Serena Wyatt crouches among long, neat rows of vegetables. With hands sheathed in blue rubber gloves she scoops out a small cavity in the soft soil. In it she places a tiny red cabbage plant, its six-week-old leaves only a few inches long. Carefully Wyatt covers the plant, patting the soil down gently on all sides; then, without pausing, she stands up and moves a few feet down the row to plant another young cabbage.
In three months these cabbages will grow almost to the size of volley balls, their broad purple leaves unscarred by insects or disease. And they will grow that way without having been subjected to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides. herbicides, or fungicides, because Wyatt, along with a handful of other hard-working small farmers in San Diego County, believes in using organic methods to grow produce in commercial quantities.
As she continues to plant cabbages, Wyatt tells of an incident that happened to her eleven years ago. She and her husband, who together ran a landscape-architecture firm, contracted to clear weeds from two lots in Vista owned by a building contractor. For two days they sprayed the weeds with Paraquat, a contact herbicide, that causes plants to yellow and shrivel into nothing within a few days. By the time she got home after the second day, Wyatt, who admits she wasn't wearing proper protective gear because the weather was so hot, had a pounding headache. Her sinuses were inflamed and her throat was sore. And she was vomiting constantly. The conclusion was inescapable: she had been poisoned by the herbicide.
That incident, Wyatt continues, was just one of the things that persuaded her to eat organically grown produce. It also bothered her that when she would ask suppliers what effects various chemicals would have on crops or people if used improperly, “a lot of them would say, ‘I don’t know.’ Or they’d say, ‘It’s a known carcinogen.’ When you're absorbing this stuff through your skin and breathing it in [during landscape work], you start thinking about it more and more.”
Wyatt stands up, squinting in the afternoon sunlight. “Our air and water are already so polluted,” she says, “and with all the junk in car exhaust, and people smoking… our bodies need every bit of help they can get. Why eat something that’s been sprayed constantly with chemicals, when you can eat something that you don’t have to worry about, that you don't even have to wash?”
Wyatt’s comments reflect the increasing concern among consumers about the potential health effects of toxic herbicides and pesticides currently being used on a massive scale throughout the farming industry. A lack of the residues of such chemicals is one of the primary benefits claimed for organic produce; others include the assertion that organic produce tastes better than so-called commercial produce, and that it is nutritionally superior. Some people say they eat or grow organic produce mainly to support farming methods that are environmentally sound, while others insist that organic produce can help prevent and even help cure such things as cancer and kidney disease.
Whether or not there is solid scientific evidence to back up all these claims, many local organic farmers believe in them implicitly. But even these farmers concede that however desirable organic farming is, as a business it is risky and fraught with high labor costs. There is no well-established system for distributing and marketing organic produce, and no guarantee that you'll be able to cover your production costs with what you do sell. To make matters worse, consumers have become leery of the term “organic” after years of unregulated and almost indiscriminate labeling.
Nevertheless, more and more small farmers are contemplating organic farming as a viable alternative to growing crops with the usual array of chemical fertilizers and pesticides — not so much out of strong beliefs about treating the Earth and their own bodies right, although some of them believe that, but because growing organic produce represents at least an opportunity for a stable income. At a time when overproduction and cash shortages plague much of the nation’s farm industry, organic farmers continue to get premium prices for their produce because they cater to a specialized market of relatively affluent, health-conscious consumers.
“I think organic agriculture has an opportunity within the farming industry, particularly for small farmers,” says Faustino Muñoz, small farms adviser for UCSD’s cooperative agricultural extension. “To succeed in agriculture in 1985 in San Diego County you really have to be rather creative, find your own niche. It’s not business as usual. There’s a lot of competition for the crops traditionally grown here — tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers. Farmers are looking for alternative crops to grow… and organic[fruits and vegetables] are among those that have a lot of possibilities.”
Among the proponents of organic produce, who range from the environmentally concerned to the self-righteous and even maniacal, Serena Wyatt is firmly down to earth. She talks rapidly and flippantly, her voice resonant as a granny’s, even though she is only forty-one and looks ten years younger. She seems able to coax healthy plants of almost any kind out of the ground, from cauliflower to kiwi fruit, without having to douse them regularly with synthetic chemicals. But lettuce is one of her specialties. The glossy dark leaves of Wyatt’s red romaine are worthy of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the shaggy green heads of her bogata lettuce are likewise things of perfection and wonder.
For the last eighteen months Wyatt has raised lettuce and garlic on two acres she owns in San Marcos. She is also head gardener at the Golden Door Beauty Resort in Escondido, where she raises three acres of fruits and vegetables that include potatoes, melons, squash, celery, lettuce, grapes, strawberries, cucumbers, and kiwi fruit.
As she labored in the Golden Door's hillside garden one cold, gray afternoon not long ago, Wyatt explained that instead of using commercial fertilizers to improve the coarse North County soil, she uses massive infusions of compost. Starting with nine-ton truckloads of manure delivered from a local dairy for eighty dollars each, she concocts a “casserole” consisting of alternating layers of manure, kitchen scraps, and straw. For three or four months the huge mounds of compost are turned regularly so that microorganisms will actively break down the nutrients in them (particularly nitrogen) into forms plants can utilize. Then the rich, moist mixture is dumped into furrows beneath the beds in which her vegetables will be grown. “The goal is building a strong soil that will grow good, strong plants,” Wyatt explained. “Insects will always attack the weakest plants first.
“Besides, [organic] microorganisms in the soil help keep pests down.” She went on to explain that nematodes, a common worm that is the scourge of tomato plants, “can’t increase as quickly when the organic content of the soil is high. And beneficial insects increase much faster [in population] if you use compost. Shoot, we must use twenty-five tons of compost a year.” just on the Golden Door’s three-acre garden.
Once her produce is in the ground. Wyatt plants patches of garlic and green onions among the rows of vegetables. “Green onions and garlic are natural repellents; the odors they give off, particularly underground, will repel insects,” she noted. She also plants flowers with yellow blossoms, including calendula, among the vegetables to attract beneficial insects such as lady bugs. “You don’t want to eliminate every bad pest,” Wyatt went on. “That cabbage over there has aphids on it, for instance. The idea is to give the bad insects a place to live without creating a giant infestation, so that the good insects will have enough to eat. You want to create a balanced ecosystem.”
Munoz confirmed that “good bugs” can grow more rapidly and in greater numbers on a farm with an environmentally balanced ecosystem. “The thing is, if other farms around the area are [attracting] pest insects, I don't know if you can totally protect yourself’ using organic methods, he added. “But the more you improve your soil, the more vigorously plants will grow and will therefore possibly be able to withstand more insect stress.”
Little scientific research is conducted on organic farming methods, so Wyatt, like most organic farmers, has had to teach herself. She attends a conference on organic farming held once a year in the tiny northern California community of La Honda, south of San Francisco, and she also spends a good deal of time thumbing through the pages of publications such as Organic Gardening, Tilth, and The Sproutletter for tips on fertilizing, plant nutrition, and pest control. “But the climate in California is so different that if you get a publication oriented toward the eastern United States, the tips might not work at all,” she said. “A lot of my knowledge has come from experience, just doing it.”
Wyatt explained that different pests flourish at different seasons; for instance, aphids multiply in the spring, whereas whiteflies like warmer weather. To control such outbreaks she sometimes sprays her plants with a solution made of biodegradable soap, or a special potion made of boiled garlic and hot red peppers that have been ground in a food blender. “You dilute it if you have to, then spray it on. It just wipes out whiteflies and aphids. They don't like it at all,” she said with a chuckle. “I used it on my tomatoes last year and got a better kill than I did using soaps."
Occasionally Wyatt also buys beneficial insects from one of several suppliers in Southern California who specialize in them. These mites, green lacewings, ladybugs, and parasitic wasps and flies all consume copious amounts of specific pests without otherwise affecting crops. Wyatt said she uses such biological controls sparingly — after all, 40,000 green lacewings, enough to treat a badly infested acre of zucchini for a year, cost about $120. But Al Steindorff. is one local organic farmer who uses beneficial insects extensively, bringing them on at certain times of the year and for certain pests almost the way a basketball coach makes substitutions during a close game.
Steindorff, fifty years old, has been farming fifteen acres near Carlsbad for the last five years (he is buying five acres and leasing the other ten). Currently he has two acres in strawberries, two and one-half more in zucchini, a little less than an acre of cauliflower, and one and one-half acres of greenhouses full of tomatoes and cucumbers. The size and appearance of his place, down to the ten Spanish-speaking laborers who work for him, suggest an average small farm in California. And it is — except that Steindorff refuses to use what he sometimes calls "poisons” to fertilize and protect his crop. “That’s why I got into farming, so I could grow organically," he says. "At first it was mainly a challenge, to see if I could grow a crop without using all those poisons. But after a while it became economically advantageous.”
Unlike Wyatt, Steindorff does not plant garlic and onions among his vegetables to help repel insects. He said it would make his planting and harvesting more difficult, and that in wet weather a "jungle” of mixed plants can aid the spread of fungus. Instead, Steindorff has a consultant place bug traps at strategic points in his fields. The traps — small cardboard cartons coated inside with a sticky substance — attract insects by means of a hormone scent. “Here, look at this,” says Steindorff, pointing to a bug trap hanging among his greenhouse tomato plants. "The scent in here attracts pinworm moths. But there are hardly any in here — eight, in fact, and it’s been hanging here for a month.” If his insect consultant were to discover eight or ten more moths in the trap overnight, Steindorff explains, it would be evidence of a growing infestation, and an order for trichogramma would be placed with a wholesale insect supplier. The trichogramma, tiny parasitic wasps that cost about twelve dollars for a minimum order of 40,000, come in egg form and are placed in or around plants that have been infested with the pinworms. The trichogramma soon hatch and lay their eggs inside “host” eggs of the pinworm moths, halting development of the pinworm larvae. Later, the emerging wasps eat the larvae. Each successive generation of wasps parasitizes pinworm eggs in this way, effectively controlling the pinworm population.
Steindorff also buys adult predatory mites to eat the red spider mites that sometimes afflict his strawberries, and green lacewings (shipped in egg form) for the aphids that live on his zucchini. "You’re trying for a balance rather than an eradication of pests," he points out. "You lose a certain amount of your crop to the pest insects, but it’s less than ten percent.”
Steindorff figures that the cost of losing part of his crop and buying beneficial insects is similar to the expense a commercial grower would have for chemical pesticides. The fertilizer he buys from local suppliers, two tons of composted chicken manure and fifty tons of sawdust and horse manure for every acre, costs him about $6000 a year — only about one-third more than a synthetic nitrogen-rich fertilizer would cost him, and not an extraordinary expense. “The only real extra expense I have that a commercial farmer doesn't have is weeding,” Steindorff says. “I pull ‘em by hand, whereas the other guy would use herbicide to kill them. That’s an increase in labor costs for me — it takes seven guys about a day to weed an acre by hand — but you make up for that by getting a higher price for your produce.”
Steindorff is currently getting fourteen dollars for a ten-pound flat of his strawberries — twelve small baskets — while the wholesale price for commercial strawberries is fluctuating between ten and twelve dollars a flat. As more and more strawberries come on the market in the spring, the commercial price will drop to as low as six dollars a flat, but Steindorff estimates he will still be able to command nine dollars a flat. Organic farmers generally get twenty-five to thirty percent more for their produce than commercial farmers, but one crop Steindorff grows, greenhouse tomatoes, exceeds that guideline rather spectacularly. Steindorff says that when his tomatoes begin to mature in late March he is virtually the only farmer in Southern California, and perhaps in the United States, able to supply organic tomatoes, and he can sell them for one dollar a pound. Wholesale. As the season progresses and more and more tomatoes come into the markets, his price falls to forty cents a pound — still not exactly a pittance. “My expenses are quite high to grow them, but my customers want them,” Steindorff says with a shrug.
“For a small farmer to be competitive [with the giant agricultural interests], he needs an edge. I find organic farming is my edge. That's why I do it, that and the challenge of it. My time is needed too much on the farm for me to be out proselytizing about the advantages of organic food.
“But I see the commercial farmers around here, and every year the quality of their produce declines and every year the quality and quantity of mine goes up…. They don’t understand what I’m doing and I don’t try to make ’em understand it. I just let 'em go on thinking that I’m the crazy guy on the hill trying to grow vegetables without all those pesticides. Meanwhile, a lot of them are starting to have rough times, and last year was one of my best years.”
Steindorff says he grossed about $250,000 last year on his various organic crops. Serena Wyatt sold her lettuce at a good average price of fifty cents a head, but even so, she figures that a crop which cost her $7000 or $8000 to grow only brought her $2000 — a net loss of at least $5000. “I discovered it doesn’t pay off — raising organic food is very expensive because of the labor factor,” she observes wryly as she pulls a wheelbarrow down a furrow between rows of cabbage. The ground at her feet is littered with weeds, which she proceeds to rake up; earlier in the day she spent half an hour weeding this single hundred-foot-long bed of cabbage on both sides by hand. Wyatt’s compost, too, must be mixed into the soil by hand, another thing that raises her labor costs. An additional expense was a new irrigation system she installed on her own two-acre farm at a cost of nearly $1000. That's what it took to buy several thousand feet of black polyethylene pipe, several thousand feet more of drip irrigation hose, and hundreds of tiny sprinklers at a dollar each. But Wyatt points out that she should recoup the money she spent on the system over the next few years, as long as her crops continue to flourish.
In order to get the highest price possible for her lettuce, Wyatt sold it directly to People’s Food in Ocean Beach and Community Market in Encinitas, two of the largest retailers of organic produce in the county. By doing so she eliminated the “middle-man” — distributors who would have picked up the lettuce at her farm, paid her a cheaper price for it, and resold it to various stores and restaurants in San Diego. On the other hand, Wyatt had to drive to Ocean Beach once a week to deliver the lettuce to People’s herself, a trip that cost her time as well as money. “It’s such a long drive that unless you have a big truckload, it just doesn’t pay,” she observed.
Steindorff, whose weekly production is much higher than Wyatt’s, prefers to deal with distributors. “I'd have to start a delivery route if I wanted to sell direct,” he pointed out. Roughly half his total production is sold to two large distributors. Veritable Vegetable of San Francisco and Organic Farms of Beltsville, Maryland. Both of these companies operate huge trailer trucks that swing through Southern California as part of a regular pick-up route, and they stop at Steindorffs farm once a week. The rest of Steindorff s produce is sold to a variety of smaller distributors, including Mike Maloney of Oceanside.
Maloney is one of only two local people who distribute, organic produce year 'round in San Diego County. Each weekend he drives his Toyota stake-bed truck on a route through the North County, stopping to pick up fresh organic produce at a half-dozen small farms in such places as Vista, Escondido, and Valley Center. He also drives to the Los Angeles wholesale produce market twice a week to buy organic produce that arrives from all over the western United States — carrots from Colorado, apples from Santa Cruz and the state of Washington. “You have to work on really low margins — my gross markup is fifteen percent and my net markup is more like five or six percent. The only way that it’s viable is to service a half-dozen or so stores,” says Maloney, whose customers include People’s Food, Community Market, Da Kine restaurant in Encinitas, and the Kung Food restaurant in Hillcrest. During his peak season, after the fall harvest, Maloney often delivers 10,000 pounds of produce a week, seventy-five percent of it citrus fruit and avocados. He says that right now he is delivering only about 5000 pounds a week, but regardless of the season or the volume Maloney racks up nearly 1000 miles a week on his truck.
The other local organic produce distributor, who prefers to be known only by his nickname of Natch, delivers produce primarily to People’s, Jimbo’s in North Park, and the Windansea Natural Grocery in La Jolla. Like Maloney, Natch buys mostly citrus fruit and avocados from North County farmers, often picking the fruit himself as part of the deal he strikes with growers. He sometimes roams as far as the Coachella Valley to pick up organic dates. “Most of the people I buy from are something between backyard farmers and full-time farmers,” says Natch. “They have maybe one to ten acres, not all of it necessarily being farmed…. Typically, I pick up vegetables or fruit in the morning and bring ’em down to San Diego that afternoon. Or I get ’em in the afternoon and bring ’em down at night.” Natch adds that last year he put 65,000 miles on his Toyota stake-bed truck while picking up and delivering somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables each week.
Maloney and Natch are not nearly as large or as well-financed as Veritable Vegetable, a women's co-op in San Francisco that distributes most of the organic produce sold in California. Nevertheless, together the two men supply People’s and Jimbo’s with more than half of all the organic produce sold by those two stores. They have also managed to stay in business over the last few years at a time when distributors of organic produce have been disappearing like aphids sprayed with a solution of garlic and hot red peppers. Within the last eighteen months at least three regional distributors have gone bankrupt, not due to a lack of demand for organic produce — which has, if anything, increased slowly for the last several years — but because of undercapitalization and an apparent lack of business acumen.
The demise of organic produce distributors “seems to be an annual affair,” Steindorff joked grimly. “It hurts me every time one of these guys goes out of business. The last three all went down owing me several thousand dollars each, to put it mildly.” Such problems have led a number of organic farmers to demand cash when they sell to distributors, and even those who, like Steindorff, continue to offer terms to distributors point out that they have to figure any losses into the future price of their produce — one more reason consumers end up paying such high prices for the stuff.
Steindorff said most of the distributors he sells to agree to pay him within thirty days. “Hopefully, they do pay. Hopefully. But even if a guy is shaky and isn't paying you, what alternative do you have? You have to keep supplying him and hoping that he'll get his act together. It isn’t as if you’ve got another customer willing to pay the same price when you make these kinds of decisions.” The choice is usually between selling produce to an unreliable distributor, Steindorff pointed out, or simply throwing it away.
Faustino Munoz notes that “marketing is the most important area of agriculture, and the limitation [with organic farming] is that it is not in full gear. There’s no established market system to justify a high volume of production.
“Meanwhile, from a production standpoint, there are a lot of questions as to what works. The established institutions have not endorsed research on organic farming; people have had to do that on their own. So you don’t really know how you’re going to control certain pests or diseases, or how you’re going to monitor or deal with them when the time comes. We don’t know all the soil amendments [such as compost] that are available, how effective they are…. There hasn’t been enough work done on what can be recommended and what cannot, and under what circumstances. And you can't really decide what to grow during what time of the year, and what pays… without a clear understanding of the marketing and production [variables].
“Still, I think there are a lot of positive aspects to organic farming that we should attempt to support.” Munoz cited the compatibility of organic farms and housing development in increasingly populous areas, as well as mounting consumer interest in eating health foods, particularly in San Diego.
Just how rapidly that interest is mounting, however, and how importantly organic produce even figures in the health movement, are both issues that are hard to resolve. Proponents of organic produce often claim it is tastier and nutritionally superior to commercial produce, and some scientific evidence lends credence to these claims. Because growing any crop depletes the soil of its nutrients, commercial farmers customarily add synthetic fertilizers rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous to their soil each year. But organic farmers add manure and other materials that are rich not only in these three basic plant nutrients but also in trace elements, including selenium and zinc. Such trace elements are used by plants (and needed by humans) in minute quantities, and research done in England and by the U.S. Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory in Ithaca, New York has confirmed that the amount of trace elements can vary from plant to plant — even if the plants are all watermelons, for instance, or cucumbers — depending on the quality of the soil and the fertilizers used. In other words, soil rich in organic material can produce plants that have higher amounts of trace elements than plants produced in commercially farmed soil, which could in turn result in better taste and somewhat higher nutritional value. But even a farmer who uses pesticides and herbicides could enrich his soil with material that will replace trace elements, presumably improving the taste and nutritional value of his produce.
Another claim made for organic produce is that it is free of the residues of toxic herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides widely used on commercial farms. But in the first place, California's Organic Food Bill of 1979 includes a provision for allowing pesticide residues on organic produce up to ten percent of the. safe level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, since chemicals and herbicides sprayed on a commercial farm can drift and fall on an organic farm located nearby. In the second place, more than ninety-two percent of all the produce tested by the California Department of Food and Drug in fields, wholesale markets, and retail stores in 1983 (the most recent year from which figures are available) had no detectable pesticide residue. An additional 5.25 percent had less than ten percent of the tolerances set by the EPA. The vast majority of the 7695 samples tested that year were from commercial farms, raising the question of how much safer organic produce really is. Common sense indicates it is somewhat safer; but while recent research has shown that a diet high in fresh vegetables and other produce can result in a reduced risk of many types of cancers, there is no scientific evidence that produce which is specifically organic will decrease the odds even further.
Nevertheless, many consumers persist in eating organic produce, even though it nearly always costs from ten to one hundred percent more than commercial produce. Distributors Mike Maloney and Natch both say they could sell more organic produce than they do, but not of all types. “It seems that there’s always something we can’t get,” Natch complained. “It used to be organic potatoes and onions. Right now it’s tomatoes. People want them, they’re willing to buy them, but we can’t get them. And it’s almost impossible to ever get more than one variety of organic apples — red delicious.”
Jimbo Someck said that since he opened his North Park store in July last year, sales of organic produce have climbed steadily. Currently he sells more than $15,000 worth of organic and “unsprayed” produce (produce grown without pesticides or herbicides but with the aid of synthetic fertilizers) every month. “A lot of things, I could sell more of,” said Someck, “For the last two months I haven’t been able to get any organic bell peppers. On the other hand, I can get as many organic oranges as I want, but I couldn’t sell any more than I do.”
Trent Weston, produce buyer for People’s Food, agreed “that with some types of organic produce, demand exceeds supply. At this store we often can’t get any organic broccoli. If we had it, we could sell it. But we can get as many organic avocados as we want, and the same goes for lemons. In fact, with those two items we sometimes get too many ‘ripes’ in the store, and we have to put them in the free box for people to take away.” For the last year sales of organic and unsprayed produce at People’s have held firm at about $6000 a week, a figure that, when coupled with the opening of Jimbo’s and the increase in sales of organic produce at that store, seems to indicate a small but steadily increasing demand for organic produce in San Diego.
Steindorff is one organic farmer who believes the demand for organic produce is not far ahead of the supply. “By mid-April I’ll saturate the market with 1500 to 2000 ten-pound boxes of tomatoes a week,” he points out. “Even today, the reason I grow so many different things is because the market isn’t there for one thing. And by the end of July I quit producing altogether. By then people have their own gardens going, plus farmers in other parts of the country are growing all of the things I can. There’s little market for organic produce in the middle of the summer, as far as I'm concerned.”
Wyatt, however, is more optimistic. “The price you get is a supply and demand thing, but I’ve not had any problems selling what I’ve grown. Hopefully, this year I'll make money by having increased sales volume.
“People who aren’t used to organic produce go into a store and see apples at ninety-nine cents a pound, or lettuce at ninety-nine cents a head, and think, ‘Wow, what a rip-off"' she went on. “But then you taste it, and it's fresh, it's delicious. And you know that if it hasn’t been sprayed and doesn't have chemicals in it, it’s better for you. Ninety-nine cents is a lot to spend for a pound of organic apples, but if it makes you happy to eat them, why not spend your money on that?”