies to carry the farmer over in that transition?''

``The agrichemical business is a huge and very powerful industry ...,'' says Pierce, ``and legislators are reluctant to adopt measures that are detrimental to the agricultural chemical industry.''

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