On the list of farms certified organic by the state of Washington, Brownfield Orchards is number one, having earned the designation in 1987. Certification indicates that the designated farm adheres to a set of farming practices that preclude the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and emphasize the development of healthy soil.
Mike Brownfield ’88 returned to the family farm, at the base of Brownfield Canyon, after graduating and spending a couple of years working on an organic farm in California. Mike’s great-grandfather, Oliver, had farmed land adjoining the family’s current acreage. His grandfather, Floyd, grew apples in Chelan from the 1930s until 1969. After he’d taken over the orchard, Mike’s father, John, grew uneasy with the toxic chemicals commonly used at the time, and turned to organic methods well before he had the state’s official blessing. Some of the blocks of the Brownfields’ 52 certified acres have never experienced the quick rush of synthetic fertilizer.
Even in the late 1980s, any organic farmer was still a pioneer. The tools of organic production were crude and hard to find, and the University offered little support. Markets were limited and hardly lucrative.
But if Brownfield was a pioneer, he was not alone. Across the lake to the west, Ray Fuller had gone organic even earlier.
After he’d returned to his family’s orchard above Lake Chelan from Washington State University in 1980, conventional pest control just didn’t make much sense to him. “You’d apply material to control one pest, and that made other pests blow up because you’d killed all the beneficial insects. So you’d apply more materials for the secondary pests.
“Plus . . . I was in my early 20s and knew I’d be here for a long time. Thirty or 40 years of being exposed to harsher pesticides—it’s at least not healthy for you.”
The view from Fuller’s large log home is a strong contender for the most beautiful in the world. From his vaulted living room, one looks across his orchards and over Lake Chelan. But the setting provides more than just a beautiful view. The Chelan area has long been known for its high-quality fruit, primarily apples, pears, and cherries.
The lake is the biggest factor, says Fuller. “The colds don’t get as cold, and the hots don’t get as hot.”
Although organic agriculture at the time was considered more fringe philosophy than practical horticulture, Fuller recognized opportunity. Spurred by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and J.I. Rodale’s organic evangelism, demand was growing for food not raised with large amounts of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer.
Whereas Fuller markets all of his fruit wholesale through a packing house, Brownfield markets much of his directly, which helps him weather market downturns. But the future organic market is very rosy indeed for both approaches.
Well over 10,000 acres of Washington tree fruit are certified organic, and that acreage is increasing rapidly. Washington has more than 40,000 acres of organic farmland altogether and is expected to double organic production within the next few years.
Organic food currently claims about 2.5 percent of the American food market and is growing at a healthy rate of 20 percent a year. Two and a half percent does not seem particularly significant, until you translate that into dollars. Americans spent $15 billion on organic food and beverages in 2004.
They give any number of reasons for buying organic. Better taste. Concern about the environment. The health of their children. Maybe a warm, fuzzy country feeling, what Michael Pollan calls “supermarket pastoral.” But farmers are moving into organic increasingly for one reason. To make money. Organic is a major growth niche in an industry where profit margins shrink daily.
Shifting a major chunk of his small fruit production to organic was purely a business decision for Steve Sakuma ’69, head of the family-owned Sakuma Brothers. The Sakuma Brothers grow a thousand acres of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, some other berries, and a few apples just outside of Burlington in Skagit County. About 15 percent of their acreage is certified organic. They also run a nursery in California that produces about 100 million strawberry plants a year. Sakuma Brothers is entirely vertically integrated. In other words, they do their own processing as well as growing.
Sakuma Brothers employ about 700 people on their Burlington farm and processing plant and another 750 on their nursery. Even though Sakuma calls their operation “medium-sized” compared to the corporate giants in California, it’s a good example of where organic is headed in the U.S.
In his office one day in June, Sakuma and Greg McKay ’86, the organic crop manager, and farm manager Jim Riggan bring me up to date on the business of organic. These guys are no hippies.
“Farming is not for the meek and the mild,” says Sakuma. “It’s all about capital.
“To us, . . . [organic is] just diversity. You’ve got the conventional market and the organic market. You don’t want to be totally in one. You need to be in both. The trick is to find what that balance really is.”
The Sakumas ventured into organics through a partnership with Small Planet Foods, formerly Cascadian Farms, the first organic food processor in the Pacific Northwest.
Cascadian Farms was started in the early 1970s by Gene Kahn, a former organic farmer in Sedro Wooley who eventually discovered that he was better at marketing than farming.
“We watched him from a distance,” says Sakuma, “and our observation was this guy was never going to make it.” McKay and Riggan laugh. I get the feeling they’ve heard this story before. Kahn sold Small Planet to General Mills in 2000 for a reported $70 million.
“He was never going to be able to grow organic strawberries in the state of Washington, just because of the weather. We proved to be right.
“But he proved to be right that organic was an option out there.”
Once he’d realized organic’s potential, Kahn tried to persuade Sakuma to grow berries for him. But the Sakumas were leery.
“We had this conversation with him for a couple of generations.”
Finally, in 1998, Kahn asked them what it would take to get them to grow for him.
“Basically, our response was ‘You take all the risk, and we’ll do the farming,'” says Sakuma. “He said, ‘Okay.'”
Once they’d worked out a custom farm rate plus 20 percent profit (“If we didn’t harvest a berry, it wasn’t our problem, it was his”), the Sakumas started growing organic berries.
And what they found out was, “Organic farming, at least in blueberries, wasn’t as difficult as we thought.”
Still, it requires a different way of thinking.
“We’re still learning,” says Riggan. “It’s harder than just going out and spraying. With conventional you can let the pressure build a little bit and get away with it. But organically, you need to be on top of it season-long.”
Farming today is more than just growing a crop, says Sakuma. All of successful farming, at least non-commodity farming, is about being keenly tuned into the market.
“The practices our family might have used 50 years ago won’t work today. We’re focused on a whole different set of rules. A lot of those rules right now are driven by the consumer. We’d be fools not to be able to read that and say, ‘What are they asking for?'”
Many consumers, however, aren’t all that clear what exactly it is that they’re asking for. In spite of the dramatic growth, mention “organic” to the average consumer, even one contemplating the organic apples at a dollar a pound more than the conventional ones, and you’re going to get confusion.
In The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry refines a definition that reaches back to the organic movement’s roots, echoing the sentiments of founder Sir Albert Howard: “An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses
certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.”
Fundamental as Berry’s definition might be, it bears little relevance to how the designation is used to sell groceries. Further, some would argue that the current federal organic standards established by the USDA have little to do with Berry’s ideals. The organic standards are prescriptive, and increasingly, any relation to values increasingly is only implied.
In the marketplace, organic has largely come to mean only what it is not—synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Recognizing a cash cow, large corporate food companies have embraced organic production, buying up small organic producers and applying industrial agricultural techniques to what was formerly a small-scale, more value-driven way of growing food.
Organic has become big business.
But in spite of a lot of purist hand wringing, adoption of organic standards by industrial agriculture can hardly be bad. If organic practices are actually better than conventional practices, then organic practices on giant corporate farms can only be an improvement, right?
Well, yes. And no. Questions surrounding organic ag become more meaningful and interesting when placed within the context addressed by John Reganold in his Distinguished Faculty Address last spring—”The Sustainability of Organic Agriculture”—in which he subjected organic ag to more exacting criteria. Basically, can it feed a much larger portion of the world?
Not to spoil the story, but yes, says Reganold, it can. And it will leave the environment, and maybe human health, in a lot better shape in the process.
A soil scientist, Reganold established himself as someone to watch in the late 1980s with a study, published in Nature, that compared two adjacent farms on the Palouse. One farmer had switched to what are now considered conventional practices, applying pesticides and fertilizers since 1948. The other farm, at the time considered organic, had been managed without synthetic fertilizers and minimal pesticides since it was first plowed in 1909. The organic farm used conservation tillage and a complex crop rotation. The conventional farm followed a simple two-year rotation.
“Because of the differences in farming methods,” Reganold and his collaborators wrote later as part of an article on sustainable agriculture in Scientific American, “the soil on the [organic] farm contained significantly more organic matter, nitrogen and biologically available potassium than that on the conventional farm. It had a better capacity for storing nutrients, a higher water content, a larger microorganism population and a greater polysaccharide content. The soil also had better structure and tilth and 16 more centimeters of crop-nourishing topsoil.”
But the most significant finding was that even though the yield per acre on the organic farm was 8 percent lower than on the conventional farm, it matched the yield average of the area.
Although organic yields do tend to be lower, primarily because they have less nitrogen available to them than is provided by synthetic fertilizer, more sophisticated practices have greatly narrowed the gap. Reganold participated in another dramatic study in the late 1990s with WSU horticulturist Preston Andrews, graduate student Jerry Glover ’01, who is now a scientist with the Land Institute in Kansas, and ag economist Herb Hinman.
The researchers compared organic, conventional, and integrated plots of apples in the Yakima Valley. Integrated practices combine the best of organic and conventional. The six-year study found that all three systems produced similar yields. “The organic and integrated systems had higher soil quality and potentially lower negative environmental impact than the conventional system . . . our data indicate that the organic system ranked first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated system second and the conventional system last.”
But there’s one more, very intriguing difference that came out in their study. The organic apples were also the sweetest. Andrews and Reganold have been pursuing the observation that many organic proponents make, but is difficult to verify scientifically, that organically grown food tastes better. This is further complicated by other factors, most notably freshness. Will an organically grown apple imported from New Zealand taste better than a conventionally grown apple picked from a tree in Yakima? Most likely not.
But Andrews and Reganold have been able to get a more accurate evaluation by comparing fruit grown both organically and conventionally, but under otherwise identical conditions. Neil Davies, in the College of Pharmacy, with whom Andrews and Reganold have collaborated, has found significantly higher levels of antioxidants and other phytochemicals in organically grown fruit (see sidebar, right). Andrews speculates that the difference is likely related to differences in taste.
Comparative studies with both apples and strawberries offer some striking differences. Fruit size of organically grown crops was smaller, no surprise. Again, they have less nitrogen readily available. However, the organic apples were firmer and stored better, organic strawberries were sweeter, organic apples had higher antioxidant activity, organic strawberries had higher polyphenol content, and the organic fruit in general was preferred by the consumer taste panel.
Studies by Andrews, Reganold, and many others at WSU and elsewhere offer tantalizing scientific glimpses of a movement that is being driven partly by science and partly by consumer perception.
Although the science is backing up earlier claims about organic methods, much is still unclear. Even the federal standards that determine what is “organic” are largely based on tradition and negotiation rather than science, says David Granatstein, extension educator with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. For example, there is really no scientific reason for a three-year certification period. And the requirement that raw manure not be applied within certain periods ignores the fact that there are no such restrictions in conventional production.
Clarifying the science behind the standards, exploring the nutritional and sensory differences, and prescribing agronomic practices all offer a wealth of research potential for the University. However, a white paper released last spring by the Cooperative States Research, Education, and Extension Service concedes the widespread criticism by farmers and organic advocates that land-grant universities, Extension, and the USDA have been reluctant, if not downright obstructionist, in providing the research and support that it readily gives conventional agriculture.
One of the first USDA overtures to organic agriculture was the 1980 Report and Recommendations on Organic Farming, coordinated by study team leader Robert Papendick at WSU. Having examined 69 organic farms in 23 states, the report concluded that organic farming was viable and warranted increased institutional support. Its recommendations were basically ignored.
A large part of the problem of acceptance by both the government and the land-grant universities was the implied criticism of conventional agriculture. If organic agriculture was so great, then conventional agriculture must be inferior.
Larry James walked a fine line as interim dean of the College of Agriculture during the mid-1990s, a period when skepticism about organic ag from conventional ag in the state, as well as from the old guard in the college, was at its strongest. James left Pullman to become chancellor at WSU Tri-Cities, then returned in 2005 as associate executive vice president.
“I was surprised, when I came back, at John’s statur
e,” says James, referring not only to Reganold’s standing within the college, but also to his being selected for the Distinguished Faculty Address. James agrees that such a choice would simply not have been possible only five years ago, when the college and University gave organic research only a reluctant and tepid endorsement.
Indeed, Reganold’s selection indicates something of a sea change in attitude.
Dave Granatstein, who was an organic farmer himself before he joined the University, concurs.
“There’s a different dynamic going on,” he says. “Crops and soils is the center of gravity of sustainable ag, particularly in the graduate students. But not just the grad students.”
A cynic might suggest that the warmer embrace of organic agriculture by the University is simply a response to corporate ag’s needs. If General Mills and Wal-Mart are getting into organic food, then the University better get in line for the research bucks.
Regardless of institutional motivation, the fact of the matter is that organic agriculture has evolved, rapidly, from a counterculture ideology to a mass-market phenomenon, and the University is rising to the occasion. One must not forget that WSU is not just jumping on the bandwagon now; research in organic agriculture has been going on at WSU for almost 30 years. At least 50 people at WSU are conducting research related to organic production.
The amount of such research, however, also indicates another trend. Increasingly, organic vs. conventional is not necessarily an either/or proposition. In response to consumer concerns and scientific evidence, many agricultural pesticides are much “softer” than they used to be. In Washington orchards, “integrated pest management,” an environmentally friendly approach to controlling pests, which was adapted for apples by WSU scientists, has become the norm. Mating disruption, an organic tool, is widely used by apple growers to control codling moth, Washington’s most serious apple pest.
Chelan orchardists Fuller and Brownfield are in decidedly high spirits over consumer demand for a practice that they believed in before it was widely accepted. The next few years look very good for the organic fruit grower, says Fuller. In fact, he and Brownfield believe that the whole Washington fruit industry should take advantage of that demand.
“I think the whole state should raise their apples organically,” says Fuller. “It would be a marketing coup. We’ve got such a leg up on every place else in the world. The climate is perfect for it.”
Indeed, central Washington’s hot, arid summers create a perfect climate for organic fruit growing. Compared to other areas, disease and insect pressure are minimal, a major reason Washington is already the leading organic apple producer, by far, in the world. The learning curve involved in the transition to organic is no longer near as steep as it once was, says Fuller.
Whether or not the rest of the industry will recognize the economic virtue of producing organic Washington fruit remains to be seen. Meanwhile, organic producers throughout the state are smiling.