Up with organics
Butte County farming has come a long way
Carl Rosato didn’t want to use chemicals on the peach orchard he bought when he was just 22 years old.
“When I started my own orchard, I wanted to be organic,” he said of his original 10 acres. “I knew that from working the chemical orchards.”
The year was 1980, and the location was, and still is, Oroville. A few things have changed since then: Rosato now manages 26 organic acres and growing is easier in many ways.
“There are so many more options for different disease- and insect-control,” said Rosato, who teaches organic gardening classes at Butte College. “Now, organic is more mainstream, and there’s more science behind it.”
Rosato is on the board of California Certified Organic Farmers, a nonprofit group that monitors and certifies organic farms. He remembers just eight other organic farmers in the area in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
CCOF started in 1973, and Rosato helped start the organization’s North Valley chapter. The group didn’t have a large staff in Butte County in those days, so there was little oversight. In fact, organic farmers would inspect each other’s land every year on a volunteer basis. At the time, Rosato grew without chemicals, but he found other farmers selling produce they claimed was organic but was not.
“You could just call yourself organic and get away with it,” he said.
Regulation on organiccally grown food is a recent development, relatively speaking, for farmers such as Rosato. In California, the Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990, standardizing organic growing practices.
California had internal rules regarding organics up until 2002, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture took over, said Becky Witty, a CCOF representative with the North Valley chapter.
To become certified organic today, farmers have to follow the rules. Growing organic starts in the soil, which must be free of pesticides for three years. The crop itself can be planted using organic or non-organic seeds, depending on what’s available. However, non-organic seeds can’t be treated with certain chemicals, Witty said.
Once the seeds are planted, maintenance of an organic farm can be difficult. Organic farmers can’t use most synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. In fact, all agricultural products used on an organic crop must be accepted by the USDA, she said.
To help implement the rules, CCOF representatives travel to farms for yearly inspections and conduct seminars on organic farming throughout California.
Organic farmers must register with a certification body such as the CCOF, which is approved by the USDA. They also must register with the state. Adhering to the strict guidelines mandated by the USDA is one of the most difficult parts of growing organic.
“The biggest hurdle organic farmers face is what these standards mean in practical terms,” Witty said.
In Butte County, a major agricultural community, there are 160 registered organic farms—compared with 1,200 traditional farms. Organic farmers grow all kinds of food locally, including rice, almonds, kiwi, carrots, lettuce and walnuts.
The number of organic growers in the county is increasing by about six farms every year, said Eric Pittman, senior agricultural biologist for the Butte County Department of Agriculture.
The county has a program that regulates organic farms—based on state and federal guidelines—by registering the operations and then visiting them to verify compliance with the rules.
Pittman said a couple organic farmers drop out each year.
“It’s more challenging to be organic than conventional,” he said.
One recent successful organic effort is the dairy unit at the Chico State University Farm, which received its organic certification about a year ago. The facility is one of only two organic dairies in the country located on university campuses, said Darby Holmes, manager of the dairy.
The cows graze on organically grown pasture that took three years of organic compliance to certify. Additionally, the animals are not treated with any hormones or antibiotics. While the dairy sells the milk, it also serves as a learning tool for the Chico State students in charge of running the operation.
“We wanted to show our students if you find a niche market, you can go back to your small family farm and make it,” Holmes said. Organic milk fetches a higher price than traditional, making it a profitable business for a smaller farm with fewer cows than large dairies.
These days, organic dairy products are found on the shelves of most major grocery retailers. The same is true of organic produce, which used to be available only at farmers’ markets and health-food stores such as Chico Natural Foods and S&S Produce.
Safeway, a corporation with more than 1,500 stores nationwide and in Canada, including three in Chico, is remodeling to include more room for organic sections in both the produce department and throughout the stores, according to Jennifer Webber, director of public affairs for the company.
“Having more high-quality perishable products is what our customers are asking for,” she said.