Defining ‘organic’

Chico State’s Organic Vegetable Project extends the range of organic farming

Left to right: Organic Vegetable Project Director Lee Altier, Field Manager Tina Candelo-Mize, and Chico State students and OVP employees Kelsey Lewis and Tony Vertolli in the fields at OVP.

Left to right: Organic Vegetable Project Director Lee Altier, Field Manager Tina Candelo-Mize, and Chico State students and OVP employees Kelsey Lewis and Tony Vertolli in the fields at OVP.

OVP connection:
Go to to learn more about Chico State’s Organic Vegetable Project, which is located at the University Farm, 311 Nicholas C. Schouten Lane.

OVP sells its produce to the public on Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at the Bell Memorial Union at Chico State, and Fridays, 2-5 p.m., at the Chapmantown Farmers’ Market.

How do organic farmers grow their organic vegetables? One would think an easy answer would be had at the Organic Vegetable Project (OVP), a 3-acre, certified-organic endeavor, mostly run by Chico State student-employees (and some volunteers) who are interested in learning how to farm organically. OVP’s sunny rows of summer mainstays like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, planted alongside flowers and a new native-plant hedgerow, sit in the middle of the 800 acres that make up the Paul L. Byrne Agricultural Teaching and Research Center, widely known as the University Farm, off of Hegan Lane in south Chico.

OVP strictly follows organic-certification guidelines established by the USDA—no synthetic chemicals, irradiation, sewage sludge or GMOs. But Lee Altier—professor of agriculture at Chico State, and the director and co-founder of OVP—and OVP Field Manager Tina Candelo-Mize believe that, because USDA organic guidelines specify only what the farmer is not doing, it’s often difficult for a consumer to pin down exactly what an organic farmer is doing in terms of farming techniques. For instance, organic farmers may occasionally spray naturally derived pesticides—like the popular organic pesticidal spray Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis)—or employ permaculture techniques like no-till permanent beds and intercropping, making easy answers to the question of just what constitutes organic farming hard to come by.

“I think the [term ‘organic’] is kind of clumsy,” said Altier, sitting beneath a makeshift shade structure a few feet from a row of veggies. But he recognizes that “any label … can only go so far—it can only describe a limited number of practices.”

At OVP, a combination of farming techniques is used. “We are taught integrated pest-management,” explained Candelo-Mize in a recent interview at OVP. “We closely monitor our water usage … [and] our soil. We use crop-rotation methods … and we use a lot of monitoring” of the plants, watching for signs of stress or early indicators of disease. And if they can avoid using a pesticidal spray such as Bt, they do.

“But there comes a point when we decide, ‘OK, is this plant going to make it with all these aphids on there, or is it at that point [of needing intervention]?’”

In early August, Chico State student and OVP employee Kelsey Lewis moved through the OVP field, a plastic spray tank strapped to her back, spraying Bt to kill cabbage loopers—a common caterpillar of a small brown moth—that were infesting the tomatoes. Candelo-Mize vouches for the safety of the product, and will not hesitate to use it as “a very last, last resort.”

“We try to look at things from an ecological standpoint,” she said. “But also, you have to look at things from an economic standpoint.” Bt spray—made from non-pathogenic Bt bacteria that occur naturally in soil—is considered safer than many chemical pesticides because it breaks down quickly in sunlight and is deadly only to insects eating the crop which has been sprayed, meaning beneficial insects are often left unharmed (unless, for example, a butterfly were to consume the pollen of a recently-sprayed tomato flower). Interestingly, Bt gained national attention this summer as Walmart began to sell Monsanto’s GMO corn, which is engineered to contain Bt in the plant itself, thereby killing pests without the use of any sprays.

“You do have to be aware that what you are doing could be damaging this or that,” Candelo-Mize said, alluding to other insects that may be harmed, “but there is a push and pull. There is a balance” to be struck between the different approaches to organic farming, she believes.

Despite their assurance of Bt’s safety, both Candelo-Mize and Altier are hoping that the addition of permaculture practices to the farm will result in less use of Bt due to a lowered number of pest outbreaks as a result of those practices.

“We’ve adopted some no-till methods; we’ve established some permanent beds so we’re actually creating microhabitats and not destroying them—and that’s huge,” as far as creating healthy soil, which leads to healthy plants, Candelo-Mize said. But the adoption of such ecologically friendly farming methods isn’t regulated or required by organic standards.

Conversely, “there are a lot of organic farmers that till, and they have bare soil—a lot,” negatively affecting the microbial underworld in the soil, Candelo-Mize said.

OVP’s expansion in farming style, which occurred in the last year, under Candelo-Mize’s tenure as field manager, comes at a time of overall expansion for OVP.

“This is a pretty exciting time because we’ve just [expanded] from 1 acre, where we were at for about five years … to 3 acres,” said Altier, prompting the purchase of new equipment this fall, including a compost spreader. Previously they relied almost exclusively on manual labor.

Multiple Chico State agriculture classes utilize the OVP space. A new, permanent shade structure, benches and other supplies are on the horizon; OVP, in partnership with Cultivating Community North Valley, is planning more public workshops on organic farming, like the one held there last week. Plus, a new deal with the dining services for Craig Student Living, a privately run, off-campus dorm and apartment complex, will bring OVP vegetables to local students at the Craig Hall dining hall this fall. OVP anticipates providing “typically, about 60 pounds [of vegetables] per week. That includes things like tomatoes, peppers, winter squash,” Altier said. They will be trialing the relationship this fall, with the potential to continue providing food year-round.

And as an extra perk, OVP makes its research on different varieties of vegetables and methods of pest control available to the public. The research database is available at the OVP website—go to to access it.