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Growers Reap Benefits of Move to Organic Farming

Times Staff Writer

Bob Cantisano is an organic farmer with a ponytail that reaches the small of his back. Everyone calls him Amigo Bob.

Jack Pandol Sr. is an agribusinessman with thousands of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland and an export operation that sells fruits and vegetables to more than 40 countries. He is a prominent Kern County Republican.

In the past, the two men had little respect for each other’s methods of farming. But today conventional farmers, spurred by increasing consumer concern about pesticides, are devoting acreage to organic agriculture. And organic farmers are discovering that large growers are interested in learning their methods.

In January, Pandol Brothers Inc. planted 120 acres of organic table grapes and wanted to learn the best methods to fight plant pests and disease without using pesticides.

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So Jack Pandol hired Amigo Bob as a consultant.

Throughout California, the state’s largest industrial farms are beginning to grow some fruits and vegetables without synthetic chemicals. In the Coachella Valley, Sunkist Growers Inc. has devoted 40 acres to organic lemons. In the Salinas Valley, the Nunes Co., one of the largest lettuce growers in the country, will harvest 45 acres of organic iceberg lettuce next month. In Bakersfield, Superior Farms, the largest grape and tree fruit grower in the nation, is farming 400 acres of organic grapes.

For the large growers, the acreage devoted to organic crops still is relatively small. But, Pandol said, growers will expand their organic operations if the market for pesticide-free produce continues to grow.

“I used to think organics were for the hippie grower with a few acres,” Pandol said. “But lately, more and more people want to buy organic fruit. Some of the large growers saw that trend and responded to it. If the demand for organics is there, we’ll provide the product. If the demand doubles, we’ll double our acreage.”

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Five years ago, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a trade association for alternative agriculture, had no large growers among its members. Today, more than 150 of its members are conventional farmers who have set aside a portion of their acreage for a variety of organic fruits or vegetables.

Interest among growers has steadily increased during the last year and a half, said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of CCOF, based in Santa Cruz. And the extensive publicity last February about apples being sprayed with the growth regulator Alar “broke a kind of barrier,” Scowcroft said, creating a boom market for all organic products.

‘Major Players’ Interested

“In the last six months, we’ve received calls from most of the major players in California agriculture,” Scowcroft said. “Organic agriculture has definitely hit the mainstream.”

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Until recently, organic produce was only available in neighborhood natural food stores. But now a number of large California supermarket chains, including Ralphs, Vons and Raley’s, offer organic fruits and vegetables in their produce sections. Last year, Lucky Food Centers began selling organic produce in a few of its markets. The program was so successful it spread to more than 150 Lucky stores in Northern California, and the program was recently expanded to about 50 Southern California markets.

“When organic growing was more of a back yard venture, the supply just wasn’t there for the large markets,” said Charles Collings, president of Raley’s Inc., which operates 58 supermarkets in Northern California. “But now that the big growers have moved into organics, we’re assured of a large enough supply to make it worth our while.”

As the market for organic foods continues to grow, and prices stay higher than conventionally grown products, the danger of fraud increases. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report: “Organic farming is a production system which avoids the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides, growth regulators” and relies on non-chemical methods to control insects and weeds.

Carrot Packing

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Last year the CCOF discovered a San Diego vegetable packing business that was buying carrots grown in Mexico with pesticides, then selling them under an organic label. The vegetable packer went out of business after an investigation by the state Department of Health Services.

The CCOF conducts regular inspections of its members’ farms, but, Scowcroft said, more extensive state regulation is needed. State legislation recently was proposed by the CCOF requiring regular field inspections by state officials, more thorough documentation by organic growers and stronger enforcement procedures.

When Jack Pandol and his partners decided to plant 120 acres of organic grapes last January, some neighboring farmers in Kern County were resentful.

“They thought if we stamped some of our grapes as being clean, it would mean that theirs were dirty,” Pandol said. “They thought it would be a stigma for them.”

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But, Pandol said, he is a businessman as well as a farmer, and if there is a market for organic fruit, he has to take that demand seriously. Pandol also hopes to learn more about organic farming so that he can apply some of the techniques to his conventionally grown crops.

Pesticides are becoming an increasingly larger part of a grower’s budget, and many farmers are trying to reduce their use as a cost-cutting measure. And as chemical contamination of ground water and farm worker safety become serious concerns, farm communities throughout the country have begun to push for reductions in pesticide use.

Harvest Next Month

Pandol Brothers, which farms about 4,000 acres of grapes and other fruit, will harvest its organic grapes in August. Next year, the company plans to add another 400 acres of organic grapes, and it will also set aside acreage for organic almonds and kiwis. The Pandols’ consultant, Bob Cantisano, has shown them a number of alternative agricultural techniques.

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“We may come from different political or philosophical backgrounds, but our goal is the same: to produce pesticide-free food in a clean environment . . . and do it profitably,” said Cantisano, who recently sold his small organic farm and now works as a consultant to about 40 large growers in California. “More and more growers are seeing that it can be done.”

Instead of simply spraying their 120 acres of grapes with pesticides, the Pandols introduced a number of “beneficial” insects such as lady bugs and lace wings to gobble up the pests that prey on grapes. Instead of using chemical fertilizer, the Pandols spread compost and manure on the fields. They have planted cover crops such as buckwheat, cowpea and vetch to raise the nitrogen level of the soil and to provide a home for insects that feed on destructive pests such as Pacific mites.

The Nunes Co. in the Salinas Valley uses enormous vacuums to suck bugs off their organic lettuce, said David Nunes, head of the farm’s research and development department. Nunes is also experimenting with nontoxic biodegradable soap compounds and natural bacteria to control aphids, spider mites and white flies. And weeds, once eradicated with herbicides, now must be scratched out of the dirt by teams of farm workers armed with hoes.

Affects Appearance

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Although grape growers have found that their organic crops are comparable in quality and yield to their conventionally grown grapes, lettuce has proved to be more difficult to grow without chemicals. There is more “scarring” on the organic lettuce as a result of insects, Nunes said, and the yield is lower. It costs the Nunes Co. about twice as much to cultivate its organic crop.

“We’re still experimenting, so we have to be patient,” Nunes said. “We don’t expect to make a profit on our first crop. But eventually we’ll lower the cost of growing organic, and we hope to get our quality up to the standard of the rest of our lettuce.”

The farm plans to expand its organic operation next year, Nunes said. It will add another 125 acres of organic lettuce and also begin setting aside acreage for organic celery and cauliflower.

Farmers have to proceed slowly because there is little data available on organic agriculture. It may take years of experimentation, many said, before they are able to efficiently harvest large crops of organic food.

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Government agencies and university agriculture departments have traditionally shown little interest in exploring organic agricultural techniques, said Joyce Johnston, director of the Kern County Valley Action Network, a local environmental group. For example, John R. Block, the Reagan Administration’s first secretary of agriculture, called organic research a “dead end.”

‘Biggest Naysayers’

“Some of the biggest naysayers are the university farm advisers,” Johnston said. “They’ve been trained in the chemical school of agriculture for so long they refuse to consider any alternatives. There’s a real need for scientific research on organic growing, but there’s very little funding for it, so farmers have to learn for themselves by trial and error.”

Most alternative agriculture research has been devoted to the reduction of pesticide use rather than to the elimination of all synthetic chemicals, said Roberta Cook, an agricultural economics professor at UC Davis.

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“If we went back to farming without any chemicals, we wouldn’t be able to feed the world,” Cook said. “Large-scale growing of organics is still very new. So farm advisers aren’t going to be out there advocating these methods until they’ve been proven to be successful.”

Because it is more expensive for farmers to grow many types of fruits and vegetables without using pesticides, organic produce costs an average of 25% more than other produce. And some organic produce does not have the flawless appearance consumers have become accustomed to. Some shoppers will purchase the product anyway, but large growers are still reluctant to convert vast amounts of acreage to organic growing until they are assured that the market will continue to expand.

Still, most growers are optimistic about the future of the organic market. Recently, frozen food companies, food processors, large fruit juice firms and baby food companies have begun selling organic products.

Fear Competition

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The owners of small organic farms have expressed concern that they may soon be squeezed out of the market by the industrial farms. But the large growers say they are not interested in the traditional markets of the longtime organic growers: natural food stores. Growers are interested in mass-producing organic produce, they say, and they see their targets as the chain supermarkets.

“For years we’ve tried to use legislation to get farmers to reduce pesticides, but all it did was alienate them,” Johnston said. “But when the big stores created a market for the organics, the farmers responded. . . . Now when I see Amigo Bob with his 3-foot ponytail sitting down with the biggest growers in the valley, I know our day has come.”


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