Here is a recent article from the San Francisco Chronicle covering the
consolidation of the organic industry, which is an issue many of us are
familar and concerned with.
San Francisco Chronicle
Mega-producers tip scales as organic goes mainstream
San Francisco Chronicle
GREEN GIANTS: Mega-producers tip scales as organic goes mainstream
By Carol Ness
Sunday, April 30, 2006
Thirteen-and-a-half million servings of organic romaine, radicchio and
baby greens. That's how much Earthbound Farm, the biggest organic produce
company in the country, sends across
Bautista processing plant every single week.
That's one big bowl of salad -- way bigger than when
started Earthbound Farm in their
now farm 26,000 organic acres.
This is the yin of the organic food movement as it plunges headlong into
the American mainstream.
The yang is County Line Harvest farmer David Retsky, steering an orange
tractor to sow organic Palla Rosa radicchio, Easter Egg radishes and
Cosmic Purple carrots on the 6 hilly acres he farms outside
Retsky and his small crew handpick whatever is ready, and sell it the next
day to a few farmers' markets and restaurants, plus a specialty
Both farms are certified organic. But they couldn't be more different in
scale, in how far their produce travels, in how much fuel is burned to
produce and deliver it, in how fresh it is when it gets to market, and in
how much it costs.
Consumers who think they're buying from a small local farm may actually be
buying from a company moving up to half-a-million pounds of lettuce a day.
Their organic milk might come from cows grazing on lush spring grass near
Organic convenience foods and snacks might be manufactured by Northern
being made from ingredients bought cheaply from as far away as South
"I think organic is not quite what people think at this point," said
Michael Pollan, a UC Berkeley journalism professor whose new book, "The
Omnivore's Dilemma," takes a hard -- and ultimately critical -- look at
what he calls "industrial organic."
Whether it's salad -- or milk, or eggs, or cookies -- these kinds of
differences come into play up and down the organic food chain. And with
stores like Safeway and now Wal-Mart packing their shelves with organic
products, which style consumers buy -- the yin or the yang -- may
determine what organic will look like in the future.
The differences don't mean the food isn't organic. The
Agriculture's green organic seal means that it's certified -- that it was
grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and processed without
However, critics of large-scale organics say that while mega-producers
follow the letter of the law, not all follow its spirit. They worry that
the movement is sacrificing its soul, that it's strayed from its original
ideals of creating a new food system that helps small farms, connects
consumers with producers, and cleans up the environment.
Still, the fact that there's simply more organic food around is a good
thing, according to people like organic pioneer Bob Scowcroft, executive
director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in
"It's something our own movement hasn't been able to do for 30 years --
bring organic to all economic levels," said Scowcroft, who has been there
from the beginning, advocates for small farms, and is an activist in
keeping the organic food industry at a high standard.
What's brought things to this point is the spectacular growth of organic
food, especially in the past two years.
Sales are expected to hit an estimated $15 billion this year, according to
the Organic Trade Association, an industry group. That's still only about
2 percent of the
so, plus the higher prices organic can command, have proved a siren song
to big business.
The biggest food manufacturers have scarfed up some of the best-known
organic brands and started their own line extensions. Coca-Cola owns
Odwalla. General Mills boasts Muir Glen and Cascadian Farm. Smuckers
bought out Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.
Whole Foods is up to 175 stores, and more conventional supermarkets are
getting into the act, too. Safeway has just come out with its O Organics
line of cereals, salad dressings and other staples priced barely above its
Independent companies such as Santa Rosa-based Amy's, which makes soups
and frozen meals, are mushrooming, too. At Amy's, sales have risen about
30 percent a year for the past two years, and the company plans to open a
second plant in
All of this means more organic foods in more markets and lower prices.
"It feels like the tipping point -- like organic's time has really come,"
said Earthbound's Myra Goodman.
Every day at Earthbound Farm's big, white, refrigerated plant, semis pull
in with tons of romaine and radicchio, mache and arugula, some from as far
mountains of plastic-bagged greens to stores from
And the numbers are going up. Earthbound just bought Pride of San Juan,
its competitor down the road in San Juan Bautista (
which grows and processes mainly conventional salad greens for food
service companies. That will raise Earthbound's weekly output to 40
million servings of salad a week, both organic and not.
To help offset the environmental effects of all those trucks coming and
going, the company has planted 400,000 trees to consume all the extra
carbon monoxide. And they track how many tons of chemical fertilizers
(4,200) and pesticides (135) their operation keeps out of the environment
"We're feeling good about what we do," Goodman said. "We're competing with
Dole, Fresh Express and Sunkist, not farmers' markets. Our mission is to
give people an organic alternative -- and working to bring it to people
where they shop meant we had to get big."
Retsky, at County Line Harvest, doesn't think he's competing with
Earthbound. But he's not sure consumers know the difference between what
he offers at farmers' markets and what they find at Costco.
He's made an effort, for example, to grow a lot of crops, side by side --
that his wholesaler buys only his chicories and baby head lettuces. "We
could make it easier on ourselves and just grow what they want," he said.
"But we wouldn't be as diverse."
Organic milk is another area where differences in production are profound.
Milk produced by smaller Bay Area dairies like Clover Stornetta Farms and
Straus Family Creamery has only a few things in common with milk from
giant processors like Horizon and supermarket store brands.
On Bob Camozzi's 615-acre Triple C Ranch in the lush
On the other hand, Costco and Safeway house brands, and Horizon, owned by
giant Dean Foods, which claims 55 percent of the
buy from many suppliers, including gigantic 3,000- to 5,000-cow dairies in
the Central Valley,
feedlots and may never see a blade of fresh grass.
Federal organic rules currently require only "access to pasture," but not
actual pasture time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering
tightening that rule because of complaints about confinement farms; a
public hearing on the issue was held this month in
Consumers care about how the animals are treated, according to a new
survey conducted this month by an independent firm for the Center for Food
Safety, an advocacy group in
the 1,100 people surveyed said they would stop buying organic milk if they
knew it came from cows confined to fenced-in feedlots.
The fight over what is or should be organic has been going on for decades,
but the growth of big organics and arrival of powerful players has upped
Safeway jumped in big-time this year with its O Organics line -- 160
products so far with plans for another 50 by the end of the year. They're
identified by the pretty cornflower blue O on the label, without the name
Safeway anywhere in sight.
On many items, prices are much lower than nonorganic competitors'. A
15-ounce box of O Organics frosted flakes, for example, is $2.99 at the
Fourth and King store in
nonorganic frosted flakes is $5.19.
"There's a large part of the population that sees pricing as a hurdle to
organic products, and we wanted to make this available to a larger
consumer base," said Safeway vice president Doug Palmer. "Because of
Safeway's size, it allows us to be more competitively priced."
Big food companies need to buy huge supplies of organic ingredients as
cheaply as possible -- which some observers believe may mean going
overseas. "If we want to support organic agriculture in
probably a good thing," said Jim Riddle, a
helped write the federal organic rules and recently served on the national
board that oversees them.
Already, 10 percent of the organic food sold in the
from other countries, according to the Organic Monitor in
Yet, some companies go out of their way to buy ingredients from local
farmers. Amy's, which has been making frozen meals and soups since 1988,
"Buying locally has been a natural consequence of being in the West.
Organics grew up here," said owner Andy Berliner.
Amy's is now sucking up 150 truckloads of onions a year, up from five or
six in the mid-1990s, according to its farm liaison, Tom Mello. It uses 20
different onion growers, big and small.
"We feel the backbone of the industry is the small family farm, and we
feel indebted and responsible for keeping the small farms alive," Mello
The center aisles of the supermarket, the domain of cereals, soups,
cookies and chips, is a hot spot of organic action. And processed foods
raise a new set of questions.
Nutrition is one. Organic means healthy to many people, but Marion Nestle,
at UC Berkeley, points out that organic junk food is still junk food.
"Just because these products are organic does not necessarily mean that
they are the healthiest options," Nestle said.
Earthbound's Goodman, the mother of two teenagers, has a different take.
"If my kids are going to have a choice of a conventional Oreo with trans
fats or a Whole Foods or Newman's organic Oreo without it -- I'm thrilled.
I don't have to worry about what's in it and how it's produced," Goodman
Consumers are left trying to figure out which kind of organic they want to
support with their food dollars.
And that can be tough. Supermarkets don't like to say who makes their
store brands. Manufacturers have resisted efforts to have labels say where
ingredients come from. And marketing creates illusions that everything
organic comes from the picture-perfect small farm.
Another wrinkle is that some organic certifiers interpret the federal
rules more loosely than others, causing conflicts that end up in court or
in Congress. Growing corporate stakes have meant more big-money pressure
on the USDA and on Congress.
The complications have pushed some farmers, such as Rick and Kristie Knoll
of Knoll Farms in
bother with certification but deploy systems that go beyond what the rules
The notion of eating locally produced foods, too, is gaining momentum as a
fuel-saving, community-building alternative, or addition, to organic.
The idea is building up steam. This month, more than 700 people answered a
challenge from a
only foods grown within 100 miles of their home through May.
Ultimately, "What's important is knowing what you're buying," said Russell
Moore, a chef at Chez Panisse, where organic/local/sustainable is the
mantra. One of the best things about the surge in organics, he said, is
that it makes people think about where and how their food is produced.
"Everyone," he said, "has to make their own decisions. I think wherever
you are, you can do something that helps."
Organic Vegetable and Crop Specialist
C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems
CARRS Departent of Community, Agriclture, Recreation and Resource Studies
303 Natural Resources Bldg
E-Mail: [log in to unmask]
Don’t forget! A carrot a day may keep the doctor away but an ORGANIC carrot a day, grown locally will taste good, support your farmer neighbor AND may keep the doctor away!!!